It’s easy to understand why someone would want to counter conventional wisdom on America’s intervention in Afghanistan. An unbroken stream of negative reporting from the so called “graveyard of empires” means Afghanistan has gone from being the “good war” to another war America can’t end fast enough. Looking at an American intervention that’s going to end, not with a bang, but on a deadline, it can be tough to find the silver lining.
This week Forbes contributor Loren Thompson tried to do that in a piece called “Five Signs Afghanistan Is Becoming An American Success Story,” making the case that staying the course in Afghanistan is “paying off.” His premise that Americans can hold their head high on Afghanistan is based on five points: the solid performance of Afghan forces, the country’s improved political climate, Islamabad’s renewed interest in cooperating with Kabul, a booming Afghan economy, and popular support for Afghanistan’s national institutions. It’s a concise, readable assessment, with one problem: The country Thompson describes doesn’t exist.
Before the invasion, Thompson’s Afghanistan was “geographically isolated, economically backward, politically divided, and culturally insular.” Now, thanks to (mainly) American dollars and (mostly) American troops, the country is a “peaceful, progressive place,” where if the U.S.-led coalition can just hold on a little longer, they can “keep Afghanistan in the win column.” Except that none of Thompson’s arguments reflect the reality of Afghanistan in 2015.
According to Thompson, Afghan security forces are holding their own so well that “enemies of the regime are resorting to headline-grabbing terror attacks because they are unable to mass forces for major operations,” and that the government is in “firm control” of all 34 provincial capitals. That’s going to be news to the people of Kunduz province, in northern Afghanistan.
Fighting in the provincial capital since April 24 has forced the cancellation of commercial flights to the city and at least 100,000 Afghans have fled their homes. Any time 100,000 people get displaced, that counts as a “major operation.” In Kunduz, in the north and in ongoing operations in Helmand in the south, Afghan forces have been hard pressed to hold the Taliban at bay, at a staggering cost.
Facing the Taliban on their own is taking its toll on Afghan forces, and every year their casualty numbers climb. According to NATO, from 2013 to 2014, more than 8,900 uniformed Afghans were killed in action. Thompson dismisses this as “negative media coverage,” made up of “reports that high casualty rates among Afghan security forces are unsustainable.” Except it’s not just media coverage: Last year, the commander of the International Joint Command, Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson said of Afghan casualties, “This is not sustainable. They (Afghan forces) do need to decrease their casualty rate.”
Thompson goes on to describe the Afghan political landscape. Like his outlook on the country’s security forces, Thompson’s view of Afghan politics is both glowing and inaccurate. He refers to the national unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah as a “political odd couple” with a “propensity to work together” that’s needed to run a country “carved out” by the West during an “imperial heyday.” Per Thompson, they “have their differences, but compared with Karzai they are models of professionalism — educated, thoughtful, and committed to reform.”
Except that Ghani and Abdullah’s political coupling was less about working together and more about caving to American diplomatic extortion. When it looked like the presidential election that pitted Ghani and Abdullah against each other was facing total stalemate, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Afghanistan to negotiate a way forward. The unity government was the result of those negotiations.
Kerry made it clear to both parties that this “was the best deal they were going to get, and that there would be consequences for rejecting it,” according to a senior administration official at the time. Kerry told both presidential hopefuls, “I have to emphasize to you that if you do not have an agreement, if you do not move to a unity government, the United States will not be able to support Afghanistan.”
Thompson’s characterizations of Karzai as the anti-Ghani are part of the mythology that this president is at least more grateful and cooperative than his predecessor. During Ghani’s March visit to D.C., his speech to Congress thanking the American people enjoyed wide coverage for a man running a country most Americans have forgotten. But Karzai’s last visit to Washington in 2010 ran a similar course.
In the Spring of 2010, Karzai walked the rows of Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60, where Americans killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest. At the State Department, he said, “I thank you, and on behalf of the Afghan people, please do convey the gratitude of our people to the people of the United States of America.” He was accompanied on his walk through Arlington by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, and a man Karzai considered a personal friend.
By June of that year, McChrystal would be gone, fired after Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings published an article in which several of McChrystal’s aides disparaged President Barack Obama. McChrystal’s departure meant Karzai lost his last American ally in Kabul, and soon after, the relationship between Kabul and Washington went into a spiral from which it never recovered. Karzai, still smarting from American interference in the 2009 election, went from being our man in Kabul to an inconvenience barely tolerated until the next election in 2014.
Even if Ghani and Abdullah’s partnership hadn’t been brokered by the Americans, the results have been less than impressive, as Ghani in particular has opted to keep former mujahideen out of the corridors of power. That hasn’t set well with power brokers like Ismail Khan, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and Atta Noor, all of whom were key figures in driving the Russians out of Afghanistan, and enjoyed tremendous influence under Karzai. In his efforts to focus on “reform,” Ghani’s policies could fracture Afghanistan along sectarian lines.
Complicating the domestic political situation is Afghanistan’s relationship with its most problematic neighbor, Pakistan. Thompson focuses on the security aspects of this relationship, asserting that Kabul and Islamabad have “shared interests” that the Pakistanis are seeing as valuable again. He contrasts Ghani’s assurances that Afghanistan will “redouble efforts to deny terrorists safe haven” with Karzai’s accusations that the Pakistanis were “providing sanctuary and aid to the Taliban.”
Of all of Thompson’s arguments, this is perhaps the most perplexing. Islamabad’s tolerant relationship with the Taliban is widely known. For years, the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, have used the Taliban as a proxy to destabilize Afghanistan. Karzai’s accusations may not have been terribly diplomatic, but they were based in fact.
