MOSCOW BLOG: The Afghan failure – bombs & cash vs institution building

MOSCOW BLOG: The Afghan failure – bombs & cash vs institution building
By Ben Aris in Berlin August 18, 2021

A chaotic first day of the new regime in Kabul. The images coming out of Kabul airport are going to become iconic. As bad as, if not worse than, those that came out of Saigon. The first point is that US credibility in global affairs has taken a massive body blow, just as US President Joe Biden was selling his “diplomacy is back” and re-establishing the US on the world stage.

So far the Taliban have stuck to their word and are simply standing back waiting for the western civilians and remaining forces to leave. The Pentagon said yesterday they plan to airlift 5,000 people a day and finish the draw-down by August 31. The British ambassador has stayed at the airport and is personally processing as many visas as fast as he can for his local staff and vulnerable families. The Germans say they will try and take out 10,000 locals.

However, there are ominous reports that the Taliban are already going house to house in Kabul looking for government officials, police and journalists. Journalists are particularly vulnerable, as they are mostly not covered by the special visa status of Afghans that worked directly for the allies.

And the blame game is well underway, although it's still only 24 hours after the fall of Kabul. The chaotic scenes from the airport, and footage of people dropping off C17 military transport planes after they have taken off, are images we have not seen since 9/11 itself – worse than anything that came out of Saigon. This is a PR, military, logistical and intelligence disaster of the first order – and I highlight the logistical and intelligence failures as the most important.

It appears that the US had more faith in the Afghan Self Defence force than was warranted and simply had not planned for such a rapid collapse. Four days before the Taliban arrived the US updated its expectation for the fall of Kabul from 12 months to three months… That is also an intelligence failure as diplomats in Kabul were also dismissive of the idea that Kabul was about to fall until the very last moment, according to bne IntelliNewssources in Kabul.

However, the root of the problem runs much deeper as the whole Afghan project was fundamentally flawed from the start. Biden gave his first public address on the debacle last night and roundly blamed the fall of Kabul on the government. “We gave them everything – guns, money, training – but we could not give them the will to fight,” Biden pointed out. He has a point. This argument will play well domestically and probably gets him off the hook at home, especially as he admitted that the US had not anticipated events would unfold so fast.

But the flaw in this argument is that it assumes the government the US put in place was a “good” government. These officials were hand picked by the US, not the Afghan people, so Washington has to take some of the blame on itself. If you set up a puppet regime then you should not be surprised if it is crap at its job.

Lying behind that is the question of who are the most important constituents of the government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country with so much cash that he couldn't fit it all into his helicopter and had to leave bags of dollars on the tarmac. The US has conducted a policy in Afghanistan built on cash and bombs. What that creates is a dependency on the US, which becomes the government's main constituent, not the people.

We have seen the same thing in Ukraine to a lesser extent with former president Petro Poroshenko's administration, where the main goal was to get more money and guns out of Washington so that lobbying the US was a top priority for Poroshenko. He famously gave a speech to the House asking for aid, “and I don't mean blankets.”

In Ukraine’s case the US has been reluctant to provide either guns or cash as it is afraid of getting sucked into a proxy war with Russia and is afraid the oligarchs will simply steal all the money that is sent – with good reason. The upshot is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is being increasingly driven to make real reforms, and he, more than Poroshenko, is trying to build his powerbase on his approval of the people, so his chances of success are much higher. The role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is also problematic from this perspective as it is also an important constituent for the government, although it is easy to have more faith in the IMF than the Pentagon.

In Afghanistan’s case this constituency problem was extreme. The US use of bombs and cash resulted in the Afghan government becoming a pure kleptocracy totally disconnected from the people, and importantly from the army as well. This is especially ironic as it is exactly what Washington accuses Putin of building in Russia.

There has been some talk of Ukrainian fears that the US abandonment of Afghanistan could happen to Kyiv too, but Ukraine’s saving grace is its relationship with the EU, and more recently China.

For me the really valuable lesson to be learned here is to do a comparative analysis of the different nation building models the US and the EU use. The US model has failed time and time again. The events in Kabul are more or less identical to those following the US pullout from Iraq when the local US-trained army simply took off their uniforms and ran away. However, the EU has turned all the accession countries that started joining in 2004 into success stories – economically at least; there is still a lot of work to do on the “values” part of the deal.

Obviously it is a lot easier to turn around a country in your neighbourhood that is also European, Christian and shares a similar history than it is to change a country that is halfway across the planet and totally alien to you in history, culture and religion. But surely that is part of the lesson too?

Maybe it would have been better to leave it to the locals in Central Asia to help Afghanistan transform, something that Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was already trying to do before the country blew up. Turkey is trying to do something similar in its neck of the woods in the Caucuses and Balkans. And even Belarus was making progress at liberal economic reforms as part of the institution building that came with the creation of the Eurasia Economic Union (EEU), until that country blew up as well last August. I interviewed the Belarusian finance minister just before the crisis started and his play sheet was straight from the Central Bank of Russia’s playbook: conservative, well managed and realistic.

I have said this many times: the key to the EU’s success is not just to encourage institution building, but to graft its fully functioning institutions onto the new members and to activate all these institutions simultaneously. These things are very hard to build, especially if you build them piecemeal. Russia is slowly coming to this on its own: the tax service, antitrust and macroeconomic management institutions are now fully formed but the bits that remain missing lead to corruption and inefficiency.

Now everything depends on what the Taliban do next. It is said that it is a lot more sophisticated than it was 20 years ago and also craves international recognition, which is the only leverage the rest of the world have over them. They are certainly saying the right things at the moment and can be expected to allow the evacuation to continue unfettered, as why interfere and risk bringing down the US bombers – something the US has explicitly threatened them with. But after that? Given the reports of atrocities in the cities they have already captured no one is expecting this to go well.

As a post scriptum we did a piece listing all the economic projects that involve Afghanistan and in a best case scenario the Taliban will embrace these as a source of revenue that is not opium and they will also provide a basis for building some long-term stability. If my arguments are correct the best thing the US could do is support these projects through the proxies of the other Central Asian states and international financial institutions (IFIs) and stay well away from Afghanistan itself.  

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