Nearly 2,400 American service member have died during the war in Afghanistan. Along with so many of its sons and daughters, taxpayers sacrificed almost a $1 trillion to hold the country since 2001. Not all that cash went to war, of course. The United States spent around $115 billion of it to reconstruct a country the Taliban had ravaged.
Now, with sequestration cutting into the military budget and a new president coming into office, Afghanistan’s fate hangs in the balance. The Taliban is resurgent, and though they fell short of capturing a provincial capital in 2016, they still made inroads in a country Americans and Afghans have died to keep safe.
According to a recent report from John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “only 63.4% of the country’s districts were under Afghan government control or influence a reduction from the 72% as of November 27, 2015.”
Congress formed SIGAR and appointed Sopko in 2008. It’s the biggest governmental body providing oversight of the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan and what it discovers often isn’t pretty. The most recent report, published in January 2017, is an assessment of the high-risk areas threatening Afghanistan today.
Washington and Kabul are losing Afghanistan. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Systemic corruption, a waning security force and a unhealthy relationship with the counternarcotics is destroying Afghanistan and its military.
If America wants to stay in Afghanistan and beat the Taliban, it can. But that’s a big if. Another option is to negotiate peace with the Taliban, something Kabul has attempted since the war began. But there are contentious issues neither side will relent on, such as the Taliban’s insistence on changing Afghanistan’s constitution to reflect sharia law and what form any kind of power sharing between Kabul and the Taliban would take.
There’s another way, one that would be the Taliban’s preference — the complete withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan. In an article on the Taliban’s website, its leaders asked U.S. President Donald Trump to do just that.
What we can’t do is continue to lie to ourselves. Turning the tide will be take years, not to mention more money and more American troops. That’s just the way it is. If we aren’t willing to do that, then we need to leave the country and face the consequences of failure. That’ll mean saying goodbye to billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, strategic fallout from losing an American military presence close to Pakistan’s border region, and the Pentagon accepting a defeat on a level not seen since Vietnam.
The current strategy amounts to a slow unwinding, a sustained collapse that does a disservice to the American taxpayer and the soldiers of many nations who fought and died to defeat the Taliban.
Root out corruption
The biggest problem eating away at the the war in Afghanistan is corruption. Kabul officials take bribes, local contractors overestimate the cost of projects to bilk the U.S. taxpayer, and Afghan army commanders overreport troop numbers to bulk up their budget. Corruption permeates Afghanistan. It’s part of the culture.
According to Transparency International — a nonprofit that tracks corruption — only North Korea and Somalia are more corrupt than Kabul. “Ninety percent of Afghans say that corruption is a problem in their daily lives,” Sopko wrote in his latest report. U.S. taxpayers have poured billions in aid into Afghanistan only to see it scooped up by corrupt government officials, businessmen and criminals.
The problem is so endemic that most U.S. officials familiar with the country feel the threat outweighs even the Taliban. “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts … wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption,” former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker told SIGAR.
“Corruption alienates key elements of the population, discredits the government and security forces, undermines international support, subverts state functions and rule of law, robs the state of revenue, and creates barriers to economic growth.”
To combat the problem, America must track every single dollar spent in the country. It seems simple, but it hasn’t happened yet. It must also help build a culture of honesty and transparency by strictly enforcing business ethics, prosecuting corruption cases criminally and leading by example.
Too many times, American contractors came into Afghanistan and overcharged the Pentagon and State Department for simple construction projects so it could pocket the extra cash. The Afghans watched this and learned what they could get away with.
Without oversight, strict criminal laws backed by tough prosecution and a change of culture, corruption will defeat America faster than the Taliban ever could.
Take the fight to the Taliban
Afghanistan must have a strong and self sustaining military force to keep the Taliban from retaking the country. Washington and Kabul both know this, and as a result, American taxpayers have spent almost $70 billion to create and support Afghanistan’s military. But the cash isn’t enough, especially with corruption remaining a systemic problem.
The Afghan National Army’s casualty rate makes it almost impossible to sustain the service. Soldiers’ pay often fails to make it into their pockets, since commanders skim cash off the top before handing it over to their troops. The logistical supply lines are a nightmare thanks to both a lack of infrastructure and pilfering as supplies move down the road.
Because of these problems the ANA is mostly a defensive force, focusing on holding ground as the Taliban continues to make gains. The problem is so bad that Kabul uses Afghan special operations forces to hold population centers and fill in for the overstretched army. “One Resolute Support advisor expressed concern that the ANA’s over-reliance on ‘commandos’ risks burning out those elite forces,” SIGAR wrote.
Since 2015, Washington has been more hands off with the Afghan security forces, and the situation has deteriorated rapidly. The sad fact is the Afghan army simply isn’t ready to defend its own country. If it wants to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, America will have to commit more ground forces to the fight to give the Afghans time to fill out their force and change the culture of corruption.
Those are the facts on the ground. According to Pentagon reports, “from January 1, 2016, through August 19, 2016, a total of 5,523 ANDSF service members were killed and an additional 9,665 members were wounded.” America pulled its forces and attempted to let Kabul stand on it’s own. It didn’t work out.
To stop the bleeding, America has to re-commit ground troops to the fight, secure key population centers without the help of Afghan commandos, freeing them to be an offensive rather than defensive force, and then take the fight to the Taliban. Joint operations between American and Afghan forces is the only way to do this in a way that allows Kabul to rebuild its shattered forces.
This will take years.
Make peace with the poppy
This is going to be the hardest one to swallow, but it’s also the most important. “The cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs put the entire U.S. and international investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk,” Sopko’s report said. He’s right. The Taliban once suppressed the poppy trade, but now it makes millions from trafficking every year.
The United States has spent almost $8 billion trying to eliminate opium in Afghanistan. It destroyed fields, paid farmers exorbitant amounts of cash to grow anything other than poppies and enforced strict drug laws. It didn’t work.
“Eradication efforts have had minimal impact on production and sometimes fostered resentment among farmers, who perceived it as a corrupt practice for local officials to extract bribes in order for their crop to be spared,” Sopko explained.
Now, the Taliban makes tons of money off of the opium trade. The religious fanatics figured out what Washington hasn’t, or what it willfully ignores — people will always want drugs. As a result, a cash crop such as the poppy will always thrive whether supported by a regulated free market or an unregulated black market.
For America to win in Afghanistan, it has to make peace with the poppy. That runs counter to decades of U.S. drug policy, but regulating, taxing, and supporting Afghan poppy farmers may be the single biggest change the Pentagon could make in Afghanistan that would have a lasting effect on all the other problems.
A well-regulated opium trade will instantly win over local farmers, enrich the coffers of Kabul, and allow the government to quickly become self sustaining, fight corruption by bringing a black market into the daylight and destroy one of the Taliban’s main income streams.
There will, of course, be social problems associated with a thriving drug trade. But the truth is that those problems already exist and a realistic approach to the poppy is better than the fantasy of eradication.
In Afghanistan, peace with the poppy is a hard and bitter pill. But if the Pentagon doesn’t swallow it, America may well lose its longest war.
Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis have hard choices to make. After almost two decades of perpetual war in Afghanistan, thousands of American lives and billions of taxpayer dollars, Washington and Kabul are at the brink. Only decisive and radical action will stop the Taliban from winning. It’s time to take that action or cut our losses and get out.
Update Jan. 26, 2017: An earlier version of this article inaccurately listed one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It is South Korea.