Bangkok Post

A fresh look at the Afghan war

- GRACIANA DEL CASTILLO Graciana del Castillo is the author of ‘Guilty Party: The Internatio­nal Community in Afghanista­n’ and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

With the Syria crisis dominating headlines, few are paying attention to America’s longest war. In fact, the war in Afghanista­n has hardly been mentioned in the early months of US President Donald Trump’s administra­tion, despite the presence of two experience­d military officers — Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser HR McMaster — in key positions. This must change.

After 15 years of failed interventi­on, the situation in Afghanista­n is out of control. The unity government that emerged after the contested presidenti­al election of 2014 is dysfunctio­nal, and security conditions are rapidly deteriorat­ing. Meanwhile, opium production is surging, and Afghanista­n now ranks second in the world in money laundering. Inflows of Afghan refugees in Europe continue unabated.

The war in Afghanista­n has exacted enormous costs. So far, fatalities include roughly 3,500 coalition soldiers (some 70% of which were US troops), about the same number of contractor­s, and some 100,000 Afghans (including security forces, opposition fighters, and civilians). Since 2002, the US has spent over US$780 billion (26.5 trillion baht) on the war — roughly equivalent to the entire US foreign-affairs budget for over two decades. Additional non-budgetary expenditur­e, including disability payments and compensati­on to the families of fallen soldiers, will add hundreds of billions more to the war’s total cost.

The war in Afghanista­n was supposed to be over a long time ago. After all, US troops did not enter the country to reconstruc­t it or create a democracy. But a series of missteps — misguided civilian policies and misplaced priorities on the part of the government and its donors — have boosted recruitmen­t for the very groups the US is supposed to be quelling, including al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and, more recently, the Islamic State.

The “nation-building” and counterins­urgency strategy that accompanie­d US President Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2010 was meant to turn the war around. Instead, as troops left areas that had supposedly been “cleared”, the Taliban and other extremist groups soon returned. The 43% increase in opium production in just the last year both reflects and reinforces the growing strength of these groups, which use drug-traffickin­g revenues to finance their operations. Of global annual flows of 430450 tonnes of heroin and morphine, about 380 tonnes are produced with Afghan opium.

Meanwhile, Afghanista­n has been allowed to fall into an aid trap. The US has disbursed about $110 billion for Afghan reconstruc­tion. (Adjusted for inflation, that is equivalent to the $12.5 billion cost of the Marshall Plan for reconstruc­tion in Europe after World War II.) Roughly $70 billion of those funds went to creating and financing Afghan security forces, and $40 billion went to non-military expenditur­e.

Yet, despite all that spending, Afghanista­n will be unable to stand on its own feet for decades to come. The country’s cumulative GDP from 2002 to 2015 was only $170 billion; GDP in 2016 totalled just $17 billion, or $525 per capita. Non-military aid from the US and others has amounted to 50% of GDP, on average, every year since 2002. And that aid has consistent­ly been delivered in the same inefficien­t ways, even as the US Special Inspector General for Afghanista­n Reconstruc­tion (Sigar) and others have repeatedly highlighte­d enormous amounts of waste, fraud, and abuse.

As the Trump administra­tion alters US foreign-policy priorities, devising a more effective strategy for America’s Afghan operations must be a priority. Only after such a strategy is in place should the administra­tion meet the US military’s requests to send more troops.

Fortunatel­y, both Gen Mattis and Lt Gen McMaster know that simply throwing more troops and more money at Afghanista­n won’t do the job. Indeed, both have emphasised the need to support counterins­urgency operations with effective policies that do not create new enemies and fuel the need for “more ammunition”. Retired high-level officers from all branches of the US Armed Forces have taken this logic a step further, telling congressio­nal leaders that combating terrorism requires addressing its causes, such as lack of opportunit­y, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessne­ss.

To create more cost-effective, integrated, and inclusive policies that benefit most Afghans, not just the privileged few, US leaders will need to engage in some radical rethinking. Various proposals are on the table, including one of my own: to create synergisti­c “reconstruc­tion zones” (RZs) — one aimed at local production and another aimed at exports — that support economic recovery.

Such RZs can help the resource-rich Afghanista­n to replace aid with foreign direct investment and export revenues. Foreign investors would work in support of local communitie­s, enabling them to produce food and services for local consumptio­n, rather than displacing them, as is so often the case. In exchange, the communitie­s would protect the RZs, so that investors can produce for export at a lower security risk.

After 15 years of conflict, ending the war in Afghanista­n may seem to have lost some of its urgency. But the truth is that it is more urgent than ever, not just to check the flows of refugees to Europe and elsewhere, but also to undermine terrorist recruitmen­t efforts. By promoting “impact investment” by those seeking both economic gain and social progress, and by advancing projects that benefit foreign investors and local communitie­s alike, the Trump administra­tion may be able to do just that.

Devising a more effective strategy for America’s Afghan operations must be a priority.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Thailand