Afghanistan: Failure of the US or Curse of History

By Saber Azam*             

GENEVA, Mar 16 2020 (IPS) – The fourth and last presidential election in Afghanistan on 28 September 2019 was yet another setback to the democratic process. Not only did it take months for the Independent Election Commission to announce the results but they were again marred by allegations of massive fraud that culminated with two candidates declaring themselves as winners.

The world witnessed two inaugurations taking place on the same day (9 March 2020) at the same hour albeit at two different locations but on the premises of the same Presidential Palace. The incumbent proclaimed a win with less than one million total votes, representing only 2.6% of the total estimated population; his rival contested.

This was yet another huge disappointment for the many Afghans who still entertained the hope that democracy could hold root despite the systematic misdeeds of the past 19 years.

The US alone has spent nearly a trillion US $ to “fix” this “broken state”! The cost of military and covert operations is certainly not included in this figure.

Additional related expenditures within the US such as caring for veterans as well as multilateral and bilateral contributions would most probably bring the amount of money spent, since Hamid Karzai was installed in 2001, to some three trillion US $, slightly less compared to 4.1 trillion spent during World War II.

Europe became a political and economic giant, following the implementation of the Marshall Plan that cost 13.3 billion US $ at the time, about 103.4 billion in today’s value. Why then, one may ask, does Afghanistan continue along a path to abyss.?

To understand the facts and hurdles, one must consider the origin of the current tragedy. During the Afghan war against the Soviet Union (1980-88), the West’s focus was on bringing the communist giant to its knees by “establishing a callous Islamic belt” around Stalin’s empire. “Jihadists” from around the world were recruited to go and fight “the force of evil” in Afghanistan.

Western support benefitted mostly extremist mujahidin movements. There was less concern about the corollaries of such an uncalculated policy. While the likes of Osama bin Laden were encouraged to join the “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan with advanced weaponry and money, no action was taken against extremist indoctrination and training of thousands of young Afghans in madrassas, known as the Taliban, by the mighty military intelligence services of Pakistan, the ISI.

Perhaps the pro-Soviet stance of the Indian government at the time as well as the tense US-Iran relationship pushed. Washington to rely on Pakistan alone as Central Asia was still under the Soviet yoke. The then US administration made it clear that beating the Soviet Union was the mother of priorities and that the rest will fall in place naturally.

The Geneva Agreement on Afghanistan in 1988 was then “crafted” to pave an “honorable” way for the Red Army to withdraw from Afghanistan. With the complete departure of Soviet troops, the US lost interest in this country, leaving the management of the post-Soviet situation into the hands of Pakistan which played a major role in the ensuing civil war among mujahidin factions that resulted in nearly 30’000 civilian deaths and the rise of the Taliban to power. Afghanistan then became a sanctuary for terrorists.

Despite misapplication of the sharia law (most Taliban fighters are oblivious to the true tenets of Islam), systematic violation of human rights, the practice of torture and summary killings, the International Community remained silent.

Did such a lassitude embolden Al-Qaeda to conceive, prepare and perpetrate the 9/11 attacks? The question will remain unanswered.

While the post 9/11 objective of the US was to “smoke [the terrorists] out”, none of the principal figures, the likes of Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar were apprehended. The southern and eastern main border crossing points of Afghanistan were left open, allowing them to flee to safe-havens in Pakistan.

Only a few second and mainly third category terrorists were apprehended and incarcerated in Guantanamo. The killing of Osama bin Laden by the Obama administration in May 2011 was too little, too late.

In Afghanistan, the US relied essentially on corrupt, inept and inefficient governments that functioned on the basis of nepotism, tribalism and personal gains. Rule of law was systematically violated by Mafiosi groups that benefitted from personal protection of the leaders of the regime.

State institutions became “personal properties” of the incumbents and high dignitaries rather than serving the population. The International Community and donors could not trace the use of their assistance due to serious “security constraints” that many believe were created by the rulers and their associates.

No tangible measures were taken against election rigging and violation of the principles of democracy that became state practice. While the 2005 presidential election was in accordance with the determination of the people’s wish, the subsequent 2009, 2014 and 2019 polls were marred with massive fraud.

Now Afghanistan has two declared Presidents. Would this lead to an unprecedented “clash of titans” and the effective division of the country along ethnic lines resulting in further tragedies?

Since long, the people in Afghanistan have lost trust in slogans that promoted democracy and rule of law as divergence between the script and actions of both the government and the West proved evident.

Desperate to disengage from its longest war, the US deal with the Taliban presents many similarities to the agreement that the Soviet Union had struck in 1988. This time it is the US army that will leave Afghanistan with some degree of honor.

The Taliban can claim victory over the International Community and US-led NATO forces. The major concern is the eventual immunity and probable political and financial support that would be provided to a group that has committed mass murder, war crimes and genocide.

The idea of another “government of national unity” with the inclusion of the Taliban is extremely risky. They may even claim total power like the mujahidin did some 28 years ago. If so, let us pray that this time around, the consequences would be different and beneficial to the people of Afghanistan. However, the population is afraid of the consequences of the deal.

With a polycephaly in Afghanistan, a fearless terrorist organization awaiting withdrawal of NATO troops, rampant corruption, division along ethnic and tribal affiliations, lack of accountability for crimes committed, and absence of an honest inter-Afghan understanding, the US plan has little chance of succeeding.

Democracy cannot be built on shaky foundations. Since the arrival of the coalition troops in 2001, democratic principles, institutions and behavior did not take root in Afghanistan. It is high time to opt for a new strategy and support wholly new leaders.

There is need to craft the future of the country around a comprehensive nation building program. Moreover, young, incorruptible and open-minded local figures, disposed to build institutions that would serve the population must be supported. Further delay to change the fundamental approach and to back a new team will enduringly harm our sacred principles of compassion!


*Saber Azam presided over the “Comité Afghan d’Aide Humanitaire” in Switzerland. He is a former United Nations official and author of ‘SORAYA: The Other Princess’. Polycephaly is a condition of having more than one head. The term is derived from the Greek stems poly- (Greek: “????”) meaning ‘much’ and kephali- (Greek: “??????”) meaning “head”, and encompasses bicephaly and dicephaly (both referring to two-headedness).