A Remote Corner of Afghanistan Offers a Peek Into the Future of the Country

By Franz J. Marty

The Diplomat

October 19, 2021

In Kamdesh, Nuristan, where U.S. forces withdrew more than a decade ago, the American presence is a distant – and negative – memory for many locals.

KAMDESH, NURISTAN — In the dead of night on August 30, 2021, the last U.S. forces stepped off the tarmac of Kabul Airport onto a plane and left Afghanistan. It was almost 20 years after the first U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to go after al-Qaida and topple the Emirate of the Taliban that sheltered them. In a twist that would have been unimaginable back in late 2001, by the time the U.S. left the Taliban again held sway in the capital Kabul and practically in the whole of Afghanistan – a feat that they did not even achieve at the prior height of their power in September 2001.

What the future holds for Afghanistan is difficult to predict and depends on what exactly the Taliban and the international community will do in the next weeks and months. However, the situation in one remote corner of Afghanistan offers a peek into the future of the whole country.

Where the U.S. Left Long Ago

While the final departure of U.S. forces literally happened overnight, and without any fanfare or even a clear announcement, the full U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan was a long goodbye. Some provinces and outposts were already abandoned years ago, like Combat Outpost Keating in Kamdesh, a district in the eastern Afghan province of Nuristan, which was vacated by U.S. forces over a decade ago, in 2009.

In several aspects, Kamdesh epitomizes the whole U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Going to Afghanistan meant going to one of the most remote parts of the world and going to Kamdesh meant going to one of the most remote spots in Afghanistan. U.S. soldiers called Kamdesh “the dark side of the moon,” and Keating was arguably the most remote outpost in the whole U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. And while the mission in Kamdesh and the larger Nuristan-Kunar region was initially to hunt down al-Qaida and their allies, it turned, over time, into something that no one could exactly describe. Indeed, a U.S. military investigation into the final days of Combat Outpost Keating concluded that “the mission devolved into one of base defense and by mid-2009 there was no tactical or strategic value to holding the ground occupied by COP Keating.” Although focusing on other valleys in Kunar and Nuristan, this devolving of the mission is excellently dissected in Wesley Morgan’s book The Hardest Place.

In any event, as the United States had no clear objective in Kamdesh anymore, Combat Outpost Keating had already been earmarked to be abandoned by the summer of 2009. However, logistical reasons delayed giving up Keating – and provided the Taliban with an opportunity. On October 3, 2009, an estimated 300 Taliban fighters launched a full-blown attack against Keating and, temporarily, even breached its perimeter. U.S. soldiers manning Keating, with heavy air support, eventually managed to repel the Taliban. However, with eight U.S. soldiers killed and 22 more wounded as well as over 150 Taliban casualties, it was one of the bloodiest U.S.-Taliban battles of the whole U.S. war in Afghanistan and became the subject of books (see e.g. here and here) as well as the movie “The Outpost.”

In spite of the heavy casualties the Taliban suffered, when U.S. forces abandoned Keating soon after the Battle of Kamdesh, the Taliban were again in control of almost all of Kamdesh and felt victorious – a feeling now echoing through the whole of the country, and still persistent in Kamdesh.

The U.S. Legacy

Although the United States deployed troops to Kamdesh at least once more, for a very short stint in 2012, U.S. involvement in the district practically ceased to exist there more than a decade ago, meaning that what is playing out in the whole country now already happened years ago in Kamdesh.

By now, barely anything of the prior U.S. involvement remains in Kamdesh. Indeed, when The Diplomat visited the site of Combat Outpost Keating in early August 2021, the few shells of Soviet armored personnel carriers left rusting there for over three decades were more prominent than anything the Americans left behind. The former Combat Outpost Keating was practically invisible. What the U.S. bombardment that followed the U.S. withdrawal from Keating did not destroy back in 2009 is now overgrown by ferns and bushes whose leaves quietly rustle in the wind. The small peninsula protruding into the white water of the Landay Sin River, where once U.S. resupply helicopters landed, is now covered in small trees.

And while one might assume that the sturdy beton bridge spanning a tributary to the Landay Sin River, connecting the place of the former combat outpost with the former helicopter landing zone, was constructed by the Americans, this is not the case. “The bridge was built during the [first] Taliban era [before September 2001] by a non-governmental organization,” explained Mawlawi Abdul Reza, a teacher at a madrassa, a religious school, who hails from Ormor, the village only a stone’s throw away from what was once Keating. Another resident of Kamdesh confirmed this.

