Regardless of who wins in November, the US is likely to stay in Afghanistan

JULY 14, 2020

Written by
Sara Bakhtiar

Responsible Statecraft

Quincy Institute

After nearly two decades trapped in an endless war in Afghanistan, a key part of Congress voted once more to extend the U.S. military’s stay in the country, as the House Armed Services Committee’s passed an amendment to make it more difficult for the Trump administration to withdraw troops — while at the same time, the Senate rejected of Senator Rand Paul’s proposal to withdraw all troops from the country within a year.

Despite ever more frequent calls for the U.S. to end its military intervention in Afghanistan, the long running occupation is likely to continue, regardless of who is elected to the presidency this November. Though both President Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden make similar promises to end the endless war in Afghanistan on the campaign trail, they have also expressed interest in maintaining and even expanding the CIA presence in the country, which will prolong the war covertly.

If Trump wins reelection and an ongoing Afghanistan war

Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute has called President Trump’s and former vice president Joe Biden’s positions on Afghanistan “indistinguishable.” Both Trump and Biden have expressed interest in keeping a small footprint in Afghanistan to deter terrorist efforts and protect U.S. interests, with Trump wanting to keep a “high intelligence” presence in the country. Part of this intelligence presence includes continuing the drone program that Trump inherited from the Obama administration, over which Trump has relaxed restrictions and oversight, and delegated greater authority to military commanders and the CIA. Controversial drone strikes have spiked in the country during Trump’s presidency. His administration is likely to continue, and even expand the drone program in Afghanistan, as a response to the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s growing strength there.

The Trump administration’s eagerness to withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan, evident in the reduction of troop numbers immediately after signing its deal with the Taliban, could possibly be thwarted again by a Democratic Congress. Recently the House Armed Services Committee passed the Crow-Cheney amendment, an amendment to the NDAA that would require the U.S. to meet several certifications before withdrawing more troops, essentially prolonging the war. Resistance like this from Congressional Democrats on major foreign policy issues is likely to continue if Trump remains in power.

According to various polls, there is a possibility that both the House and the Senate may be under Democratic control come November. FiveThirtyEight’s congressional polling aggregate reports that the Democrats have a 9-point lead in the race for Congress, as of July 2020.

If a Democratic majority in Congress is in the future, Trump can expect to see more pushback from the House and Senate any time his administration attempts to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan.

It is also worth noting the inconsistency of Democratic majorities in the past two decades regarding troop withdrawal in the Middle East. The decisions and actions of members of Congress seem to rest primarily on who is in the Oval Office at the moment.

The last time Congress saw the Democrats take majority in both the House and Senate with a sitting Republican president was during George W. Bush’s last term in office. This period, from 2007 to 2008, saw great opposition from Congress when it came to important foreign policy decisions, like the Bush administration’s infamous 2007 troop surge in Iraq. In May 2007, Congress signed a controversial war spending bill that set a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi argued that Congress would not give the president a “blank check” for the war in Iraq.

In that case, Congress opposed the president’s unlawful war in Iraq and favored the withdrawal of U.S. troops. In stark contrast to this decision, just three years later in 2010 an overwhelming majority of the Democratic-controlled House voted to keep troops in Afghanistan, essentially re-legitimizing the “dubious war.” And months later, Congress voted for a defense bill that authorized the surge of up to 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest in the history of the war. Thus, Democrats in Congress do not seem to have a reliable stance when it comes to ending endless wars, though presidential candidates of their party have used the issue as a selling point in debates.

If Biden inherits the Afghanistan War

Though Biden has been hailed as the “consistent voice of caution” within the Obama administration when it came to matters concerning Afghanistan, this may change if he becomes commander in chief.

Like many other nominees during the 2020 Democratic Party presidential debates, Joe Biden strongly argued for the need to end America’s “forever wars” while still emphasizing the obligation to protect American security interests, especially in Afghanistan, through the presence of special operations forces and intelligence personnel. Through a strategy he calls “counterterrorism plus,” Biden’s plan involves using U.S. special forces and “aggressive air strikes” to fight terrorist networks in the Middle East, which likely means favoring the increase of controversial drone strikes in the country if he is elected. U.S. drone strikes, or “targeted killings,” during the Obama administration were responsible for 982 civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2015 alone. Biden’s desire to limit the number of troops on the ground likely means he will expand Obama’s covert drone program not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan and throughout Africa as well.

And in fact, he pushed hard for the expansion of the drone program and the use of Special Operations troops as vice president during the Obama administration. Biden has been adamantly opposed to the notion of nation-building in Afghanistan, and has argued that counterterrorism operations in the country would more realistically attain U.S. goals. Thus, the U.S. will still be heavily involved in Afghanistan under a Biden presidency. Additionally, a heavy focus on covert counterterrorism missions would still require a significant troop force for activities like intelligence gathering.

Since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement in February, the situation in Afghanistan has gotten drastically worse, with the Taliban increasing the number of attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians. Recent reports outline the Taliban’s growing network in the country through a trend of local police officers and soldiers switching sides to join the militant group. A U.N. report released last month also outlines the Taliban’s strong connection to al-Qaeda, which may pull a future Trump or Biden administration back into the country’s affairs.

If Biden bases the decision to maintain or withdraw military presence on the conditions on the ground, it is likely that American troops will remain with Congress agreeing with him. The increase in terrorist activity will also allow Biden to justify expanding the covert drone program in the country, which may involve fewer troops on the ground, but would not entail the end of the war.

