The chaos unleashed in recent days in Kabul has turned a popular decision — the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan — into a defeat. But it was neither a surprise nor a fatality; nor the unfathomable curse of this remote country that many call the “tomb of empires”. Afghanistan collapsed like a house of cards despite repeated warnings from diplomats, military personnel and field observers. No fewer than 11 reports from the Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Sigar), a figure created in 2008 by the US Congress, found the failures in the Central Asian country, including political impatience with the long term, resolved through increasing injections of resources, and the insufficient synergy of the different US agencies involved in the operation. These are holes through which billions of dollars have disappeared. But the real bottomless pit is the country’s endemic corruption, which in 2010 already swallowed up 25% of the national GDP.
the incessant manna aid has further undermined the country’s fragile foundations, according to many analysts. Not only by creating the so-called “aid fatigue”, this kind of paralyzing ceiling caused by the massive pumping of money, and which limits or even destroys efforts; also for fattening the bank accounts opened in Dubai by Afghan chieftains, as denounced in 2019 by John F. Sopko, the inspector general appointed by Barack Obama in 2012. “The US and its partners spent a lot, and very fast, in a very small economy , with very little supervision,” he wrote at the time. “We either turned a blind eye or simply didn’t catch up on the regularity that a lot of the money went away in underhand payments, bribes and bills in Dubai.” President Ashraf Ghani himself had to deny this week that he fled Afghanistan with 160 million dollars in his suitcase.
Sopko submitted its last review on July 31st. “After 20 years and 145 billion dollars [780 bilhões de reais] trying to rebuild Afghanistan, the US government has many lessons to learn […] to save lives and prevent waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan and in future reconstruction missions in other parts of the world,” the report noted. The world has committed 2.2 trillion dollars in the Central Asian country —more than a year of the Brazilian GDP—, which today seems to be a sunk investment, not to mention the lives of tens of thousands of people, Afghan and foreign. Brown University’s The Costs of War project estimates the total death toll in the conflict at 241,000.
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Sigar is not the only one to put his finger on that wound. Twenty documents released from secrecy and published this Friday by the National Security Archive (ASN), an NGO linked to George Washington University, reveal how sources on the ground continually contradicted the Pentagon’s official optimism while Pakistan, offering protection to the bearded and while maintaining a preferential relationship with Washington, and corruption at the top Afghan fueled the Taliban insurgency. For the ASN, it is not a matter of miscalculations, but of the “misleading” actions of the White House since 2001. “The US Government has deceived the population for nearly two decades about progress in Afghanistan, while concealing the failures in confidential channels detected”, stresses the ASN.
Biden himself ignored months ago the recommendations — more warnings than advice — from military commanders who insisted on the need to call off a full withdrawal and leave a remnant of troops to avoid a power vacuum. On Sunday, the US president said that there are “discussions” with his army chiefs over the possibility of extending the self-imposed deadline to complete the withdrawal of troops beyond August 31, although he clarified that he hopes not to have to get to that point, explain Antonia Laborde, from Washington. As tension and chaos continues to brew at the airport in Afghanistan’s capital, the president reported that the US and its allies had evacuated nearly 28,000 people since Aug. 14, including 11,000 this weekend, including both NATO citizens and collaborating Afghans.
The Sigar report recalls the repeated assurances given by the military high command (Generals David Petraeus in 2011, John Campbell in 2015 and John Nicholson in 2017) regarding the “increasing operational capability” of the Afghan security forces. “More than 88 billion dollars (473 billion reais) were earmarked to support security. As to whether this money was properly spent, the answer will be the result of the fighting,” Sopko said prophetically, just two weeks before the country’s collapse, when different provincial capitals fell like dominoes in Taliban possession.
The National Security Archive details the problems, now evident, that hampered the mission from the beginning, with special emphasis on “endemic corruption, driven in large part by the US billions and secret payments by intelligence services to warlords” . But not even the most everyday activities could escape the mandatory toll: receiving preferential care at a hospital, transporting fuel across the country, or deeding property—all of this came at a price.
“Everyone was very aware of the widespread corruption at the highest levels of power. For years the international community has tried to fight it; in fact, when Ghani became president, donors imposed 20 conditions on him, the first of which was to reduce corruption in the Administration by 80%,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, who compares widespread corruption in the security forces. and in the Judiciary to gangrene.
Unlike authorities supported by the international community, she says, “the Taliban was not corrupt, for them the drug dividends were enough [o tráfico de ópio], in whose business he was not the only agent; there were also those of the Government”, adds Felbab-Brown. “In the 1990s, the Taliban built a reputation for integrity, with very sporadic instances of embezzling money into private pockets for the benefit of their families, but not in a systematic way like the country’s authorities. Their legitimacy is dubious, but they cannot be accused of being corrupt if we take into account how bribery proliferated in the standard court system, and how this practice was eradicated in Islamic courts during their first term. [1996-2001]”. It is an argument that could partly explain the popular support for the Taliban in large parts of the country.
In other cases, without reaching corruption, there has been a patent waste in funding objectives doomed to failure. Between 2003 and 2015, Sigar’s 140-page report states, the US devoted more than $1 billion to institution-building programs; 90% of these resources were to develop a standardized judiciary. It was another evaluation error, in addition to a useless outlay, given the impossibility of imposing formal institutions in an informal environment. “The first year at Helmand , the new judges only analyzed five cases, because no one used to go to court. ‘We’ve never seen this and we need to see if it works’, the locals said”, reports Sigar, noting that between 80% and 90% of civil disputes were settled by traditional, community means.
Felbab-Brown insists on this idea: “Bribes fueled the functioning of the judicial system.” Sigar’s conclusion is clear: “The US did not understand the Afghan context and failed to focus its efforts” on reality, in addition to underestimating “the time needed to rebuild Afghanistan, creating unrealistic calendars and expectations that prioritized rapid spending, the which increased corruption”. To this is added “the lack of evaluation and monitoring by the Government agencies” involved. “The point that ended the failure of our efforts was not the insurgency. It was the brunt of endemic corruption,” said Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who ran the embassy in Kabul in two terms, under Bush and Obama, at the time.
“A sunk investment? It’s hard to say now, we can only hope that advances in areas such as health — especially maternal and child health — and education are not reversed. The Taliban will not be able to maintain these advances if their funding is cut, if they are unable to pay the salaries, and we can only hope that the generation of overseas-educated technocrats [durante a intervenção estrangeira] be able to develop their work, if they allow it”, concludes the specialist.
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