“The Americans built nothing here; only their base which they later destroyed,” Reza added with scorn in his voice.

The latter is not entirely true, as several other solid cement bridges – one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in valleys cut through by fast flowing mountain rivers – were built in the early 2000s with U.S. aid. “Since these bridges in the early 2000s, there have been no development projects at all here,” Obaid Rahmon, a resident of Kamdesh, told The Diplomat. This is not hard to believe. Roads in the district remain unpaved and bumpy, winding through difficult terrain. Basic clinics are far and few between, and the ones that exist and are open are regularly short of doctors and medicine.

In 2020, the then-government of Afghanistan, which was largely funded by the U.S., started to build several schools in Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal, the district located upstream from Kamdesh, as Rahmon acknowledged. However, the school building that The Diplomat visited in early August 2021 remained an empty, unfinished shell and with the current uncertainties it is questionable when, if ever, it will be completed.

According to residents of Kamdesh, other promised development projects never materialized. “The Americans said they would construct a pipe system for drinking water for our village, but they never did,” Abdul Jalil an old school teacher from Ormor, told The Diplomat. “Back when the Americans where here, there were jobs here and a lot of money, but no security,” Jalil and other men from Ormor said, sitting on a wooden bench surrounded by the steep slopes peppered with small trees from which the Taliban used to regularly attack the Americans in Keating.

The Diplomat has heard similar feelings – disappointment over lack of basic developments and complaints about insecurity – in many other places across Afghanistan during the past months and years. Based on that trend, it seems likely that little of the existing U.S. investments in Afghanistan will be remembered in a few years from now.

An Elusive Peace?

“With the Americans gone, the money stopped and nothing was left behind; but the security problems continued,” Jalil added, which was seconded by the others. Given that the forces of the now toppled Afghan Republic did not vacate Kamdesh along with U.S. forces, clashes between the Republican forces and the Taliban continued in Kamdesh until the complete fall of the district in early August 2021. However, when the men from Ormor mentioned their concern regarding insecurity, they were not only referring to clashes between Republican and Taliban forces in the past.

“In the past 11 years, a total of 40 houses were burnt down in Ormor. The last incident only took place 15 days ago [in late July 2021],” Jalil stated. “No one knows who is behind these incidents and why they burn down the houses,” the residents of Ormor claimed.

“The U.S. presence here has split the local people,” one man from Ormor said, “and this split exists still now, long after the U.S. left.” While his comment implied that such a split is the reason for the numerous acts of arson in Ormor, in a country like Afghanistan where longstanding violent personal, clan, or tribal enmities are frequent, there are many alternative potential explanations. Either way, there are no indications that these arson attacks will stop now after the full Taliban takeover.

That said, not everyone is concerned about the security situation in Kamdesh. To the contrary, other people who live in parts of Kamdesh that have been de facto controlled by the Taliban for a decade stated that their villages are safe and that they don’t face any security issues. In view of this, the victory of the Taliban across the country will mean security in certain, maybe even many, parts of the country, but a complete end of violent acts will likely remain elusive.

Locals’ Problems With the Taliban

There are people in Kamdesh that are not too happy with the Taliban. Some people in Kamdesh contrasted the existence of job opportunities and money when Americans were around with the economic hardship they face under the Taliban.

“The extreme inflation of prices for common goods is all the Taliban’s fault,” one man with a short-cropped black beard and a pakool, the region’s traditional round felt hat, exclaimed. Given that the price hike in Kamdesh in August 2021 was mainly caused by the fact that a historic flash flood cut the only road into the district from lower Kamdesh, which disrupted supplies for the rest of Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal, this criticism was to some extent unfair. However, as examples from other areas that have been long under Taliban control show, a contracting economy and the lack of job opportunities are indeed frequently heard problems of life under Taliban rule and are now also reported countrywide.

The fact that the Taliban apparently only have limited financial resources was corroborated during the response to the flood in Kamdesh. “Some aid arrived from non-governmental organizations, but nothing from the Taliban,” a victim of the flood in the village of Mirdesh in lower Kamdesh told The Diplomat.

Other residents of Mirdesh mentioned that the Taliban had promised to help the flood victims with “5 million,” but this money had, at least as of mid-August, never arrived and it was not even clear whether the Taliban meant 5 million afghanis or Pakistani rupees. (The use of Pakistani currency is, despite an official ban, still common in a few border areas of Afghanistan.) A Taliban official was even inviting NGOs to help, while remaining silent on what the Taliban themselves would do to respond to the emergency.