With more than three months left in the race, it is still difficult to say with certainty who will be elected in November. Afghanistan will certainly be a priority foreign policy issue for the president, and his initial decisions in office will have an immense impact on the trajectory of the war and violence in that country. However, it’s unlikely that we will see a complete end to the 19-year long war under Trump or Biden, or pressure from the leadership of either party in Congress to do so.

It will be up to the growing coalition of like-minded progressives and conservatives who oppose America’s endless wars to make the case for finally leaving Afghanistan, and, marshaling favorable public opinion, to push the president and their congressional colleagues to follow their lead.

Regardless of who wins in November, the US is likely to stay in Afghanistan
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Coronavirus pushing millions of Afghans into poverty: SIGAR


31 July 2020

New report says virus is overwhelming Afghanistan’s healthcare system, with one-third of the population in a crisis.

More than 36,500 people have been infected with the new coronavirus in Afghanistan

The coronavirus pandemic is pushing millions more Afghans into poverty, overwhelming the country’s basic healthcare system and causing food shortages, a US watchdog has said.

In its quarterly report (PDF) published on Thursday, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) warned that Afghanistan, racked by years of fighting, was “headed for a humanitarian disaster” as the virus continues to spread.

“The economic shock of the pandemic, including increased unemployment, food-supply disruptions due to border closures, and rising food prices, has exacerbated Afghans’ food insecurity, already impacted by the ongoing conflict and high poverty levels,” said SIGAR, which collates expert and media reports and conducts its own analysis.

As of Friday, Afghanistan has registered more than 36,500 coronavirus cases and 1,271 related deaths, according to data collected by the Johns Hopkins University. But the true toll of the virus is believed to be much higher, SIGAR said, pointing to research showing up to 90 percent of possible cases are not being tested.

Most of the cases are in urban areas, with the capital, Kabul, becoming the epicentre of the known infections.

Aid organisations say the country’s health system was already stretched even before the arrival of the novel coronavirus, with limited coverage in conflict-affected areas and poor specialised healthcare – and now, the pandemic is putting a further strain on resources.

“Afghanistan lacks the medical equipment necessary to treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19”, the SIGAR report said, noting only 300 ventilators were currently available across the country, with a severe shortage of oxygen supply in the capital.

SIGAR said Afghanistan had likely entered a recession because of the pandemic, with the economy projected to shrink by up to 10 percent in 2020.

About one-third of the country’s estimated 32.2 million people were either in a crisis or an emergency state of food insecurity, it added.

“Experts predict that an additional eight million people will fall into poverty, pushing the poverty rate from 55 percent to 80 percent,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, attacks and violence have continued across the country.

On Thursday, at least 17 people were killed in a car bomb explosion in Logar province, hours before a three-day ceasefire was to begin in the country for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, officials said.

According to the United Nations, almost 1,300 civilians, including hundreds of children, have been killed in Afghanistan in the first six months of the year.

The Taliban has been running a bloody armed rebellion since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

In February, the United States and the armed group signed an agreement in Qatar’s capital, Doha, laying out plans for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the group.

The US-Taliban deal also paves the way for intra-Afghan peace talks, including an exchange of prisoners between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

On Friday, President Ashraf Ghani ordered the release of 500 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture in response to Taliban’s Eid al-Adha ceasefire.

During a televised speech, Ghani said he had now released 4,600 Taliban prisoners out of the 5,000 pledged in the Doha agreement

“The fate of the remaining prisoners will be discussed and finalised during the negotiations,” Ghani added.

Ghani and the Taliban have both signalled that peace talks could begin straight after Eid, and there are widespread calls for the warring parties to extend the ceasefire.

Coronavirus pushing millions of Afghans into poverty: SIGAR
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The U.S. must respond forcefully to Russia and the Taliban. Here’s how.

President Trump addresses U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, on Nov. 28, 2019.
President Trump addresses U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, on Nov. 28, 2019. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

In late 2017, when I was commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, an Afghan governor whom I knew well and trusted came to my headquarters in Kabul. He brought a small cache of weapons that he said had been provided to the Taliban by Russian operatives coming across the northern border from Tajikistan.

This marked a significant change from the pre-2014 days of cooperation with the Russians, when they facilitated our logistics through Central Asia. Unfortunately, support to the Taliban fit into what U.S. intelligence showed was a pattern of increasing Russian malign activity, which included cooperation with the Taliban and disinformation tactics aimed at undermining U.S. and NATO legitimacy, jeopardizing prospects for peace and endangering our troops.

Russia provided small arms, ammunition and money with the intention of sustaining the Taliban in the fight and gaining influence ahead of the anticipated withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. While this assistance did not significantly alter the tactical balance on the battlefield, it helped the Taliban inflict more casualties on Afghan security forces and increased the danger to their U.S. and coalition advisers.

I concluded at the time that the Russian assistance was calibrated. For instance, they refused to provide the Taliban with antiaircraft missiles. However, we recognized the potential for escalation and expanded efforts to monitor the Russian-Taliban collaboration and the growth of Russian activity in Central Asia.

These provocations continued throughout my tour as commander, which ended in September 2018. Still, I was somewhat surprised to read articles describing Russian involvement in paying bounties to the Taliban for killing Americans and our coalition partners because of the strategic risk it entails for Russia to be directly involved in targeting our troops.

If true, this would constitute both a reckless miscalculation and a major mistake by the Russians and the Taliban. History shows that such mistakes and miscalculations often lead to war. And, of course, the consequences of a conflict between Russia and the United States, both nuclear superpowers, could be catastrophic for the planet.

If U.S. intelligence agencies determine that Russia put bounties on American and coalition lives, we must respond forcefully, publicly and in ways that will drive home to the Russians and the Taliban that there is a price to pay for these actions.

