Afghanistan: if it costs this much, there has to be a better way


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Last week, on 1 May, the United States and its NATO allies and partners began their troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is also the date on which the US had agreed with the Taliban last year that it would have completed its withdrawal. The Taliban are clearly not happy that the Biden administration has let this deadline slip; but as the departure of the troops and their equipment (except what is being handed over to the Afghan security forces) is now in full swing, hopefully they will keep to their agreement not to attack the US and international forces as they drawdown.

The US has sent additional troops, B52 bombers and an aircraft carrier to Afghanistan to cover the NATO withdrawal and to deter the Taliban from any temptation to launch attacks and claim the propaganda victory of disrupting an orderly withdrawal, and of driving the US and NATO out of Afghanistan. The US and NATO have committed to leaving Afghanistan by 11 September, which marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington which were incubated by Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also brings to an end the cycle in US history during which it tried to extirpate terrorism by sending hundreds of thousands of troops overseas to depose rogue regimes and rebuild whole nations and societies.

The improbability of this happening again is borne out by the enormous cost of the 20-year-long US engagement in Afghanistan. Brown University has been running a ‘Cost of War’ project, which recently published its results. It tabulates that up to now the US has spent a staggering $2.26t on the Afghan conflict. This compares to the estimated $250,000 that it cost Al Qaeda to organise and carry out the 9/11 attacks. As the US borrowed most of this money, rather than use regular budgeted funds, so far it has paid $530bn in interest. The day-to-day US military operations have cost $816bn. A further $88bn has been spent on training and equipping the Afghan security forces. Civilian reconstruction and infrastructure projects have cost the US $143bn. $4.1bn went to humanitarian aid and disaster relief and $9bn has been spent on counter-narcotics programmes.

With so much money pouring into Afghanistan over the last 20 years, inevitably much progress has been achieved. According to the World Bank, life expectancy for the average Afghan has increased by eight years, from 56 to 64 years of age, and infant mortality has been reduced by half. With girls and more Afghan children in general attending school, the literacy rate has shot up by 8% since 2001 to 43% today. Child marriage has also declined by 17%. In 2001, only 16% of Afghans living in the major cities had access to clean water – today it is 89%.

We have all seen how women have taken their place in Afghanistan’s political and economic life, and have achieved prominent roles in government, the armed forces, the media and arts and culture. The Afghan media scene, in particular, has become lively and pluralistic, holding the government to account and promoting more freedom of expression. Donor funding and military construction money have enabled roads, airfields and waterways to be built in order to help Afghan businesses to sell their products and services at home and abroad. Provincial Reconstruction Teams staffed by international civilian advisors have opened schools and hospitals, and helped to develop agriculture and local small businesses. All the money together with the opportunity to provide transport and services to the NATO-led military forces – which in around 2008-2009 numbered well over 100,000 – provided much-needed employment for Afghans and helped to raise Afghanistan’s GDP by over 50%.

The US and its allies have fought one of the longest and most grinding wars in their history with little to show

Yet the costs have been heavy in other ways too. Nearly 48,000 Afghan civilians have lost their lives in the continuous fighting and violence. Two and a half million Afghans have fled the country and a further four million have been displaced internally, out of an overall population of 36 million. The Afghan security forces have had nearly 70,000 of their numbers killed, although there is no precise figure as the Afghan government has been reluctant to give one for fear of dampening morale. Nearly 2,500 US servicemen and women have been killed and nearly 21,000 wounded. The Pentagon has calculated that it has spent thus far $296 billion on the welfare costs of the Afghanistan veterans and this cost driver will extend well into the future. 1,144 soldiers from other NATO and partner nations have also been killed. Interestingly, the Brown University study informs us that 3,600 US private security contractors were killed in Afghanistan, an aspect of the outsourcing of modern warfare that has rarely been discussed. Moreover, over 80 journalists and nearly 450 aid workers have also been killed.

Yet the undoubted achievements in individual areas are now increasingly overshadowed by a more gloomy picture. The major investment in mentoring and equipping the Afghan security forces has not prevented the Taliban from capturing ever-larger swathes of the country and threatening major cities like Kandahar and Kunduz. The progress in women’s rights and education has not prevented unemployment from jumping to 25% and the poverty rate rising to 47%, which was at a much lower 36% back in 2007. Despite the many construction projects, the head of the US special Afghanistan investigative agency (SIGAR), John Sopko, has been consistently reporting to the US Congress for years about schools and hospitals being empty for lack of qualified personnel, with generators and computers left abandoned without spare parts and maintenance. Corruption has remained endemic, with the United Nations reporting that Afghans pay on a per capita basis just short of $2,000 each year in bribes to secure the most basic of government services, from access to education to registration for a business. Successive Afghan governments have paid lip service to the pressures from the international community to build more effective institutions and clean up corruption, but buoyed by foreign money and military support, they have proved unwilling or unable to do so.