Some residents of Kamdesh also complained about intrusive Taliban laws. Apart from the little island of the district center that was, until early August 2021, controlled by the former Republic, the Taliban have prohibited TVs, smoking, and music for over a decade in Kamdesh.

“While smoking and music are in theory outlawed, some Taliban smoke themselves and I and others listen openly to music without the Taliban interfering,” a resident from Kamdesh qualified this.

“However, with TVs and satellite dishes they are strict. I have asked several times to be allowed to have a satellite dish to get satellite-based WiFi, but they don’t let me,” the man added. “And this is despite the fact that the Taliban themselves regularly use the satellite-based WiFi of a shopkeeper in the center of Barg-e Matal,” which was until early August under the control of the former Republic.

This shows that Afghans are – contrary to Taliban claims – not living blissfully under Taliban rule. Given that residents of Kamdesh have been living under the Taliban for over 10 years, their voices show that complains and worries about the economy are not mere transitional issues.

The district center of Kamdesh, Nuristan province, perched high above the main valley on a mountain slope (August 12, 2021). Photo by Franz J. Marty.

Outlook

In view of all this, it is likely that, as in Kamdesh, little of the U.S. investment from the past two decades will remain across Afghanistan – and what does remain won’t be remembered as having been provided by U.S. aid. Instead, if Kamdesh offers any preview, Afghans across the country will probably continue to blame the United States for not having fulfilled its promises and – among Afghans who were amenable to the U.S. intention to develop Afghanistan into a modern state – for having abandoned them.

That said, while some are already appreciating or will appreciate the level of security provided by the Taliban, others affected by continuing acts of violence will not. And while Afghans are already worrying about the tumbling economy, this will likely further increase in the months and years to come, with the Taliban continuing to rely on international aid to fund basic services rather than try, at least partly, to tackle such problems themselves.

“We had a chance to develop our homeland, but we missed it and now more difficult days lie ahead,” one resident from Kamdesh said, by way of summing up the situation. Many other Afghans no doubt feel the same way.

Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan; he tweets

A Remote Corner of Afghanistan Offers a Peek Into the Future of the Country
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Opinion: Afghanistan needs aid, but that won’t fix our broken nation. Uplifting girls will.

Opinion by Shabana Basij-Rasikh

Global Opinions contributing columnist
The Washington Post
20 Oct 2021
People exchange money in Kabul on Oct. 7. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

Furniture being sold on the streets of Kabul by desperate, cash-strapped families. Farmers in Afghan provinces walking a T.S. Eliot-esque wasteland of withered crops and soil turned to dust. Afghanistan, my homeland, is staring into the eyes of its worst humanitarian crisis in well more than a generation — a monster with multiple heads.

Our people are enduring an economic meltdown spurred by the Taliban’s takeover in August, coupled with an ongoing drought some experts classify as our worst in 35 years, one that has already put a third of our population into a state of food insecurity. One that is prompting some parents, out of work and out of options, to sell their daughters to pay off debt.

Imagine writing that last sentence about your own country. Imagine what that feels like.

Last week, I watched the members of the Group of 20 pledge humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan to the tune of more than $1 billion. Although the pledge-makers will not recognize the Taliban’s government, they acknowledged that there is no realistic way to get this full assistance to the Afghan people without involving the Taliban in some way.

This is the same Taliban whose return brought about this financial ruin. The same Taliban that opened schools for boys in grades 7 and up, but not for girls.

I listened to powerful language from leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said “to stand by and watch 40 million people plunge into chaos because electricity can’t be supplied and no financial system exists, that cannot and should not be the goal of the international community.”

No, it cannot. The goal must be to give a nation’s people the necessary assistance to allow them to build equitable and self-sustaining structures of resilience, structures that can then be strengthened by the alloy of international will.

In this geopolitical “Sophie’s choice,” it is difficult to see the G-20’s decision as anything other than an abhorrent but necessary one. But I also see it as one that must encourage global policymakers to seek out new solutions to head off economic and environmental crises before they can metastasize.

My suggestion to them is two words: Educate girls.

Extremists know the economic power an educated girl can wield; policymakers know — or should know — it, too. A girl who completes secondary school and enters the job market can earn almost twice as much as a girl who never receives an education. This girl becomes a woman with a true level of financial independence: a woman with agency in any male-dominated society.

Educated girls are far less likely to be married at early ages and are far more likely, when they do marry, to raise smaller and healthier families with a smaller environmental footprint. Their ability to weather and withstand the shocks of climate change increases, and they pass these skills on to their children. Climate scientists have known these facts for years, and activists, including me, have written about them regularly.

