A war based on lies ends in disaster

Mike Phipps reviews The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan, by David Kilcullen and Greg Mills, published by Hurst.

This won’t be the only book that tries to make sense of the last twenty years of western intervention in Afghanistan. The authors come with impressive credentials: David Kilcullen, now Professor of International and Political Studies at the University of New South Wales, formerly had 25 years of experience in the field of “unconventional warfare”, ascending to be senior counter-terrorism adviser to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Greg Mills is on the visiting faculty at the NATO Higher Defence College and the Royal College of Defence Studies and served four deployments to Afghanistan with ISAF as an adviser to the commander.

Kilcullen and Mills start their book with a brief account of America’s defeat in Vietnam, culminating in the chaotic fall of Saigon. Why? “Because in Afghanistan, history—including all the institutional and operational pathologies of American-led international intervention that had been on full dis­play in Vietnam—repeated itself to a remarkable degree.”

The authors don’t pull their punches. The fall of Afghanistan was “one of the most egregiously incompetent self-inflicted deba­cles in modern military history”. To prevent it “would have required some form of backbone, moral for­titude and will, and if Western leaders had possessed any of these qualities, we would not have been in this posi­tion in the first place.” The result: a “laughably incompetent, execrably chaotic execution of the evacuation plan spoke to a complete collapse of will by those in power across multiple coali­tion countries.” It was “an utterly callous and shameful betrayal.”

Behind the rhetoric, their principal complaint is that the US negotiated directly with the Taliban and left the government it had propped up for the previous two decades unsupported. It was another example of US policy that was developed not for the benefit of ordinary Afghans, but to minimise US casualties.

This summer’s events were a chaotic end to one of the US’s – and some other countries’ – longest international engagements. Between 2001 and 2019, two million men and women were deployed from abroad to serve in Afghanistan, and more than $2 trillion was spent—an extraordinary, once-in-a-generation expenditure of resources on such a poor country, suggest the authors.

By then it was perhaps too late for Ashraf Ghani, who served for seven years as Afghanistan’s President until August 2021, to note that “the government after 2001 had chosen very badly in choosing personal gain over national reform.” Clearly it wasn’t just the US and its allies that were making a lot of money out of Afghanistan’s misery.

And what a lot of money it was too. A report a year ago found that, “A staggering $19 billion spent by the U.S. government to reconstruct Afghanistan has been lost to fraud, waste, and abuse in the last decade and that only includes a portion of the money allocated by Congress for the cause.”

When the time came to leave, US officials were pretty flexible with the truth to justify their rapid exit from Afghanistan. Afghanistan was just a collection of warring tribes, an ungovernable narco-state, it was said. The Talban had reformed, we were told. Vice-President Kamala Harris argued, after the Taliban takeover, that the mission had “achieved what we had gone there to do”. Really?

But the fact is that even bigger whoppers were told to get western forces into Afghanistan. In Britain alone, when 3,000 troops were sent to the country in 2006, Labour Defence Secretary John Reid told Parliament that he hoped they would accomplish their mission “without a shot being fired.” In fact, they would fight some of the fiercest battles since World War Two. But it was the anti-war Labour backbench MP Paul Flynn who was ejected from the Commons and fined a month’s pay for pointing out that “politicians lied and soldiers died”.

However, this was minor compared to the original rationale peddled to support the war after 9/11. It was framed as a ‘humanitarian intervention’, foregrounding women’s rights and democratic government. Yet the West’s puppet government of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s President from 2001 to 2014, re-established the misogynist Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which was a notorious symbol of arbitrary abuses against Afghan women and girls under the Taliban.

 In 2006 alone, Karzai appointed 13 former commanders with links to drugs smuggling, organised crime and illegal militias to senior positions in the police force.  Human Rights Watch reported at the time: “The Taliban and other anti-government groups in Afghanistan have gained public support due to the Afghan government’s failure to provide essential security and development, and have used the presence of warlords in the government to discredit President Karzai’s administration and its international backers.”

So much for democratic governance. Recently, President Biden let the cat out of the bag when he admitted that, “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralised democracy.”

Instead, the US dropped over 300,000 bombs on Afghanistan, killing an estimated 70,000 civilians, over 40% of them women.  In the last five years, 40% of all civilian casualties from airstrikes in Afghanistan – almost 1,600 – were children. This callous disregard for ordinary lives was a hallmark of the twenty-year intervention, irrespective of which US President or UK prime minister was in charge.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch concluded: “The primary and defining characteristic of the armed conflict in Afghanistan over the last two decades has been harm to civilians caused by massive human rights abuses and war crimes by all sides.”

