What I Saw in Afghanistan
This article was originally published by The New Yorker on July 1 2015
When the late Richard Holbrooke was the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he would periodically invite members of Congress to breakfast meetings with his staff, on which I was serving. On September 16, 2009, we met with Representative Nita Lowey, the chair of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. As chair of the subcommittee, Lowey had more authority over funding for civilian activities in Afghanistan than anyone else in the U.S. Congress. She was also the representative of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s home district, and Clinton attended the meeting.
Holbrooke declared the meeting to be on the record, since my former boss at the Council on Foreign Relations, Holbrooke’s friend Les Gelb, was there covering it for a profile of Clinton. Before Lowey arrived with Clinton, Holbrooke cautioned us, “She gives us the money.” Lowey told us that a chorus of influential members was questioning why we were spending so much money in Afghanistan. The women’s caucus and others in Congress were up in arms about the lack of progress on women’s rights and fighting corruption, and about the ongoing dispute over the results of the August, 2009, Presidential election. Transforming Afghan society, Lowey argued, would take a long time and would be a permanent drain on the U.S. budget. Holbrooke responded, “Transforming Afghan society is not our mission. Girls’ education is a big issue in many places. We are in Afghanistan because of our national-security interests.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Holbrooke surprised me by asking me to summarize the work I was doing on a political settlement with the Taliban, which he generally tried to shield from exposure even within the government. At that time, we were trying—and failing—to get reconciliation onto the agenda of the policy review led by President Obama. In the papers we drafted, Holbrooke prohibited use of the term “political settlement” in favor of an inter-agency-friendly euphemism that we came up with: “threat reduction.” I outlined the concept of reconciliation for Lowey, noting that it would be possible only if the Taliban separated itself from Al Qaeda. Lowey looked at me with some surprise. If the Taliban was not with Al Qaeda, she said, we wouldn’t get a cent from Congress.
No one who knew Afghanistan before 9/11 can fail to note the remarkable changes that have taken place there: the dramatic increase in life expectancy and decrease in child and maternal mortality rates; the elections for President, parliament, and provincial councils; the distribution of millions of cell phones, many connected to the Internet; the flourishing of the mass media; the construction of office and commercial towers, roads, and, airports; and, perhaps most important, the spread of education, which is creating a generation of professionals who, as they move into positions of influence, are sure to transform the country. And yet, after thirty-seven years of continual warfare, the population is traumatized. Both civilian and military casualties are on the rise. Extreme poverty, vulnerability, and violence, especially against women, are pervasive, as are government corruption and other abuses of power. And all of the progress hangs by a thin, fraying thread— Afghanistan depends on foreign aid to finance two thirds of the government’s operating budget and virtually all of its development projects and national-security forces.
Many, including myself, have criticized the mistakes, misconceptions, and organizational dysfunctions that contributed to the shortcomings of efforts to build or strengthen the state in Afghanistan. But such terms presume a common goal of building peace and stability, whereas the U.S.’s “clear and focussed goal” in Afghanistan, as defined by President Obama has been “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” The reason that the U.S. government has sacrificed thousands of lives and spent hundreds of billions of dollars on Afghanistan is because Al Qaeda attacked the United States while its leadership was based in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Other countries joined mainly because the United States took the lead. The intervention in Afghanistan was a counter-terrorist intervention. That, not analytical errors or bureaucratic politics, is why some U.S. policies proved to be obstacles to peace and stability.
The conflict between the goals of counter-terrorism initiatives and peacemaking began at the U.N. talks on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in November and December of 2001 (generally known as the Bonn Talks), in which the U.N. brokered a political settlement among Afghan groups opposed to the Taliban. The current regime in Afghanistan is based on that settlement, which included élites of the former royal regime (many from high-ranking Pashtun tribes and most of whom had been exiled since at least the early nineteen-eighties) and the armed groups, mostly non-Pashtun and Islamist, that were leading the fight against the Taliban on the ground. The U.N. team at Bonn, which was led by the Special Representative of the Secretary General Lakhdar Brahimi and on which I served, saw its mission as a continuation of the work of the U.N. Special Mission to Afghanistan, which had been trying, for years, to broker peace between the Taliban and the groups fighting them. Brahimi accepted that the ongoing war made it impossible to invite the Taliban to Bonn, but the agreement was meant to launch a process that would enable them to be incorporated. Multiple studies on political settlements of civil wars have concluded that the more inclusive the settlement, the more durable the agreement.
The Bonn Agreement did make Afghan government and politics more inclusive, but it could not overcome U.S. counter-terrorism policy, which dictated the exclusion of the Taliban and was supported by a broad international consensus. The day after the signing of the agreement, December 6, 2001, the Taliban leadership agreed to a truce with President Karzai in return for an amnesty that would allow them to live in security and dignity. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld overruled it, saying that there would be no negotiated solution. In a meeting in his office in November, 2008, President Karzai told me that soon after his inauguration, on December 22, 2001, he received letters of support from Taliban leaders who had returned to their villages. These leaders were soon hunted down by U.S. Special Forces; some of those who escaped, such as Mullah Baradar, became leaders of the insurgency.