Educated girls can heal economies and heal the planet. They can spin the world in new directions, becoming teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs. Sometimes they can become the chancellor of Germany.

In Afghanistan, families with nothing to fall back on are ripping themselves open, selling their daughters because these girls are the last valuable asset they have. It’s not due to the employment they may someday hold or the societal change they may someday make. It’s due to the children they may someday bear.

Tell me: What is the value of a girl? What is her education worth?

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres recently warned that if the international community did not “help Afghans weather this storm, and do it soon, not only they but all the world will pay a heavy price,” adding that he was “particularly alarmed to see promises made to Afghan women and girls by the Taliban not being honored.”

When we educate a girl, we create economic and environmental benefits that go far beyond the boundaries of her family. They go beyond the boundaries of her nation. They are benefits that all of us, every woman and man, every citizen of Earth, can share.

Millions of girls are out of school in Afghanistan. At least 130 million girls are out of school worldwide. This cannot continue.

Educate girls. Two words that must become a central pillar of global policymaking. Two words to change the world.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist, is co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan.
Opinion: Afghanistan needs aid, but that won’t fix our broken nation. Uplifting girls will.
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Joe Biden’s Afghanistan Problem

The New Yorker

If the Administration fails to help stabilize the beleaguered country, a withdrawal that appeared politically deft could prove damaging.
Joe Biden bows his head as he speaks at a presidential lectern in the East Room of the White House.
Analysts say that the botched withdrawal contributed to doubts about the central premise of Biden’s Presidency: that he can govern effectively.Photograph by Drew Angerer / Getty

When President Joe Biden announced in the spring that he planned to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, it appeared to be a politically deft decision from an Administration rapidly replacing the chaos of the Trump years with competence. The nearly twenty-year war had long faded from American headlines and consciousness. Voters on the left and the right were eager to end a largely forgotten conflict that Biden’s predecessors had allowed to become, through a combination of inattention and shoddy strategy, America’s longest war.

Yet the manner in which the withdrawal was conducted and also the Taliban’s triumph have had a political impact on Biden that has surprised me and other journalists who covered the conflict and long ago assumed that the general public had lost interest in it. Polls and pollsters now say that Biden’s handling of Afghanistan is one of two issues—the other is his response to the Delta variant—that have played a role in his approval ratings approaching those of Gerald Ford and Donald Trump at the same stage of their Presidencies. The majority of Americans favored ending the war, but the Taliban’s barring Afghan women and girls from attending school, the abandonment of Afghans who allied themselves with the American effort, and continued violence from isis seem to have taken a toll. On Friday, an apparent isis attack, the second in a week, killed more than forty minority Shiite Muslims as they prayed in a mosque in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar—the latest of several signs that the Taliban are struggling to govern the country.

Biden’s decline in approval is among crucial voting groups for Democrats, such as womenindependents, and young people. Despite years of Islamophobic, anti-immigrant fear-mongering by Trump (and a long American tradition of xenophobia), nearly seventy per cent of Americans polled support the resettlement of Afghan allies, after they undergo security screenings, in this country. Americans have not been this welcoming in decades: a majority opposed the resettlement of allies from Vietnam, Cuba, and Hungary, and of refugees from nations brutalized and buffeted by dictators and disasters, from Syria to Haiti.

The political importance of Afghanistan, of course, may fade if the nation stays out of the headlines. Biden’s handling of the pandemic and the economy, and whether Congress enacts his domestic agenda, will clearly be more important to voters in the midterm elections. But analysts say that the botched withdrawal contributed to doubts about the central premise of Biden’s Presidency: that he can govern effectively. “Many Americans were enjoying the sense of calm that had fallen over the government after four tumultuous years under former President Donald Trump—and approved of Biden because, to them, he represented a more competent leader,” Nathaniel Rakich, a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight, wrote this week. “But Afghanistan, and also the delta variant, shattered that calm and raised questions about whether Biden really was that competent after all.”

Democratic members of Congress and U.S. aid workers—nominal allies of the Administration—say that the poor planning and lack of coördination that beset the withdrawal continues. They said that the State Department and other federal agencies have responded slowly or haphazardly when asked to help evacuate Afghan allies on private charter flights. Three weeks ago, the Taliban barred female police officers, judges, pilots, and scientists, among others, from doing their jobs, a service member organizing evacuations as a private citizen told me: “Female college students who planned to return to campus this fall now have to deal with forced marriages, as they’re told their only place in society is in the home.” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut and usually a stalwart supporter of the Administration, said that dozens of Americans and thousands of Afghan allies remain trapped in Afghanistan, six weeks after the American troops left. He said the Administration was not doing enough to aid them and that their safe departure should be a precondition of any talks with the Taliban. “There is more that can be done,” he said. “I’m still unconvinced that it is a sufficiently high priority. Actions speak louder than words.”