Our response should be clear, unequivocal and coordinated with our NATO allies and other coalition partners in Afghanistan. Without such direct, unambiguous communication, there could be further dangerous Russian miscalculations.

First, the highest levels of the U.S. government and NATO should condemn these actions in language strong enough that the Russians understand that they are unacceptable and undermine any chance of improving relations and cooperating on areas of mutual interest.

Second, the United States should suspend the proposed withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany. These reductions play into Russian desires to undermine, weaken and divide NATO. If withdrawals are carried out despite these reported bounties, Russia will view this as a sign of American weakness in the face of Russian threats. Moscow will undoubtedly be tempted to test our resolve in other ways.

Third, the United States should pause further troop withdrawals from Afghanistan until the Taliban meet the conditions stipulated in the peace agreement. We have delivered on our part of the accord by drawing down U.S. force levels to 8,600 troops ahead of schedule. The Taliban must deliver on its promises, including severing ties with al-Qaeda, beginning peace negotiations with the Afghan government and sustaining a reduction in violence.

Our long war in Afghanistan will have an enduring end only if agreement is reached at the peace table. The current peace process rests on a foundation of hard-fought gains by Afghan security forces, with the support of the United States and our coalition partners. In recent months, each time progress is made at the table, it is met with increased violence on the ground by the Taliban, who are supported by Russia.

Russia’s alliance with the Taliban, while calibrated in the past, is designed to undermine the success of the U.S.-led peace process and to erode the will of the United States, NATO and the Afghan people. Our leaders have a moral responsibility to protect our service members who are fighting for an enduring peace in Afghanistan, to honor the sacrifices of the brave Americans, coalition partners and Afghans who came before them, and to reduce the potential for further miscalculations and mistakes that could lead to war.

The U.S. must respond forcefully to Russia and the Taliban. Here’s how.
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U.S., Russian interests overlap in Afghanistan. So, why offer bounties to the Taliban?

Members of a Taliban Red Unit, an elite force, in the Alingar District of Laghman Province in Afghanistan, March 13, 2020. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Members of a Taliban Red Unit, an elite force, in the Alingar District of Laghman Province in Afghanistan, March 13, 2020. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

How does the Russia’s bounty scheme advance its interests in Afghanistan?

Russia has several reasons for providing tactical-level support to the Taliban. The first is simply the irresistible temptation to make life more difficult for the United States and NATO allies at relatively little cost, similar to some of the asymmetric tactics Moscow is using to challenge Washington in other conflicts.

Relatedly, an embarrassing Taliban defeat of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan would provide some in Moscow with a feel-good sense of revenge for the U.S. support to mujahedeen groups in the 1980s that led to the humiliating defeat and withdrawal of Soviet forces—and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Such a loss would also seriously damage the United States reputation and influence in the region and could also test the NATO alliance and its willingness to engage in any future out-of-area operations. Both would be big wins for Russia.

Russia’s tactical support to some Taliban commanders is because they view the Taliban as the lesser of two evils in comparison to the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan (known as Islamic State Khorasan [ISK]). Reports during the past few years of Russian support for Taliban commanders primarily in northern Afghanistan coincided with the expansion of ISK influence into the north, along with reports of strengthening links between the Islamic State and Central Asian extremist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Russia’s initial support for the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, therefore, was primarily to enable Taliban commanders to fight ISK and the IMU, and to prevent the spread of their influence into Central Asia, rather than to attack Afghan and international forces.

How does this relate to Afghanistan’s potential post-conflict political future?

Russia is following closely the Afghan peace process and is making its own calculations about how it will turn out. It is likely providing some limited tactical-level support to the Taliban as a hedging strategy, especially as the Taliban gain ground militarily on the battlefield, diplomatically at the negotiating table in Doha, and as the United States has been clear about its desire to significantly reduce or withdraw its forces. The Russians calculate that having closer ties with the Taliban makes sense given the likelihood they’re going to play an increasingly important role in Afghanistan’s future political dispensation.

The Russians don’t want the United States to stay in the region forever, but they also don’t want such a quick departure that leads to the Afghan state collapsing and a return to the civil war and anarchy of the 1980s and early 1990s. This helps explain why Russian support for the Taliban has been more tactical in nature than strategic.

Russian support for the Taliban does not mean the Russians want to see the Taliban completely victorious in Afghanistan. They would prefer an end state not that different from what the United States desires—a political settlement that leads to the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, but leaves behind a relatively stable and ethnically inclusive government that can ensure Afghanistan doesn’t again become a safe haven for transnational terrorist groups. The biggest losers—apart from Afghans—of a collapse of the Afghan state following a hasty departure of U.S. and NATO forces, and a return to the anarchy of the early 1990s, would be Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Russia and the strategically sensitive states of Central Asia.

What is the Taliban’s motivation for doing this amid negotiations with the United States?

One has to approach this question with a bit of caution because the intelligence is still not very clear— and it’s still not completely understood when exactly the alleged bounties were provided. Up until the United States and the Taliban reached an agreement on February 29 this year, the Taliban were actively targeting U.S. troops. Because U.S. troops are no longer in a combat role and there are far fewer of them, U.S. casualties have been significantly reduced.

Nonetheless, the Taliban killing of a U.S. serviceman in September of last year was used by President Trump to temporarily pull out of the negotiations with the Taliban. Up until the end of February, however, it is conceivable that the Taliban might have taken money from Russia or other countries to target Americans as that was a central part of its strategy anyway. Now the test is whether they honor their February 29 commitment to no longer target American or international forces, whoever is paying them.