As Maya Evans has argued: “The idea that the NATO operation has tried to win ‘hearts and minds’ is completely disingenuous. There have been airstrikes and drone attacks, which are notorious for killing civilians – in 2019 aerial operations killed 700 Afghan civilians, while it has been found a drone strike is 10 times more likely to kill a civilian. Afghans fear US night raids, the torture centre at Bagram, the deliberate targeting and bombing of wedding parties, the bombing of hospitals such as the 2015 bombing of Médecins Sans Frontières in Kunduz, the ‘Mother of all bombs’ in Nangarhar… The list of war atrocities could go on and on.”

This alone helps explain why the occupation of Afghanistan failed to reduce international terrorism or make people in the West safer, which were additional justifications for the military intervention at the time. Nine years ago, Paul Flynn MP, the mainstay of the all-party Afghanistan Withdrawal Group of MPs, called this “a preposterous lie”.

I wrote at the time: “The war in Afghanistan is also one of the most privatised in history. The revolving door of former officials at the Ministry of Defence and ex-army chiefs taking up lucrative contracts with private military contractors – or mercenaries, as they were once called – now involves thousands of personnel. The profits of these companies require the perpetuation of the conflict for as long as possible.” This was true in the UK: it was even more the case in the US.

Today Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Around 50% live in poverty and most lack clean water, electricity or infrastructure. CND leader Kate Hudson concluded: “What has happened in Afghanistan is exactly what the anti-war movement foretold in 2001.”

However, that’s not the story told in this book. Kilcullen and Mills contend that “the task in Afghanistan was abso­lutely achievable, the war eminently winnable” – but the West screwed up. I disagree, but within the limitations of their perspective, there is still a great deal of incompetence unearthed here.

One example was the decision to deploy troops to Helmand province. This was primarily a British contingent of NATO forces. As a result, it has been subjected to very little criticism in the UK media because to do so might appear unpatriotic.

Yet the authors contend that the deployment, motivated primarily to arrest the narcotics trade, was disastrous. “It attempted to destroy the little economy that existed, pushing the opium price up (and incentivising farmers to grow it) whilst at the same time generating anti-NATO sentiment.” As a result, the pro-Kabul population “suffered most from the counter-narcotics agenda, while those living in areas under Taliban control were spared. This, too, gave people an incentive to support the Taliban and oppose the government.”

One of Tony Blair’s justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan was that 90% of the heroin in Britain came from Afghanistan. Years later, it was still 90% – the only difference being that there was more of it and it was cheaper.

A second example:  the West’s policy of pushing aid assistance to the most conflict-affected parts of Afghanistan, principally in the south and east of the country infuriated communities in the north, which had fought the Taliban from the 1990s on. They felt neglected and taken for granted, which created fresh opportunities for the Taliban to put down roots there.

Superficially, there might seem to be a lot in common between the views of Kilcullen and Mills and the broader anti-war case. They overlap in their critique of western ignorance, ineptitude and corruption. But a key argument of this book is that successful interventions take more time than Western politicians were prepared to commit. For an intervention that dragged on for twenty years, this is contentious – and the conclusion implied is that it should have gone on longer.

Moreover, the authors clearly imply the conflict should have been widened. They have a lot to say about the egregious role of Pakistan in encouraging the Taliban and quote approvingly from Ahmed Rashid’s book Descent into Chaos: “Until Pakistan is fixed, it will be difficult to bring peace to Afghanistan.” How Pakistan might be ‘fixed’ is not made clear. However, more positively, the authors argue that Western powers should not have invaded Iraq – at least while Afghanistan remained unstable.

The most telling criticism made of those who authorised the invasion and occupation was that they understood neither Afghanistan nor the Taliban. The rule of law was an “afterthought” in Western policy, whereas one of the enduring features of the Taliban was that fundamentally, it was “a vigilante law-and-order organisation that gained support by delivering something people needed: speedy, predictable, non-corrupt justice. The infamous Taliban sharia courts in fact spent most of their time doing civil rather than criminal law— births, deaths, divorces, inheritances, land disputes, water and grazing rights.” But as a fighting force, a political organisation, or an ideological movement the coalition authority never took the Taliban seriously.

The authors are right to see Afghanistan as a political failure more than a military one. There was no will to create a lasting peace – a point the authors repeat in almost every chapter – or install good governance or encourage meaningful economic activity. But we should not be surprised: in these interventions, there rarely is.  Add Iraq and Libya to this century’s disastrous Western military actions, which did nothing to make the countries invaded a better place to live, nor the world as a whole safer.

There’s a lot here about the lessons the US policymakers, and other occupying powers, should learn from their intervention in Afghanistan, presumably so they do a better job next time. Others have a different perspective, focused on an apology, reparations and compensation for an unlawful invasion. Here’s Kathy Kelly, veteran peace activist who co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence and has worked closely with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers:

“We should be sorry that, during 2013, when the United States spent an average of $2 million per soldier, per year, stationed in Afghanistan, the number of Afghan children suffering malnutrition rose by 50 percent. At that same time, the cost of adding iodized salt to an Afghan child’s diet to help reduce risks of brain damage caused by hunger would have been 5 cents per child per year.