In sum, the US and its allies have fought one of the longest and most grinding wars in their history with little to show in terms of return on investment. The costs – both human and financial – vastly exceed the benefits. Moreover, if the Taliban succeed in regaining absolute power in Kabul and invite Al Qaeda and even ISIL to set up structures and training camps in the country, we will back to square one in terms of the global campaign to contain terrorism. The Taliban are ill-advised to do this as it will only isolate their regime further and lead to sanctions and constant threats of US military strikes and interventions, yet they are inspired by ideology rather than rationality and might still go down this route. The strength of ISIL, attracting foreign fighters to Afghanistan and taking new root there, might not give the Taliban the choice.

The Afghan experience means that the US and its allies are unlikely to do any more nation-building with essentially military forces for many years to come. But the failure of a solution does not mean that the original problem disappears. Rogue regimes will still threaten Western democracies as will weak states that cannot achieve the necessary governance to deal with threats both internal and external. Rogue and weak states will still be incubators of terrorism, organised crime, mass migration, human rights abuses, smuggling and resource exploitation, as well as weapons of mass destruction in some cases. So as the Afghan mission draws to a close, now is the time to come up with a new approach and strategy that can constrain these threats at a price the NATO allies and partners are willing and able to pay. This strategy needs to be based on six distinct lines of effort.

The allies need to staff their overseas missions with diplomats who are skilled in conflict resolution and reconciliation

In the first place, the allies need to be clear from the outset about their interests in a given country and define limited and realistic objectives. Otherwise the mission constantly shifts to adjust to changing circumstances. The US went to Afghanistan to combat terrorism, then embraced nation-building and providing human security, and then declared mission accomplished because Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, had already been killed by US special forces in Pakistan in 2011. In that case, the US should have terminated the mission a decade ago.

President Biden declared that the US should leave Afghanistan because staying longer would not improve the condition of the country and that it was impossible to estimate when a perfect outcome could be achieved, if ever. Yet if the best possible result was already achieved after two or three years of the deployment, the NATO allies should have been able to know that, based on realistic mission criteria and benchmarks, and to have switched to a different strategy. Thousands of lives and billions of dollars would have been saved.

Second, the allies need to establish a diplomatic framework to bring the various political forces around the negotiating table. This will obviously not resolve the conflict immediately, but it can help the international community understand what is driving opposition and where they might be willing to compromise. It also helps to put pressure on the government to negotiate in good faith and to improve its support among the population knowing that international military support is not eternal nor unconditional. Diplomatic solutions, no matter how messy or imperfect, are the only way out.

So the allies need to staff their overseas missions with diplomats who are skilled in conflict resolution and reconciliation. They also need to get behind the UN and the special envoys of the UN Secretary-General in their efforts to achieve ceasefires, arms embargoes, withdrawals of foreign fighters and governments of national unity pending fresh elections.

The success of the UN in persuading the various parties in Libya to agree precisely to all these things shows that no conflict is too intractable if subjected to skilful diplomacy backed by the major powers. The Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) is another such example. Yet in Afghanistan, it took 18 years before the US was able to get the Taliban to the conference table and several months more before it was able to involve the Afghan government in the peace process.

The commitments the parties enter into will always be fragile, and power-sharing will never be easy between old enemies. Yet a diplomatic framework makes it clear to the political forces in a given country that they are ultimately going to have to resolve their differences among themselves.

Israel’s experience can be useful as the US looks at how it can support the Kabul government

Third is the involvement of neighbours and regional organisations. A weakness of US policy in Afghanistan is that the neighbours with the most influence in the country were not made to assume responsibility for the peace process. China has important economic investments, especially in mining; Russia, an interest in curbing terrorist groups that could threaten Central Asia; Iran in the fate of the large number of Afghan refugees on its territory as well as of the Shia Hazara minority in Afghanistan; and Pakistan in controlling Afghan extremist groups that could link up with groups in Pakistan itself. All four regional powers have an interest in a stable and non-aligned Afghanistan which does not pose a threat to any of them. This means a role in government and administration for all the principal ethnic groups, as well as a high degree of decentralisation. Thus, diplomacy must also establish a regional framework from the outset that puts the main responsibility on the neighbours to arbitrate and guarantee the peace process. Otherwise, neighbours tend to play their political games for influence, safe in the knowledge that the US or the Europeans are doing all the heavy lifting.