If the intelligence reports of bounties are confirmed, and if they are still being paid, the question is less why the Taliban has accepted them, and more why the Russians are paying the Taliban to do something that they have agreed not to do, which could end up scuttling an agreement that gives them their foremost demand: the withdrawal of U.S. troops, which is also what Russia ultimately wants.

U.S., Russian interests overlap in Afghanistan. So, why offer bounties to the Taliban?
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Don’t Let Russian Meddling Derail Afghanistan Withdrawal Plans

Editorial Board
The New York Times
7 July 2020

Allegations of bounties paid for the deaths of U.S. soldiers are serious. But the White House ought to stay the course toward a peace deal.

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.

American soldiers in Wardak Province in Afghanistan last year.
Credit…Thomas Watkins/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There’s a lot still missing from the reports that Russia paid for attacks on American and other coalition forces in Afghanistan. That’s why it’s critical that emotions and politics be kept at bay until the facts are in. Some important context might come from a hearing on the matter by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday, even though Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, has declined to attend.

The charges are explosive, and the public — especially the families of fallen soldiers — deserves some honest answers. The reports in The Times and other news media cite intelligence findings that a Russian military intelligence unit rewarded fighters linked to the Taliban for targeting American troops, possibly disbursing money through a shadowy Afghan middleman named Rahmatullah Azizi. The findings are said to have been relayed to the White House in a regular intelligence briefing that President Trump says he never saw.

The logical next step for the president should have been to acknowledge the gravity of the allegations and demand a full report. Instead, Mr. Trump dismissed the story in a tweet as “just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” even as he acknowledged that the information was contained in intelligence reports. Inevitably, the response resurrected speculation about Mr. Trump’s unexplained affinity for Vladimir Putin, most recently displayed in attempts to include the Russian leader in a meeting of the Group of 7.

Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, said this month that the Justice Department was considering an investigation into whomever may have leaked the information.

The Trump administration’s response to this story raises critical questions about whether it is focusing sufficient attention on the plight of American soldiers deployed far from their homeland and on dangerous ground. John Bolton’s new book about his time as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser is only the latest depiction of a president incapable of absorbing policy briefings.

But this issue is not solely a question of Mr. Trump’s competence. From the various news accounts, others in the White House and Congress were also apparently advised of the claims, yet no one reacted until the allegations were made public in The Times.

Then there’s the question of the motives behind the leaks and the solidity of the information. The Wall Street Journal, for one, reported that the National Security Agency — which specializes in electronic espionage — strongly dissented from other intelligence agencies over the strength of the intelligence. For agencies to differ in their assessments of intelligence is not unusual in the business of espionage, which by its nature often deals in circumstantial evidence. What the differences were in this case is not known, but they probably account for Mr. Trump’s claim that the intelligence did not reach him because it “didn’t rise to that level.”

Other questions abound: When did the reported payments begin? Were they payback for American support of Afghan militants against Soviet troops there in the 1980s, or something else? Were the payments a factor in the deaths of any American or other coalition troops? Was the intelligence tweaked by people seeking to hinder efforts to withdraw American troops?

Coalition forces suffered a spate of casualties in Afghanistan last summer and early fall, but there have been only a few deaths since. Four Americans were killed by hostile fire incidents early this year, but the Taliban has not attacked American positions since it signed an agreement with the United States in late February. (Five other Americans died this year in nonhostile accidents or crashes.) A spokesman for the Taliban said the reports of any deal with Russian intelligence agencies were “baseless.” Russian officials have said they’ll respond if and when they hear concrete accusations.

Mr. Pompeo has declined to comment on the specifics of the intelligence reports of bounties, but he noted in a recent interview that Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan was nothing new and was regularly raised with Russian officials. “There are many folks using the Taliban or who have used the Taliban over years and years and years as proxy forces,” he said, noting that Iran and Pakistan have also provided aid to the Taliban over the years.

Afghanistan is a forbidding country that has repeatedly confounded invaders. There is no question that the war there has been rife with atrocities, shifting alliances and dubious sources of funds and arms. Mr. Trump is right to try to pull Americans out after more than two decades of inconclusive fighting.

Yet the public anger aroused by the bounties story will not go away by claiming “hoax,” or dismissing the payments as collateral damage of a dirty war. Legislators from both parties are already demanding explanations, and the House Armed Services Committee voted by a large bipartisan majority for an amendment to the defense bill to make any further withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan contingent on an assessment of whether any country has offered incentives for the Taliban to attack American and other coalition troops.

It is unfortunate to connect the issue of possible Russian payoffs with the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The administration ought to provide more information to lawmakers, which is why it was a missed opportunity for Mr. Pompeo to decline to attend the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

But whatever those investigations reveal, the war in Afghanistan needs to be brought to an end. Mr. Putin’s intelligence services shouldn’t get a say in what is in the best interests of the United States.

The threat to Mr. Trump’s withdrawal deal alone should encourage the president to get to the bottom of the issue, and if necessary to confront Russia with the numerous tools of statecraft at his disposal.

Don’t Let Russian Meddling Derail Afghanistan Withdrawal Plans
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Both Medicine and Poison: The Paradox of Support to Afghanistan

By Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network
Tolo News
15 June 2020

Why, after almost two decades of massive international aid, are greater numbers of Afghans living in poverty than in the aftermath of the Taliban’s fall? Why has the vision of Afghanistan laid out in the 2001 Bonn Agreement and 2004 Constitution of a multi-ethnic, fully representative, democratic government failed in practice?