The “safe haven” Thompson refers to has always been on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. Pakistan’s “shared interest” is American aid, particularly for the Pakistani armed forces. Since a close relationship between the two countries is something D.C. wants, Islamabad will at least pretend to want it, too.
So far, Ghani has been cozier with Islamabad, but he also told the Americans during his visit to D.C. this Spring that he “can only continue this policy of goodwill and friendship perhaps for another couple of months. Beyond that, I will not be able to do it. Because I will have to turn it around; otherwise people will topple me.”
The Afghan–Pakistani partnership is one the Americans want to encourage in order to continue prosecuting the war on terror in the region, but that relationship comes at a steep political cost for Ghani.
Pakistan’s treatment of the Taliban means that a lot of Afghan deaths can be laid at Islamabad’s doorstep. That’s not something that the Afghan public is going to soon forget. To ensure future stability, Ghani has been developing other partnerships in the region, visiting Beijing and New Delhi in the last several months. The relationship with India was one Karzai had fostered and Ghani at first ignored. Now it looks like the inability of the Pakistanis to reign in the Taliban might mean his successor will have to do the same.
No matter how good a country’s army or politicians, without a healthy economy its days are numbered. Thompson describes an Afghan economy that has made “huge progress,” as “millions of expatriates have returned home to participate in the economy’s rebirth.” His Afghanistan is full of paved roads, functioning schools and health clinics, rich in natural resources, and “opium production has fallen steadily.”
The “rebirth” of Afghanistan’s economy was artificially based on the massive influx of foreign dollars. Despite that foreign money, Afghan infrastructure is in trouble. Thompson states that there are now over 7,000 miles of paved roads in Afghanistan. The Americans tried to pave as many Afghan roads as possible, but fell far short of their goal, and were forced to adjust their goal from “paving” to “improved or rehabilitated.” Many of those roads were completed with no budgetary provisions made for their maintenance. No maintenance budgets mean no maintenance, and in February, the World Bank estimated that 85% of Afghan roads are in “poor shape,” and “the majority cannot be used by motor vehicles.”
Thompson also points to a “14-fold” increase in schools since the fall of the Taliban. It’s true that there a lot more schools in Afghanistan than there were before the Americans arrived. It’s also true that there is still a massive shortage of schools in the country. For example, in Bamyan, the Afghan Ministry of Education reports that there are 112 schools without proper buildings, and students meet under tents and trees. The situation is worse in Kunar, where 312 schools operate without buildings, and they face a chronic shortage of female teachers.
Even if those schools get buildings, worsening security in the country over the last couple of years makes it likely those schools will have to close. This month, officials in Ghor province reported that 20% of their schools had been closed due to the security situation. And in July of last year, Herat’s Shindand province closed all of the girls’ schools due to Taliban threats, leaving 40,000 Afghan girls without a chance at an education.
Even with the bleak outlook for roads and schools, commercial foreign investment would have a tremendous impact on the country. According to Thompson, investors “are making big bets to develop the country’s iron, copper, oil and lithium deposits.” The largest of those “big bets” is the copper mine at Mes Aynak, under contract by the Chinese. But last month, Reuters reported that the mine had been delayed due in large part to a disagreement over royalties that were to be paid to the Afghan government. During Ghani's China visit, Beijing asked him to slash the top royalty rate on the mine to about 10%, which was down from the original agreement of 19.5%. That difference would mean $114 million a year in lost revenue for the Afghan government.
Assuming Beijing and Kabul can iron out their differences over Mes Aynak, copper and other resources need to be able to leave Afghanistan in order to reach foreign markets. That means a railroad network, which is something Afghanistan doesn’t have. A 2012 Department of Defense study estimated that to build the railroads necessary to support planned mining activities would cost $54 billion, a price tag that would render mining economically unfeasible.
Finally there’s opium production, which according to Thompson has “fallen steadily.” Last December, the United Nations reported that there had been a 60% growth in opium cultivation since 2011. According to the United Nations, opium is now grown on up to 209,000 hectares in Afghanistan, with an estimated $3 billion value. Given current estimates for Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, heroin and opium now accounts for nearly 15% of Afghan GDP.
Perception being reality, facts and figures can be somewhat intangible. What really matters in Afghanistan? Opinion polls. Even if the army’s being slaughtered, Afghanistan’s leaders don’t get along, the neighbors aren’t that helpful, and the economy is in shambles, what’s important is how the people feel. Per Thompson, Afghans are relatively positive, as “55% believe their country is headed in the right direction — a better reading than similar surveys register in the U.S.”
Even though Afghans might think the country’s headed the right way, that doesn’t mean they feel safe. In 2014, 65% of those surveyed reported fearing for their family’s safety. That’s a 25% increase since 2006. And even if the majority of people in the United States don’t think their country is headed in the right direction, they probably aren’t afraid to travel across the United States. That’s not the case for Afghans, as three-quarters of those surveyed said they were afraid of traveling across their own country.
Afghans are dying to live in Loren Thompson’s Afghanistan. His Afghanistan is exactly the kind of utopia the Americans planned to leave behind. His Afghanistan is full of well-educated people taking their families on road trips paid for by a burgeoning mining industry. In the real Afghanistan, they’re shuttling opium across a deteriorating road network as they try to escape another pitched battle between Afghan forces and the Pakistani-funded Taliban, hoping internal conflicts don’t escalate into another bloody civil war.