Fortunately, there are some good examples of regional responsibility now emerging. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has brokered settlements in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has proposed a regional force to help Mozambique fight terrorism in its northern Cabo Delgado province. France has sponsored the creation of the G5 Sahel regional security force to secure borders and combat extremism, and there are prospects that it could evolve beyond a military body into a regional cooperation framework. Recently ASEAN succeeded in having the head of the military junta in Myanmar attend its summit in Thailand, where ASEAN leaders could pressure him to end the military repression and start a dialogue with his civilian opponents. Closer to home, here in Europe, the Three Seas Initiative of Poland, Romania and Turkey has recently met with Ukraine and Georgia to discuss how to help them to improve their resilience against Russian interference and bullying.

In fourth place is over-the-horizon deterrence. Israel is an interesting case here, as its intelligence services, Mossad and Shin Bet, have a good track record of spotting threats or planned attacks in Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, after which the Israeli army uses airpower, drones or special units to counter these threats before they reach Israel’s borders. Some of Israel’s methods are controversial, such as the targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists working on Iran’s nuclear programme, or the alleged sabotage operations and attacks on Iranian ships suspected of carrying weapons to Israel’s adversaries such as Hamas. To cite the Israeli example is not to suggest that the allies should emulate all its methods.

Yet Israel’s experience can be useful as the US looks at how it can support the Kabul government and the Afghan security forces in keeping Al Qaeda and ISIL at bay when it no longer has a CIA mission and US special forces and air assets inside Afghanistan. Currently the US is looking at where it could base its over-the-horizon deterrence forces in the region. They could be located in the Gulf states or on US Navy ships in the Indian Ocean, and will no doubt consist of intelligence gathering assets, strike aircraft, drones and special forces. Air support for the Afghan security forces as they develop their own fledgling air force will be particularly important.

The international community needs to be ready to respond quickly to appeals from the UN

Next is governance. As stated previously, it is the absence of effective governance by the state that drives populations into the hands of the extremists and makes them vulnerable to exploitation by all sides to a conflict. In turn and increasingly, violence and social polarisation, especially along ethnic or religious lines, makes good governance even harder. The classic approach during military interventions is to centralise power in the capital and to support a dominant national leader as the source of all stability and the indispensable partner for the intervening coalition. Yet time and time again, we have seen that banking all on the local strongman is a recipe for failure. Buttressed by foreign military power and funding, the leader is in no hurry to reform and believes that he can defeat his domestic adversaries rather than come to terms with them in new power-sharing arrangements. Over time, too close an association with foreign powers can undermine the leader’s credibility with his own population.

It is time for a new approach to governance whereby international support should go first and foremost to civil society programmes. Helping to establish an open and free media environment, empowering women, supporting local NGOs, local businesses and cooperatives, and grassroots initiatives to promote local dialogues and reconciliation can all prove more productive in the long run than channelling all the aid through the central government. The more organised and vocal civil society becomes, the more it can hold central government and strongman leaders to account, and push them to reform and decentralise as part of all-party dialogues.

Finally is the need for rapid and well-resourced humanitarian assistance. Rogue and weak states have a habit of mistreating their populations, in whole or in part. They also have difficulty in coping with humanitarian disasters caused by famine, extreme weather events or disruptions to food production and water availability caused by climate change. Whatever the colour of the local regime, the international community needs to be ready to respond quickly to appeals from the UN and its agencies such as UNHCR and the World Food Programme, or from regional bodies such as the African Union. Afghanistan is a particular case of need given the prolonged droughts that have displaced large numbers of people.

Where the regimes or certain individuals are clearly implicated in these humanitarian disasters, they need to face sanctions and, where deliberate intent is manifest, prosecution at the ICC or regional war crimes tribunals. Persistent international pressure can isolate these individuals and encourage those calling for change. The UN doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect still applies, even if it is not much talked about these days. It is encouraging that the Biden administration is now putting human rights at the centre of its foreign policy, as is the UK in its Global Britain strategy. Human rights are also central to the EU’s Global Strategy and foreign policy goals. Yet the challenge is to put this emphasis into action through an effective and coordinated sanctions policy, and to cast the net more widely than the current priority cases of China, Russia, Syria or Belarus.

The US and its NATO allies have repeated often that they are not abandoning Afghanistan and will continue to help Kabul to fight extremism, build pluralistic institutions and tackle its enormous social problems. Hopefully the new strategy and approach outlined in this article can help them to achieve more – and at much lower and more cost-effective levels of expenditure – in the next 20 years than the 20 years that have passed since the 9/11 attacks.

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