At rallies and in television interviews, Trump has signalled his intention to distort events in Afghanistan and turn it into another Benghazi-like wedge issue to motivate his base. On October 9th, at a rally in Iowa, he mentioned Afghanistan thirteen times and falsely claimed that Biden and U.S. military commanders had abandoned the bodies of American soldiers and left behind eighty-five billion dollars’ worth of military equipment. “These guys are major losers,” Trump said, later adding, “Afghanistan is the most embarrassing event in the history of our country.”

A journalist who was recently in Kabul told me that, at this point, the Taliban do not have the necessary expertise to govern a modern state. Thousands of Afghans, many of them women and educated professionals, still want to flee their rule. This week, the U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that an immediate injection of funding from the U.S. and other nations is needed to prevent the collapse of the Afghan economy. Government workers have not been paid, food prices are spiking, and banks are running out of cash. “The crisis is affecting at least eighteen million people—half the country’s population,” Guterres said, adding that the international community is in a “race against time” as temperatures drop. International officials warn that, as winter approaches, the Biden Administration must engage more intensively to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. European leaders fear that Afghanistan, a nation of some thirty-eight million people, could produce a refugee crisis reminiscent of the one precipitated by the war in Syria.

The Taliban, meanwhile, appear emboldened. This week, after the group’s first meeting with American diplomats since the withdrawal, Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the regime, said that it would not coöperate with Washington on containing the Islamic State. “We are able to tackle Daesh independently,” Shaheen said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified last month that a “reconstituted Al Qaeda or isis with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility” in Afghanistan within the next twelve to thirty-six months.

Human-rights advocates warn that the turmoil in Afghanistan exemplifies a broader pattern: the norms and the multilateral organizations that the U.S. and European countries put in place after the Second World War, to aid refugees and to defend human rights, are steadily weakening. They said that the Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan undermines the credibility of Biden’s promise to restore U.S. support for international law and internationalism, after Trump spent four years denigrating them. “You can’t say you stand for human rights and do this,” Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, the founder and C.E.O. of the International Civil Society Action Network, a nonprofit that promoted peace talks and women’s rights in Afghanistan, said. “You can’t say you stand for multilateralism and do this.”

She argued that the U.S. is abdicating its responsibility for the crisis in Afghanistan, leaving it to private citizens and organizations to rescue Afghans. Her group alone has received requests from several thousand people for evacuation. “Who are we to be the lifeline for over two thousand Afghans?” she asked. She predicted that the withdrawal is “not the epilogue to the end of the war on terror: you’re actually creating war forever, because you’re not doing it in a responsible way.” Whatever Biden’s intentions, the U.S. pullout from the country is having unintended consequences. Afghanistan, of course, may again fade from Americans’ consciousnesses. Or abject sexism, brutality, and hunger in the country may cause it to linger there.

Joe Biden’s Afghanistan Problem
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The Khalid Payenda Interview (2): Reforms, regrets and the final bid to save a collapsing Republic

Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapoir

Afghanistan Analysts Network

9 October 2021

In this second part of this interview, former Minister of Finance Khalid Payenda talks to AAN’s Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour about the reaction of the Republic’s leadership to his plans to get the economy back on track and fight corruption and whether it was already too late to effect meaningful change. He gives a candid account of his interactions with president Ghani, including what ultimately led to his resignation, and speculates about the veracity of rumours that Ghani fled Afghanistan with 169 million USD in cash. He looks at how much the Taleban could potentially raise in customs revenues, the future outlook for the Afghan economy and what can be learned from the donors’ engagement over the past 20 years. He discusses the fragmentation, the short-termism and how some of their policies sustained the inclusion of grafters in the country’s leadership structures.