One answer lies in the international support itself, the billions of dollars in foreign cash that has flowed into Afghanistan since 2001. This is not just Official Development Aid (ODA), but also the far larger sums spent by the foreign armies – on transport and supplies, guards, translators and other support staff and rent for bases.

Such money is classed by economists as ‘rent’ because, like the money received by landlords, it is not a reward for work or effort. States which depend on such income are known as ‘rentier states’. They are rarely democratic and are typically marked by poorly performing economies and inequality – poverty for most and extreme wealth for the elite.

The reason rent hampers democracy is that if a state can pay for salaries and services with foreign income, it has no need to tax its citizens – or answer to them. It also has little financial incentive to foster growth, or strengthen the legal infrastructure – rule of law, property rights – that support market economies and domestic production, and human rights.

The historic link between tax and demands for representation is well known. The opposite is also true; untaxed citizens rarely organize for their democratic rights. In rentier states, it makes more sense for the individual trying to get a job or a contract or changing government policy to find someone to lobby for them, rather than organizing with others in a similar position for change.

By contrast, the foreign countries or companies controlling the source of the ‘rent’ – the billions in funds – tend to have more influence over the government than citizens do.

These dynamics have dogged Afghanistan over the last two decades, from failed attempts to build institutions that can truly hold those in power to account, to the huge influence of foreign players over policy on everything from agriculture, the economy and counter-narcotics to war and peace. For many years, for example, the United States refused to countenance talks with the Taliban; now it is insisting on them.

The lack of an organized political opposition is also seen. The major politicians join, leave and re-join government. The elite as a group is unchanged; for those who fall out of favor now there is usually the possibility of return later. Rarely are there newcomers, unless they are the children – usually the sons – of those already with power.

The Afghan political and economic system, built on rent, is, unfortunately, immensely fragile. The National Unity Government did collect more customs revenues and taxes than Hamid Karzai’s administration did (although the really wealthy do not pay their way), but aid still funds three-quarters of the current government budget, according to World Bank figures.

Aid and foreign military spending have also underpinned the economy. Growth in national income (Gross Domestic Product or GDP) and the rate of poverty have tracked the number of foreign troops deployed: growth rates have risen and poverty rates fallen when the number of soldiers surged. However, that ‘economic growth’ proved unsustainable because investment since 2001, reported the World Bank, has “focused around the aid-driven contract economy.” As ISAF gradually withdrew in the years up to 2014, more Afghans slid into poverty, until eventually the rate was worse than in 2003, with over a half of Afghans living in poverty and a third more on the brink.

At the same time, the capture of rent by the elite is absolutely evident, seen, for example, in money taken out of the country, and the purchase of luxury housing abroad.

The danger for Afghanistan now is that the foreign troops could be about to withdraw, and with them, international interest and aid. Since the United States’ February 29 agreement with the Taliban, four to five thousand American soldiers have left and five bases closed. The remaining 8,600 are due to leave in just under a year’s time (April 30, 2021), so long as the Taliban honor their rather vague anti-terrorism commitments.

President Donald Trump, with elections looming in November, reportedly wants to rush ahead with the withdrawal. “Bring our soldiers back home,” he recently tweeted. How necessary on-the-ground US and NATO military backing is for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in fighting the insurgency is debatable.

What is not at question is the dependence of the Afghan state and economy on foreign money.

Almost thirty years ago, in 1992 when Moscow was Kabul’s main supporter, it withdrew its funding. The government of Dr Najibullah collapsed and the state disintegrated, ushering in a fresh and bloody round of the civil war.

The current government is far more reliant on foreign sponsors than Dr Najib was: as Barnett Rubin has pointed out, he only received 26% of his budget from Russia, compared to the 75% today’s Afghan state gets from abroad.

Yet, repeatedly, when confronted with great danger to the nation, the major political players have focused on making appointments. In 2014, with the Taliban resurgent and the economy shrinking as ISAF withdrew, or today when its main international backer is cutting a deal with the insurgents, time has been spent deciding who gets jobs in the cabinet. Both of the political camps could argue they are trying to get the right people into position to get things done. From the outside, though, it looks like a sharing out of rent-seeking opportunities, while doing little to address the looming crises.

Dealing with the rentier state needs slow, painstaking reforms to ease the dependency on foreign income and root out corruption. Yet, many of those in government trying to, for example, ensure customs duties reach Kabul, or salaries and pensions are paid to real people and not ‘ghosts’, or that income from mines goes into the national coffers, speak privately about threats, including to their families, from those with vested interests. Swimming against the tide has been both exhausting and dangerous. Today, the time for reforms could be very short indeed.

It may be that intra-Afghan talks start and the Taliban leadership is serious about peace, rather than seeing negotiations as a means to remove their major enemy from the battlefield before they continue a fight for power. It may be that a good peace deal is forged and international support continues. This would leave all the problems associated with Afghanistan being a rentier state in place, but it would not be catastrophic.

But international interest could also disappear. Significantly, Trump recently broke the taboo of the last 20 years of American politics – that international jihadist violence poses a unique danger to the homeland. The coronavirus “attack,” he said, was “worse than Pearl Harbor … worse than the World Trade Center.”

Fear of al-Qaeda returning in strength to Afghan soil under a new Taliban government has kept the dollars flowing to Afghanistan for two decades.

A shift in US strategic thinking, that identified the biggest threat as coming from Russia, China or from disease, could see the cash dry up very abruptly. The consequences for the economy and the Republic would be grave indeed.