“We should deeply regret that while the United States constructed sprawling military bases in Kabul, populations in refugee camps soared. During harsh winter months, people desperate for warmth in a Kabul refugee camp would burn—and then have to breathe—plastic. Trucks laden with food, fuel, water, and supplies constantly entered the U.S. military base immediately across the road from this camp.

“We should acknowledge, with shame, that U.S. contractors signed deals to build hospitals and schools which were later determined to be ghost hospitals and ghost schools, places that never even existed.

“On October 3, 2015, when only one hospital served vast numbers of people in the Kunduz province, the U.S. Air Force bombed the hospital at 15 minute intervals for one and a half hours, killing 42 people including 13 staff, three of whom were doctors. This attack helped greenlight the war crime of bombing hospitals all around the world.”

She concludes: “We should say we’re sorry, we’re so very sorry, for pretending to stay in Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons, when, honestly, we understood next to nothing about humanitarian concerns of women and children in Afghanistan.”

No apologies will be made, however, just as none were ever made in relation to the disastrous occupation of Iraq. Meanwhile as climate change and war damage to agriculture and infrastructure push Afghanistan into a wholly avoidable famine, Western governments are imposing sanctions on the country alongside aid cuts and a freeze on assets.

As Labour Hub reported in December, “Given that 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from foreign aid and 75% of its public spending was funded by foreign aid grants, sanctions will push the economy to the brink of collapse and hugely intensify the country’s catastrophe, which is precipitating a refugee crisis.  Already the economy has contracted by 40% since August, with the overseas assets of the Afghan Central Bank suspended and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund having also suspended financial support.”

In total, nearly $9 bn the country has in foreign currency reserves has been frozen by the US Administration in overseas bank accounts and has not been released to the new government. The European Union has followed suit, cutting off $1.4 billion in government assistance and development aid to Afghanistan, which was supposed to have been paid between 2021 and 2025. Because of the loss of this funding from Europe, Afghanistan had to shut down at least 2,000 health facilities serving around 30 million Afghans.

The crisis has left nearly 23 million people in extreme hunger, and at least a million children under the age of 5 are now facing the immediate threat of starvation, according to the United Nations. By December, the World Food Program found that 98% of Afghans weren’t getting enough to eat. Over 300,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan.

In January 2022, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “virtually every man, woman and child in Afghanistan could face acute poverty” without massive investment from the international community and a concerted effort to rebuild the nation’s economy.

Malnutrition is soaring as food prices climb out of reach and incomes dry up. Multiple disease outbreaks are hitting a barely functioning health system simultaneously. A 14% contraction in employment is devastating some sectors. Afghanistan is collapsing on several fronts.

While the Biden administration points to exemptions to sanction that are designed to allow humanitarian aid, many of the sanctions imposed by the US lack specificity and, given the stiff penalties for violation, many organisations don’t want to be caught out. The phenomenon of “over-compliance” in the aid sector is widespread and prevents access to basic healthcare and essential goods.

A leading US peace activist explains: “Given US sanctions and the liquidity crisis, even international humanitarian relief organizations have great difficulty operating in Afghanistan… Unfreezing the assets of the Afghan people and making the funds available to the Afghan Central Bank is a critical first step. The US could conditionally unfreeze the assets (for example, dependent on the ability of girls to attend high school) and in tranches, not all at once, to ensure that the money is used for the people. But to date, the U.S. has not taken any such steps. The Biden Administration has set aside $780 million for humanitarian relief, a nice gesture but a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed.”

In February 2022, the Biden Administration issued an executive order to allocate $3.5m of frozen assets to settle ongoing claims by 9/11 families against the Taliban for hosting Al Qaeda. The other half will go to international NGOs that provide aid to Afghanistan, a move that is not nearly as generous as it might look.

“Put simply,” noted one analyst, ”the US government is seizing Afghanistan’s sovereign wealth against the backdrop of Washington waging six months of financial warfare, including imposing crippling sanctions, on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.”

Having lost popularity in Washington over the nature of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden and many Democrats have little appetite for scrutinising the humanitarian impact of US sanctions, as long as maintaining them looks vaguely tough.

Earlier, 44 Democrats in the House of Representatives joined Republicans in voting down a measure that would have required an assessment of the humanitarian impact of the Biden administration’s economic sanctions on Afghanistan and its freezing of nearly $10 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank. Washington is turning its back on the plight of the Afghan people.

 Meanwhile the suffering of ordinary Afghans continues.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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