Khalid Payenda addressing the Government of Afghanistan and United Nations joint humanitarian appeal on 11 July 2021. Photo: Khalid Payenda Twitter (@KhalidPayenda), 11 July 2021

Khalid Payenda announced that he was stepping down as minister of finance after only seven months on the job on 10 August 2021, in what turned out to be the dying days of the Republic. While he was criticised at the time for abandoning the government at such a critical time, he told AAN he had no idea that the government was about to fall. In this part of the interview, he recounts a last-ditch effort to get the economy back on track and explains why he decided to resign. His insider’s view on why reform efforts failed and how donors were sometimes part of the problem are important for not only understanding what went wrong with the Republic but also the dynamics that powered the previous government’s engine. This, in turn, helps draw important and nuanced lessons from the past that can help inform the future as Afghanistan enters a new era of Taleban rule.

This is part 2 of our interview with Khalid Payenda. Part 1 can be found here.

AAN

Do you know if there is any money left in the treasury? I just wondered how much the Taleban may have to play with now.

Khalid Payenda

Before the collapse, there was around six or seven billion afghanis [approximately 90 million dollars] of unrestricted money. But then there was some restricted money, meaning money in ‘special accounts’ that the government could not spend until the respective donor okayed it. It was mostly for security by CSTC-A [Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan] and World Bank projects. I don’t know the exact amount; about 260 million dollars of the World Bank/ARTF’s [Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund] money, mostly project funds. This money was sitting in designated [bank] accounts waiting for documentation and invoices so that the funds could be released [to the project partners]. In total, the World Bank had to receive documentation and reporting for almost 600 million dollars from the government, but only 260 million was in cash with the treasury. The rest [of the money] had already been disbursed, but the documentation and reporting had not yet been sent to the World Bank [when the government fell]. The World Bank was very worried about it. I believe they are still worried about making sure the money is accounted for.

So in total, there was around 260 million dollars of the World Bank/ARTF and six or seven billion Afghanis of unrestricted funds, as the treasury [reported] to me, so based on that [the total] estimate would be around 350 million dollars.

AAN

I’m asking because I’m sure you’ve seen the Twitter thread that [former governor of the Central Bank] Ajmal Ahmady posted. [1] According to Ahamdy, on the day of his departure, DAB had nine billion dollars in assets, mostly (seven billion dollars) on deposit at the US Federal Reserve.)) Is that a realistic accounting?

Khalid Payenda

Yes, it’s close enough. He’s talking about the international reserves, but the six or seven billion Afs [approximately 90 million dollars] of the government’s [money] on deposit with the Central Bank is also part of the nine billion dollars [accounted for by Ahmady]

AAN

Does the government have deposits elsewhere, other than the Central Bank?

Khalid Payenda

We shouldn’t, but I know that a few ministries had accounts with private commercial banks. The government has money with the state-owned commercial banks; I don’t know how much. It depends on how you define ‘government’. If it is the central government and on-budget [2] [funds], then mostly no. But if you include broader government, the state-owned enterprises, for example, DABS [Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, the national electricity provider], Afghan Telecom and Ariana, and municipalities, then yes.

AAN

What do you think the state of the customs revenue will be for the Taleban?

Khalid Payenda

The Taleban were not implementing the [official] tariffs initially. They used a very simplified rudimentary tariff for how much should be collected per truck. Let’s say you were trading in fuel; you would have had to pay, for example, 50,000 afghanis per fuel tanker. I have heard that they started implementing the official tariffs as of 11 September [2021]. Which should bring in significant customs revenues, assuming the trade doesn’t shrink significantly and that there is no corruption and collusion with the traders.

A while back, I said that if there were no trade diversions [smuggling] and all goods were assessed with 100 per cent transparency, then customs could potentially collect up to seven or eight million dollars a day. But now, with the economic collapse and uncertainty, trade has drastically reduced to basic necessities, food and fuel, so the potential custom revenues have also gone down. I would say, if the old [tariff] rates are used, customs revenues could potentially amount to at least 200 to 300 million Afs [about 2.5 to 3.7 million USD] a day. I hear that, right now, the Taleban are collecting between 100 to 200 million afghanis [about 1.2 to 2.5 million USD] per day. I am not going you give you dollar figures; when the banks closed [on 15 August], the official rate was around 81 afghanis to the dollar. The more the afghani depreciates, the more customs collections increase because imports are mostly in US dollars.

AAN

You launched an ambitious PFM [public financial management[3] plan to get the economy on track when you were a director-general and then a deputy minister. This plan was disrupted when Qayoumi became minister and you left the finance ministry. I know one of your priorities was to get this back on track, with anti-corruption being one of the main components. I heard that you presented a plan to the president and others, including the first VP and that the reaction was quite startling. Could you tell us what happened?