Both Medicine and Poison: The Paradox of Support to Afghanistan
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The unfulfilled promise and limitations of China’s involvement in Afghanistan

A BRI(dge) too far: The unfulfilled promise and limitations of China’s involvement in Afghanistan

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Brookings Institution


China’s focus on and presence in Afghanistan has grown significantly over the past decade. However, the original emphasis on economic relations has been eclipsed by China’s security agenda in Afghanistan, as China seeks to ensure that anti-Chinese militancy does not leak out from Afghanistan and that Uighur militants do not receive support from the Taliban. While China does seek a stable Afghanistan and would prefer a government not dominated by the Taliban, it has made its peace with the group under the assumptions that the United States and the Afghan government will not be able to resolutely defeat it and that the Taliban will either control substantial Afghan territory or formally come to power. Much to the disappointment of the Afghan government, China has not chosen to pressure Pakistan to sever its long-standing support for the Taliban. China’s economic investments in Afghanistan also remain significantly below potential due to intensifying insecurity and persisting corruption in the country and the diminishment of China’s economic focus.

Increasingly, China also views Afghanistan through a geopolitical competition perspective, particularly with respect to India. As the United States reduces its role in Afghanistan, possibly down to zero U.S. military forces, China’s role in the country may rise — a development which is unlikely to advance U.S. interests, and may hamper them. While China cannot easily negate U.S. counterterrorism objectives in Afghanistan and the region, it also cannot be relied upon to help the U.S. to prosecute them. Moreover, China may hamper some of the other U.S. interests in Afghanistan — specifically, pluralistic political and economic processes, and human rights and women’s rights. A reduction of U.S. presence in Afghanistan will limit the U.S. capacity to promote these interests, but even without a military presence, the United States can seek to prosecute them through diplomatic and political leverage.

However, competition with China has not been and should not be the basis of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

The unfulfilled promise and limitations of China’s involvement in Afghanistan
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The Cost of Support to Afghanistan: New special report considers the causes of inequality, poverty and a failing democracy

A new AAN special report looks at why the political vision of the 2002 Bonn Agreement and 2004 constitution with its promises of a representative democracy has failed to materialise. It finds answers in the huge levels of unearned foreign income that has flowed into Afghanistan since 2001, both aid and the money spent by foreign forces. This income has funded the government and been a major element of national income (GDP) for the last 18 years. Yet, as this report explores, it has sabotaged democracy and undermined the domestic economy. The report’s author, Kate Clark, here looks at why this topic is so important now, given the possibility that the income on which the Afghan state depends may dry up.
A young rubbish collector looks on from a landfill in Herat. While some Afghans have become spectacularly wealthy from the rentier state, most have seen enduring poverty. Photo: Aref Karimi AFP, 2012

When President Donald Trump said on 7 May that the Covid-19 “attack” was worse than the 9/11 attacks, he broke a taboo, and with it, the consensus that has held since 2001 that Islamist terrorism is the major threat to America. (1) That view has underlain US policy towards Afghanistan ever since, with its “fundamental objective of… preventing any further attacks on the United States by terrorists enjoying safe haven or support in Afghanistan.” Trump has also said this month that he wants to withdraw all US troops, possibly before November when he comes up for re-election. “We are acting as a police force,” he tweeted on 27 May, “not the fighting force that we are, in Afghanistan. After 19 years, it is time for them to police their own Country. Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary!”
There has been uncertainty about the intentions of Kabul’s major backer for many months, especially since the United States began talking to the Taleban and even more so after the two parties signed an agreement which promised at least the partial withdrawal of US troops. That deal rests on Taleban intentions being honest, that they want to negotiate and are not actually interested in manoeuvring to get their main enemy, the US military, off the battlefield and out of Afghanistan, leaving Kabul vulnerable to capture. It also rests on the honest intentions of the Kabul administration, which has, so far, not shown itself to be especially enthusiastic for the US ‘peace process’. Washington appears to have no Plan B if intra-Afghan talks do not begin, or if they fail to result in a negotiated end to the war.

It may transpire that talks prosper and a peace deal ensues. International aid and interest in Afghanistan may continue. The alternative is also possible, that in re-evaluating its national interests, Washington decides it is actually China, Russia, or coronavirus – or all three – that is the major threat. The possible re-establishment of al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, either on the back of a Taleban return to power or renewed civil war, could suddenly seem less vital to Washington, and the fate of Afghanistan of little importance. If that were the case, the political system and economy built up since the Taleban lost power in 2001 would suddenly appear very fragile indeed.

AAN’s new special report, published today, looks at that system and considers why it is so fragile. It examines how the colossal amounts of aid and spending by foreign armies deployed to Afghanistan have actually sabotaged the democratic vision outlined in the Bonn Agreement of 2002 and the 2004 constitution, and undermined the economy.

When unearned foreign income, known by economists as ‘rent’, becomes a large proportion of government revenues and national income (GDP) – more than about 40 per cent – the country is known as a ‘rentier state’. In Afghanistan’s case, the rent has been far higher than 40 per cent. The negative consequences for citizens are well-known and well-researched. Rent gives a government financial autonomy from its citizens. It does not need to tax them and, as Giacomo Luciani, one of the first to study the rentier state, has written, taxation is fundamental to citizens demanding representation:

It is a fact that whenever the state essentially relies on taxation the question of democracy becomes an unavoidable issue, and a strong current in favour of democracy inevitably arises.

