Constant dollars

One year later: In Afghanistan, the legacy of American failure lives on

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A year ago, the Taliban took Kabul, crown the dramatic fall of the fragile US-backed Afghan government. America’s longest war ended in ignominy and tragedy. The Islamist militants who had been ousted from power in 2001 were back in the driving seat, and the legacy of two decades of US-led state building and counterinsurgency that had drained more than $1 trillion from American taxpayers and cost the lives of more than 3,500 United States and allied soldiers – and tens of thousands of other Afghan soldiers and civilians – weighed excruciatingly in the balance.

Hours after the world watched the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans desperately tried to flee the victorious Taliban advance, the special inspector general for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, a mediator of the US government, released a report on 20 years of US efforts in the country. It was a grim read: “If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can support itself and poses little threat to the national security interests of the United States, the overall picture is grim. “, notes the report.

Billions of dollars in US and foreign aid may have been siphoned off in a boondoggle for corrupt Afghan officials and opportunistic US military contractors. While the threat of extremist Al-Qaeda militants operating in Afghan territory was largely eradicated, ordinary Afghan civilians have seen their country’s security situation become more precarious amid constant attacks and terrorist attacks. A branch of the Islamic State has found fertile ground in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. And years of US efforts to shore up a fledgling Afghan government and train its new army have done little to prevent its sudden and total collapse.

As a result, the value of a generation of intermittent progress in advancing women’s education has been derailed, with the Taliban reneging on earlier assurances that they would allow all schoolgirls to return to class. Rising poverty has led poor families to sell their daughters as child brides. Tens of thousands of Afghans who have aided US and international forces remain stuck in the country, vulnerable to a regime that views them as having collaborated with foreign occupiers.

A year of peace in one of Afghanistan’s deadliest provinces

In Washington, there is a lot of lamentation over what went wrong. Some former military officials believe the United States was culturally outdated and could never graft its political system onto the Afghan tribal landscape. Others blame more directly former President Donald Trump, who signed a peace deal with the Taliban that critics say condemned the US-backed government in Kabul, and President Biden, who executed the complete withdrawal even as the Afghan provinces fell like dominoes to the Taliban. .

“Our fundamental mistake was our lack of commitment,” David Petraeus, former commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, wrote for the Atlantic. “Essentially, we never had a sufficient, consistent, comprehensive approach that we stuck with across jurisdictions, or even within individual jurisdictions.”

This is a difficult view to accept given the extent and duration of US involvement in Afghanistan. As my colleagues reported in 2019, many U.S. officials tasked with carrying out counterinsurgency and reconstruction in Afghanistan privately knew the mission was failing, but in public delivered a different message.

“For a long time, Washington elites have viewed Afghanistan as the ‘good war,’ morally justified and sanctioned by the United Nations,” Fareed Zakaria wrote for the Washington Post op-ed page. “People were convinced it worked, and many were blinded by the evidence that it didn’t.”

Now that the Washington establishment has been stripped of its illusions, Afghanistan has disappeared from sight. Biden has repeatedly insisted that the legacy post-9/11-era campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq obscure the most important challenges facing American strategists, who are now fully occupied with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the looming challenge posed by China.

“I was struck by the fact that much of Washington seems to basically want to put Afghanistan in the rear view mirror and try to move on,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert, told Reuters. at the Wilson Center.

After the fall: What Afghanistan has looked like since the Taliban took over

Many Afghans, meanwhile, look to the future with despair. The evaporation of international aid to the country, compounded by US sanctions that froze some $7 billion in Afghan foreign reserves, has dented the Afghan economy. The country’s banking system is crippled and food prices have skyrocketed. The majority of the Afghan population needs humanitarian aid. More than half of the population suffers from hunger and more than a million children suffer from severe malnutrition. The United Nations has estimated that up to 97% of the country could fall below the poverty line by the second half of the year.

“Regardless of the Taliban’s status or credibility with outside governments, international economic restrictions are still the root cause of the country’s disaster and hurting the Afghan people,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in an August 4 statement.

In rural areas of the county devastated by years of war, the Taliban takeover seemed to offer a future of peace. But, as my colleague Susannah George recently reported from Helmand province, long a hotbed of insurgency, the country’s economic woes have clouded the mood. She met a mechanic in the town of Marja who had to rebuild his shop three times and has now seen a considerable drop in business.

“Each time I started from scratch,” he told her, “and each time I had less money, so the store got smaller and smaller.”

Unsurprisingly, this gloom is also felt in Kabul. My colleague Pamela Constable spoke with Sayed Hussain, owner of a wedding dress company that lost most of its clientele.

“I am worried and upset all the time. Everyone in this country is upset,” Hussain said. “We have no idea what’s going to happen next, or what our future will look like. When I see the hundreds of posts on Facebook, so many people trying to leave the country, it makes me think I should take my family and leave.