Khalid Payenda

We had developed an extensive diagnosis for national accountability based on one of the ten state functions that the president identifies in his book Fixing Failed States. [4] It was aimed at seeing corruption through a public finance lens and by following the money through the budget cycle to see where and how misuse happens. [5] We wanted to present it to the president first and then to everyone else in his core team. But he called for a meeting in July with all of them, and even a wider [group] than that. I think we were a bit too technical, so maybe understanding it was an issue, but we did not get the support [we expected]. It was seen as a plan to reform the Ministry of Finance. But it wasn’t about reforming the Ministry of Finance. I tried to explain, but the president would not allow it. The reaction was that it’s the Ministry of Finance’s problem and they told me to go fix it. They said: If you don’t have the political will, don’t complain to us. It was a weird meeting. I don’t know what was going on in the president’s mind. He was under a lot of pressure from the security sector. The first VP said some well-intentioned but completely irrelevant [things]. Our presentation was named “A Ceasefire on Corruption”. After the meeting, the Chief Justice said: Remove this title. It has a very bad connotation, it means there hasn’t been a ceasefire on corruption for the previous 20 years. I responded: Sir, this is exactly what we meant by that title.

After the meeting, I met with the president and he said: You were too technical. I’m with you. We’ll fight this, but you [have to] work on communicating this better. I get his point, but it wasn’t too technical. Most of these people knew what we were talking about, but I think they thought: [It’s] not my problem. We could see that it was going to be extremely difficult to create political consensus. It was our last effort to save the Republic, but I think the seriousness wasn’t there. They either did not see [corruption] as an existential threat or had their escape plans ready or had already given up. Maybe they saw the handwriting on the wall; I don’t know. But I still believe that the president was caught off guard. He sincerely wanted reforms, and on most issues, he was a staunch supporter of reforms regardless of the political costs, but he did not know most of the realities and the facts and the overall environment was very tough and he was under pressure.

AAN

Do you think it was already too late anyway by then?

Khalid Payenda

I don’t know. But I don’t think it was too late – we still had control over almost all the provinces, at least their centres, and all the border crossings. However, I did not see any urgency in my colleagues’ ‘business as usual’ approach or maybe they did now show their emotions. It was 20 years late, but not too late. I still believe that the situation could have been salvaged. The moment I thought it was not doable, that’s when I resigned. Let’s not forget that the US government’s deal with the Taleban without the involvement of the Afghan government had already sealed the fate of the Republic.

AAN

You said you feared being scapegoated. What exactly did you think that would involve – just reputational damage or something worse?

Khalid Payenda

One of the issues with the president, unfortunately, was that it was never his fault. When he was the minister of finance, it was all Karzai’s fault. When he became the president, it was [Eklil] Hakimi’s fault, then it was Qayoumi’s fault, then it was Arghandiwal’s fault and it was going to be my fault. In my first meeting with the president, I told him my reservations about the unrealism of the budget, especially the unrealistically high revenue target. I also told him I didn’t think it was the right time to make substantial changes to the budget because it had already been rejected twice by the parliament. My game plan was to adjust it downwards in the mid-year review. He agreed.

Then in my last week in office, he criticised my team and me for the budget that he himself had prepared at the start of the year. He was proud that he had chaired all the budget hearings, but now he was criticising the budgeting process and calling the budget an eftezzah [catastrophe]. People who were not involved in the details [of the process] saw me as the problem. The midyear review had come at a difficult time when we had lost 3 or 4 key custom houses. We had extensive discussions on the budget and the mid-year [budgetary] review. We discussed different scenarios with him. He chose the worst-case scenario, the one with almost no custom revenues for the rest of the year. He said: Assume that all your custom offices will fall and you won’t have revenues, slash the development budget and leave me some room for additional security sector spending. We did that. Before tabling the mid-year review budget at the cabinet, I sent him a ten-page document, with every major decision, for him to approve, not approve, and provide guidance. This briefing detailed the impact of the midyear review on the NTA [National Technical Assistance] staff, [6] reducing the development budget, stopping payments against contracts with contractors and accumulating arrears. He read and signed every single one and told me to go ahead. It was going to be tough. We would have had to lay off 12,000 to 13,000 NTAs across the government. People would not have received [their] salaries on time. We would have had to cut the development budget to zero and give priority to security spending. He said: Fine – this is a matter of our existence and we must make these tough choices. However, the following week, when we stopped payments as we were running out of cash, he was shouting: Why have you stopped payments? I said: But you knew we were stopping payments; we will run out of cash otherwise.