The opposite is also the case: if a state is not democratic before rent accrues, democracy rarely fails to take root. A citizen out of work, or wanting better services, or to change government policy is best served not by joining others in a similar position to demand change, but by appealing to someone with better access to rent. In Afghanistan, that will typically be someone from the same clan, tribe or ethnicity, or other people with whom one has established close ties. Organised political opposition and citizens’ demands for representation and accountability tend to be feeble in rentier states. The foreign companies or states controlling the rent often have more clout than citizens do over their own governments. Given there is no need for domestic production to tax, rentier states also rarely develop the institutions which help a market economy to flourish, especially rule of law and property rights. All of these characteristics of a rentier state can be seen in Afghanistan.

I cannot say I foresaw all this in 2002 when, after witnessing the fall of the Taleban, aid started to pour into Afghanistan. However, I was deeply troubled by the scale of the assistance. (2) It was not just the sudden waste, duplication of effort, and the incompetence and ignorance of many of those newly arriving in Afghanistan to ‘rebuild’ it. Rather, my unease stemmed from the feeling that the ‘house’ was being built on sand. The foundations were the priority and that meant first having a secure and fair country. I felt this because Afghans’ main concern at the time was security, stemming largely from the arrival of commanders, armed by the US to topple the Taleban, in their areas. These men captured territory and state positions off the back of the intervention, becoming the new provincial and district governors, police chiefs and ministers. Most were familiar faces from the brutal civil war era.

I felt Afghans did not need help re-building their economy or services; they were capable of that themselves. Dealing with the power grab by the commanders was a different matter. However, international support to the new state and its new officials actually ensured that those to whom rent had first accrued stayed in power. The ‘commander class’, with their continuing access to foreign rents through their positions in government, would become the core of the new post-2001 elite. Others benefitting from the new rentier economy were ‘technocratic’ civilians, many of whom went from the aid sector into government.

Yet, looking back, it is clear that the high amounts of rent would have made the development of democracy unlikely, whoever had captured power in 2001, whether military or civilian, one person or, in Afghanistan’s case, many.

It is also evident that the huge levels of aid and military spending only undermined the economy and attempts at development. The rents strengthened the afghani, sucking in cheap imports and pricing exports out of the market. Apart from opiates, a sector which only illegality gives a comparative advantage to domestic production in Afghanistan has remained weak and uncompetitive. Imports still consistently far exceed exports: 7,407 million dollars’ worth of imports in 2018, compared to 825 million dollars in exports, with, the World Bank wrote, “aid flows almost entirely financing the widening trade deficit.”

There has been economic growth, but it was illusory and unsustainable because it was based on rent. Growth has tracked rent, rising when aid, and especially spending by foreign armies rose and falling when those income streams fell. Most Afghans have seen deepening poverty again, although those able to access the rent have become fabulously wealthy.

In 2020, along with the coronavirus, a confident Taleban and the threat of US withdrawal and a falling off of international aid and interest in Afghanistan, the major politicians came together not to deal with those issues, but to negotiate the sharing of power. The deal between President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah focussed on appointments. From a rentier state theory perspective, it looked like a deal to share rent-seeking opportunities. There has been no apparent sense of urgency among the elite that the rent, which sustains the Afghan state and their positions in it, could dry up.

Yet Afghanistan has its own recent, bloody example of what can happen. When Russia cut funding to the Najibullah government in 1992, the state collapsed and a new bitter round of civil war broke out. Afghanistan’s continuing dependence on rent is what makes the possibility that Trump could order a withdrawal of troops and cut in aid so perilous.

(1) Only sources not given in the report are provided here.

(2) I have described reporting on the 2002 Tokyo aid-pledging conference as the most difficult story I had ever covered, the point when I “finally understood how confined and smashed a writer can feel when trying to report contrary to the hegemonic discourse.”


The Cost of Support to Afghanistan: New special report considers the causes of inequality, poverty and a failing democracy
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How the US and Afghanistan can jump-start talks with the Taliban

Reduction in violence is a key prerequisite for the Afghan government and the Taliban to sit at the negotiating table.


Al Jazeera
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 25, 2019 [File: Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin]
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 25, 2019 [File: Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin]

It also delivered a big boost to a US-Afghanistan relationship that had been in a precarious state because of diverging positions on a floundering peace process. With the relationship now on a more level footing, Washington is in a better position to work with Kabul to help launch peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban – a core but elusive US goal.

A horrific May 12 attack on a maternity ward in a Kabul hospital had exposed a growing disconnect in US-Afghanistan relations.

For Afghans, the attack was the last straw following a surge in militant violence in previous weeks, with much of their anger directed at the Taliban. National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib tweeted that if the Taliban “cannot control the violence … there seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks’.” President Ashraf Ghani announced Afghan forces were shifting from a defensive to an offensive position against the Taliban. And Kabul suggested the Taliban was complicit in the attack.

Washington reacted very differently. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “the ongoing peace process continues to present a critical opportunity for Afghans to come together” to combat terror. Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation, tweeted that there could be “no more excuses” for not pursuing talks. Washington blamed ISIL (ISIS) for the attack, and called on the Taliban and the Afghan government to work together to track down the perpetrators.

In effect, Washington was urging Kabul to redouble efforts to pursue a peace process that the Afghan government had temporarily put on hold. By May 19, fighting was reported in 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

It is easy to understand what drove this disconnect. The US government badly wants Afghanistan to start a peace process that a US-Taliban agreement – signed nearly three months ago – was meant to set in motion. Two factors account for Washington’s urgency. One is a desire to ensure Afghanistan does not squander its best opportunity yet to end a nearly 19-year war. The other is US politics.

It is an election year, and the Trump administration is committed to bringing troops home. It is easier for President Donald Trump to depict the withdrawal as an honourable exit – and harder for his rivals to denounce it as an abject surrender – if peace talks are happening as American soldiers head for the exits.