In the U.N. office in Jalalabad in May, 2002, I met Haji Ruhullah, the nephew of Jamil-ur-Rahman, the founder of the Salafi movement Jama’at al-Da’wa, a group allied with the Taliban. I had come to Jalalabad at Brahimi’s request to report on the second round of indirect elections to the Emergency Loya Jirga. Ruhullah was trying to participate. He had brought a binder full of biographies and photographs of his movement’s candidates. Three months later, on August 21, 2002, U.S. soldiers came to his village, in Kunar province, arrested him, and sent him first to Bagram and then to Guantánamo. Since his release, in 2008, he has been living peacefully in Afghanistan, but he and his fellow former detainees are not always inclined to accept the legitimacy of a government based on a process from which counter-terrorism policy excluded them.
The American-led intervention in Afghanistan began with the C.I.A.’s transfer of tens of millions of dollars, in cash, to the leaders of armed groups. On September 24, 2001, while the C.I.A. was starting to deliver knapsacks and cartons of hundred-dollar bills to commanders in Afghanistan, Richard Haass, then the head of policy planning in Colin Powell’s State Department, convened a meeting (in which I participated) to discuss the future of Afghanistan. In the first part of that meeting, a State Department official told a representative of the Rome group, a group of exiles led by the former Afghan king Zahir Shah, that his office needed to better account for the expenditure of the modest grant that the U.S. was giving it. No more funds would be disbursed without receipts.
But in that meeting we did not discuss oversight of the far larger funds appropriated by the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to pay commanders, at first to fight the Taliban and then to provide goods and services, including security, to U.S. and NATO troops through private companies the Afghan groups controlled. The U.S. did not include the expenditures of covert or military operations in the investigation of corruption until mid-2010, when several task forces began to oversee military contracts, though not C.I.A. contracts. This contracting with Afghan power holders, the total size of which is difficult to determine, provided much of the financing for the country’s patronage networks. That is why President Karzai accused the U.S. of financing his opponents and weakening the government. He was wrong to think that the U.S. did it intentionally, but it did it nonetheless.
Here is an illustration. In November, 2009, I was invited to Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, to participate in a daylong training for the leaders of the 82nd Airborne Division before their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. During lunch, I sat with a group of soldiers, some of whom had already been through one or more deployments in Afghanistan. One of them told me that he had been stationed at the principal U.S. military base at Bagram. Perimeter security, he said, was the responsibility of a private company headed by a former Afghan commander. The commander’s brother had a factory that supplied cement to the base for construction. The commander, he noted, was the most powerful Afghan in the district. The profits that the commander and his brother earned from contracts far outweighed any capacity-building or rule-of-law assistance received by the local administration. Such contracting may not amount to corruption in the legal sense, but it conveyed the message that power derived from operational and financial links to the U.S. rather than from the legal authorities.
One case in which the U.S. started a serious effort to counter corruption illustrates a different aspect of the problem. In early 2009, the Obama Administration deployed the recently established Threat Finance Cell (T.F.C.) from the Treasury Department to Kabul to investigate terrorist financing. Initially, based on assumptions inherited from the previous Administration, the investigations focussed on the link between narcotics revenue and Taliban funding. But the investigators kept following the money, which eventually led them to the New Ansari Money Exchange. The more the T.F.C. investigated New Ansari, the more the subject of the investigation broadened beyond terrorist financing.
On September 14, 2009, Rina Amiri, a fellow senior adviser to Holbrooke and a former United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan official, was sitting next to me at the weekly gathering co-chaired by Holbrooke and the White House director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Doug Lute, when a Treasury Department representative handed out a classified PowerPoint presentation about the investigation. As Amiri and I paged through the slides, our astonishment mounted at the relationships it revealed. As Dexter Filkins reported in the Times in 2010, New Ansari was “suspected of moving billions of dollars out of the country for Afghan politicians, drug traffickers and insurgents. Kabul Bank [a private bank that collapsed after being looted by shareholders in a Ponzi scheme] used the firm, whose dealings are nearly impossible to track, to transfer at least $60 million out of the country, a bank shareholder said.”
The first arrest resulting from the investigation was of Mohammed Zia Salehi, the chief of administration for the National Security Council of Afghanistan. The Times reported that “Salehi often acts as a courier of money to other Afghans, according to an Afghan politician who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation.” Salehi was soon released from detention, under pressure from President Karzai. He had once worked as a translator for the former militia leader (now Vice-President) Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the commanders funded by the C.I.A. to topple the Taliban in northern Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. The Times also reported that Salehi was “being paid by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to Afghan and American officials.”
