The Afghanistan Failure is Political

Former Afghan Presidents Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai, together with former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, pictured in 2014. Courtesy of Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

Reflections from a practitioner on why good intentions did not result in a political order that Afghans would defend.

Accounts of the Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan have focused on the abrupt withdrawal of forces and other military actions, putting us firmly on the path towards misdiagnosing the failure of the West’s 20-year project in the ‘graveyard of empires’.

The ability of 75,000 Taliban fighters to impose their will on 300,000 government troops who enjoyed the advantage of airpower cannot be explained by how the US military and its allies withdrew.

All the military could do over the past 20 years was provide a sufficiently secure physical environment for a political process to create an enduring government that would not offer a safe haven to international terrorists. Ideally, we would also wish all Afghans to be able to live in safety and dignity – though of course this is far beyond the standard expected of other close Western allies such as Saudi Arabia.

The military succeeded, most of the time and in most parts of a sprawling, inhospitable country, in providing a modicum of security; what failed abjectly was the political transformation this security was meant to enable.

Fundamental Errors

Three fundamental mistakes – made early on under the administration of George W Bush, and exacerbated by the diversion of attention to Iraq – led to this political failure that is now being so dramatically demonstrated by the Taliban’s takeover.

First, the US and its allies accepted the argument made by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s special representative for Afghanistan in 2001, that Afghans would never tolerate a large foreign presence and therefore that the international civil-military mission must have a ‘light footprint’. In practice this meant that from the time the CIA delivered Hamid Karzai to Kabul to become Afghanistan’s president, he was dependent on regional warlords. The influence of these warlords created a fatal gap between the words said for Western ears and the deeds experienced by Afghans.

These warlords, who effectively owed their positions to the Western military, bullied with impunity – the antithesis of the rule of law that intervening countries claimed to champion. While working for the UN in Kandahar I asked many Afghan colleagues whether they agreed with Brahimi’s assessment that Afghans would never tolerate a heavy Western presence. They told me that after years of civil war and brutal Taliban rule, the vast majority of Afghans would have supported any government that allowed them to live in safety and dignity. The conditions engineered by the Bush administration never gave them that.

Second, the West treated the Taliban as an aberration rather than as the winners of a long-running civil war. By excluding them from the Loya Jirga that created Afghanistan’s post-9/11 political order and throwing our support behind anyone who had opposed them, we set ourselves and the new government against half the country – as well as the Taliban’s foreign backers.

Third, the architects of the new order in Afghanistan never seriously asked themselves why Afghans should embrace the nostrums we sought to impose; they simply took for granted that in the continuously contested, corruption-ridden environment created by a light foreign military presence and the very modest projects run by civilian provincial reconstruction teams, Afghans’ inner Americans would spontaneously emerge.

Together, these mistakes resulted in a government that absorbed vast amounts of the West’s blood and treasure and damaged its credibility – not to mention its karma – but which never earned the confidence and support of most Afghans.

Deeply Entrenched Problems

About six years after the Taliban had been deposed, I asked my Afghan colleagues in the UN whether the Taliban could be discredited by revealing how they sexually abused young boys. Though they were all anti-Taliban, they said no – Afghans knew that paedophilia was much more prevalent among figures aligned with the government than among the Taliban.

Nor were girls as well-off as many now seem to imagine. I personally saw girls in prison in Kandahar for having run away from their husbands, even though according to Afghanistan’s laws this was not illegal. The prison in another southern province, Uruzgan, held around 50 men, none of whom had been convicted of any crime.

Years later, working for a US government-supported project, my Afghan assistant explained that a senior official had taken possession of his family’s land. Because of the official’s political clout, my colleague had no recourse.

I managed a survey of popular perceptions of the three legal systems that operated in Kandahar in parallel: the system of government courts; the Taliban’s own system; and the traditional system of ‘jirgas’, councils made up of older men who would adjudicate disputes in an ad hoc manner based on Pashtunwali, the Pashtuns’ code of customary law. The jirga system, though widely acknowledged as flawed, was by far the most popular. The Taliban’s came second: people thought that their courts, though harsh, were consistent and reliable. The government justice system was by far the least popular, considered both corrupt and erratic.

At the time of this survey, the government justice system in southern Afghanistan had only a handful of uneducated, demoralised and ill-equipped officials on the ground; the vast majority of people officially occupying positions as judges, prosecutors and other justice roles used connections in Kabul to draw their salaries without ever turning up to work.

Meanwhile, a US official at Kandahar Air Base was furiously trying to obtain millions of dollars to buy thousands of generators because he was sure that Afghans would never support ‘democracy’ until they had electricity. Most people in Kandahar had never had electricity and didn’t expect it from their government; what they did yearn for, from whomever was ruling, was safety – from fighting, from exploitation and from injustice.

In 20 years, the West’s enormous investment never resulted in a government worthy of Afghans’ trust and support. The failure to cultivate a new political culture that recognised the rule of law – not the haste of the withdrawal or any other military actions – is why Afghanistan is once again ruled by the Taliban.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Whit Mason

Associate Fellow

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