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, speaking on the day of the hospital attack, bluntly expressed Washington’s thinking: “It’s now time for the Afghan people to get together to enter into a meaningful peace process and it’s time for America to come home.”

Washington’s you-need-to-make-peace-and-we-need-to-leave message came across as tone-deaf in a nation in no mood to sit down with violent actors so long as militants continued to perpetrate violence – including attacks on two mosques on May 19 – that had surged since the signing of the US-Taliban deal.

The accord – concluded after months of negotiations that excluded Kabul – does not require the Taliban to reduce violence.

The risk of a diplomatic crisis is real, thereby jeopardising the sensitive diplomacy that Washington must undertake with Kabul to help guide it towards peace talks.

The Eid ceasefire, however, restored some stability to the US-Afghanistan relationship. Kabul’s reciprocation of the Taliban’s unilateral truce proves it is prepared to step off the battlefield – Washington’s fervent preference – under the right circumstances.

The truce also underscores Kabul’s underlying position: We are ready for peace if the other side shows it is ready for peace. Indeed, a Taliban commitment to reduce violence – similar to the one it made with US negotiators prior to signing the deal with Washington – would likely bring Kabul to the negotiating table. In fact, Ghani’s decision to resume offensives against the Taliban earlier this month may have been meant in part to pressure the insurgents into making such a commitment.

To this end, it is time for Washington and Kabul to undertake a full-court press to compel the insurgents to agree to a longer ceasefire or reduction in violence.

It is an admittedly ambitious task, given the leverage the insurgents derive from deploying violence, but it is essential to do it.

The Afghan government has already done its part. On May 17, Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, signed a power-sharing deal. It ended a spat that had precluded the launch of peace talks. Kabul has also agreed to release Taliban prisoners – including 2,000 following the Taliban’s Eid ceasefire announcement – which was part of the US-Taliban deal.

It is now time for the Taliban to make a major concession.

Washington and Kabul should pull out all the stops to compel the Taliban to commit to lessen or pause its violence. They should partner on a broad global outreach effort that leverages each of their diplomatic comparative advantages. Washington should draw on its cordial ties with Riyadh and Islamabad to get these two key Taliban influencers to apply pressure on the insurgents.

Kabul should press Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran – bitter rivals of Washington that have nonetheless partnered with both Kabul and the Taliban to help advance peace and reconciliation – to do the same.

Meanwhile, Washington should threaten to halt any further troop withdrawals, beyond the initial roughly 4,000 called for in its agreement with the Taliban, until the insurgents agree to curb violence.

Getting the Taliban to agree to the violence-reduction demand is arguably the only thing now preventing the start of talks. It is time for Washington and Kabul, now on the same page after the Eid truce, to make it happen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

How the US and Afghanistan can jump-start talks with the Taliban
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Peace in Afghanistan

Ending the Afghanistan War Responsibly

May 18, 2020

n February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement paving a path for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. A full military withdrawal is necessary and should proceed without delay. To end the war responsibly, however, the exit of troops must be paired with steps to minimize any further harm to the people of Afghanistan.

Peace in Afghanistan: Ending the War ResponsiblyTeaching children about numbers using toys. Herat, Afghanistan. Ghullam Abbas Farzami / World Bank

After nearly twenty years of war and numerous lost opportunities for peacemaking, the U.S.-Taliban deal is now the only viable option before us. It comes at a time when the novel coronavirus is sweeping the world, with uncertain implications for regional security and a high potential for a humanitarian nightmare. Moving forward, we must commit to making this deal successful by combining it with diplomatic efforts and assistance packages that will improve the prospects for real peace and security. At the same time, we must recognize that there are limits to U.S. ability to control the outcomes, with or without the application of military power.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) is a national nonpartisan Quaker organization that lobbies Congress for peace, justice, and environmental stewardship. We seek a world free of war and the threat of war, conducting research, analysis, education, and advocacy to address the root causes of violence and injustice. In this spirit, FCNL has developed a series of recommendations and accompanying issue briefs informed by expert interviews with individuals who have worked in Afghanistan as diplomats, members of the armed services, civil society representatives, and aid workers. While developments on the ground continue to shift rapidly—perhaps even by the hour—we recommend four core steps to steer U.S. policy on the path to peace:

Issue Brief #1: Support full military withdrawal from Afghanistan

There is no military solution to the problems in Afghanistan. Members of Congress must oppose any legislation that would impede full military withdrawal and should reject the false premises that led us to invade and occupy Afghanistan in the first place.

Issue Brief #2: Ramp up bilateral and multilateral diplomatic efforts

The United States still has an outsize role to play in supporting intra-Afghan talks and engaging other regional actors diplomatically in order to improve the chances for a stable peace.

Issue Brief #3: Support long-term Afghan-led solutions

Military withdrawal need not mean abandonment of the people of Afghanistan. On the contrary, the United States should continue to provide carefully calibrated economic, development, peacebuilding, and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan that includes oversight and accountability.

Issue Brief #4: Oppose continued militarized counterterrorism in Afghanistan

We must acknowledge that military counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and around the world have only exacerbated the root causes of terrorism. Instead, Congress should put the challenge of terrorism in its proper perspective, reject calls to maintain a residual counterterrorism military force in Afghanistan, and invest and properly resource crucial non-military tools to reduce the power and reach of terror networks.

Frequently Asked Questions

FCNL has provided our responses to commonly raised questions regarding military withdrawal from Afghanistan.


This report was written for FCNL by Elizabeth Beavers, with assistance from Diana Ohlbaum, Shukria Dellawar, and Don Chen.

Peace in Afghanistan
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