There is no indication that the C.I.A. intervened to have Salehi released or did anything in violation of U.S. law. It was carrying out the mission that the President assigned to it—“to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan”—which involved paying Afghan officials for information or collaboration, even though, from the standpoint of Afghan law, those payments constituted illegal corruption. One part of U.S. policy corrupted Afghan officials while other parts tried to investigate and root out corruption. Given the interest that defined the mission, concerns about corruption did not trump those of covert action.
Corruption is not a problem solely because it wastes money and undermines trust in the government. It can prevent the government from functioning. On March 5, 2015, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, sent a letter to a number of military commands describing a fiscal crisis. The Afghan government could not meet its “budgetary obligations,” which mainly consisted of paying the salaries of employees, including teachers and health-care workers (but not security forces). One of the likely reasons for this is corruption in the collection of customs, the government’s largest source of the domestic revenue. U.S. officials estimated that corruption took about half of the potential customs revenue, according to Sopko.
While some corruption resulted from weak oversight of the customs service, a larger problem was the domination of border points by U.S.-funded militias. Abdul Raziq, the security commander of Kandahar Province, was previously the commander of the border police at the customs point between Kandahar and Balochistan, where he is reported to have engaged in a profitable trade in smuggled used cars as well as the usual narcotics. Human Rights Watch also implicates Raziq in extrajudicial killings and the torture of detainees, including the “application of a power drill to their heads.” The U.S. military, however, has backed him and credits him with securing Kandahar City and expelling the Taliban from nearby rural districts. Even if President Ashraf Ghani wanted to remove him, for any number of reasons, he would have to weigh those considerations against the fact that Raziq’s security forces are responsible for the defense of Kandahar. (Raziq has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.)
Furthermore, elimination of corruption in customs would be only a partial solution to the problem of funding the government. Customs revenues constitute about one third of domestic revenues, which currently pay for no more than one quarter of the national budget. Therefore, roughly speaking, even eliminating all corruption and doubling the customs revenues would enable the country to pay for less than half of its budget. And the budget does not account for donors’ direct expenditures, including, crucially, the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. on Afghan national-security forces. As a result, the solvency, security, and stability of Afghanistan depend upon the wisdom and generosity of the Congress of the United States.
The pattern of assistance through institutions that the Afghan state cannot sustain is not the product of mistaken models. It is the result of an assistance program designed to support the immediate needs of the military campaign. In the spring of 2010, as U.S. commanders tried to apply General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine to Kandahar, the military proposed a quick fix to the city’s electrical supply: hooking up the city’s distribution network to diesel generators and paying for the fuel. That would generate employment and good will. U.S. civilian officials objected that the Afghans would never be able to afford the millions of dollars of diesel fuel required. But, according to one military official interviewed at the time, “This is not about development—it’s about counterinsurgency.” Kandahar got the diesel generators.
Five years later, the Department of Defense will terminate funding for the diesel by this fall, pulling the plug on this unsustainable project and on thousands of factories and homes. The U.S. has no convincing plan for the supply of electricity when it cuts the funding, according to a recent report by SIGAR.
Today, Abdul Raziq claims that he has secured Kandahar, pushing the Taliban back more than fifty miles from the city. But what will happen after the autumn of 2015? Unemployment will rise, the economy will falter, and more young men may join the insurgency. If security deteriorates, the usual voices in Washington will criticize President Obama for withdrawing troops too soon. But, however long the troops stay, military operations will still favor tactically effective quick fixes that collapse when the troops leave, as they will some day. This is not the fault of the military: it has tried to carry out the task that the President assigned it. But the problem of Kandahar’s electricity illustrates why military interventions are unlikely to provide a framework for stability.
Two possible models could keep the Afghan state and civil society operating at close to the current levels. The first is to keep assistance coming indefinitely. In that unlikely case, as Representative Nita Lowey foretold, a peace process might be a liability. Though a settlement with the Taliban could reduce the cost of the security forces, it would also reduce the perception that Afghanistan is a source of threats that require a sustained response.
The second model is the one that I believe President Ghani is trying to implement: to start Afghanistan on the path to greater self-sufficiency and sustainability. Ghani appears to believe that such a path first requires peace with Pakistan and insurgents, coöperation with all the country’s neighbors to make Afghanistan into a transit hub or “roundabout,” and then the development of extractive industries for the country’s vast mineral deposits. Without a quick turnaround in global perceptions of the risks associated with investing in Afghanistan, capital will not come. Furthermore, since Afghanistan is a landlocked country, whose northern neighbors are also landlocked, it cannot connect domestic investments to world markets without efficient and economical transit through Pakistan and Iran.
That, more than any political motivation, most likely explains the speed and radicalism of President Ghani’s turn to China and attempted rapprochement with Pakistan. It also illustrates the tremendous stake that Afghanistan has in any easing of tensions between the U.S. and Iran. When Ghani came to Washington in March, the media focussed on adjustments to the troop re-deployment schedule and pledges of assistance. But what Ghani needs most is political and diplomatic support, backed up by investment, to support a peace process, provide incentives for its success, and enable Afghanistan to start generating revenues to sustain its own state.