At the same time, the reforms were starting to take hold. The treasury, while it still had massive problems, had never been as effective, efficient or transparent in the previous 20 years. I could share with you the system-generated reports that we gave to the president. 96 per cent of payments were made on the same day. You could bring your payroll [to the ministry] and it would be paid by the end of the day. Everything was either paid or, if there were problems [with the documents], rejected within 72 hours. 98 per cent of all payments were [processed] within two days. Only two to three per cent were rejected. But in the very last meeting that I had with him – the deputy finance minister and aid management director were there – he said: We lost 40 commandos in Herat because of the Ministry of Finance. I thought he’d completely lost it because they had never had any budget issues in Herat and the finance ministry had nothing to do with commandos.

He also asked about an invoice from this Lebanese company that had not been paid for one and a half years, Khatib & Alami. [7]) This was a problematic payment. People said the firm had links with Rula Ghani and her brother, who had brought this design company [to Afghanistan]. I believe somebody had complained to the First Lady’s office and that’s why the president was angry. But the invoice was not with the Ministry of Finance; it was stuck [first] at the Ministry of Urban Development and Land and then the AoP [Administrative Office of the President]. But he said: You guys are damaging my reputation. Actually, he said something sad and funny. He said: You’re damaging my reputation back home. He was referring to Lebanon, and here I was thinking that he was Afghanistan’s president and not Lebanon’s.

My dad, who is not a PFM [public financial management] expert, told me: You’ve lost all your custom offices. What kind of a finance minister are you [going to be] from now on? Leave this job. No matter how well you perform, you will be scapegoated. People will be angry and who are they going to be angry with? The Minister of Finance.

But the situation was totally out of my control. The security sector did not even make an in-vain attempt to re-take one of these customs offices – not Islam Qala, not Torghondi, Aqina, Shirkhan Bandar or Farah. I knew I was going to be scapegoated because, with the president, it was never his fault. It was always somebody [else] who’d done him wrong. Unfortunately, he never took responsibility. We saw this in his speech from exile. There was still no remorse, no apology, nothing. He justified and rationalised his escape by saying that he was taken out, not even allowed to wear his shoes. All nonsense. It’s true that some of these people around him misused [their positions], but he was a dictator. He didn’t listen to anybody, so for him to say he was pushed out or say that the minister of finance did not provide him with the right information is hard to stomach.

It’s horrible that the Republic collapsed. In retrospect, I should have been very clear [about] why I resigned – publicly. But I did not want to damage the government which was already in a fragile situation. I kept silent. I said that it was personal priorities, but it wasn’t entirely personal priorities. I should have said that the president and his close group [of advisors] were the issue. We all pay the price of our loyalty. I did too.

AAN

If you had an opportunity to say why you resigned, what would you say?

Khalid Payenda

I knew the challenges that the job entailed before I took it [and I stayed] as long as I had the president’s backing. But in the very last week, I felt that [his] support was not there anymore. The trust that the president had in me had been eroding. He didn’t see me as his minister. I think he saw me as a competitor and compared what he did as a [finance] minister against what I was doing. The punch in the gut came from the president’s office asking for the corrupt deputy minister that I had fired to be made CEO of the state-owned airline. I no longer believed the president was incorruptible. Interference from the Palace and a lack of urgency and seriousness on corruption reforms were also getting tiring. The president’s micromanagement in personally following up payments of the Lebanese company and blaming MoF for the death of 40 commandos in Herat was the final nail in the coffin. Then and there I decided that I could not work one more day and that is why I sent my resignation that night. I also sent a personal note to the president. I wrote that I was sorry that I could no longer do the job or fulfil his expectations. Maybe I didn’t even know what his expectations were or maybe what he was expecting was unrealistic.

AAN

Almost immediately after President Ghani left the country, there were allegations and media reports that he had taken 169 million dollars with him. [8] This was followed up in recent days with reports that the Taleban had recovered vast sums of money, I think over 12 million dollars, from the homes of former senior officials. [9] Do you think there is any truth to these reports? And if true, why would somebody have that amount of cash on hand?

Khalid Payenda

There are two parts to this question. First, I want to clarify the 169 million [dollars] which, based on what I know, could not have come from the national budget. It’s a very large sum. Even [the budget’s] contingency code 91, which was at the president’s disposal, carried only a billion [afghanis, or approximately 12 million USD] at the start of the [financial] year. So 169 million [dollars] is far more than what would have been available in contingency code 91. Also, there is no other place in the budget where this [amount of] money could have come from. I signed off on all major payments until I left and I don’t recall anything of this magnitude. Four or five days after I left, my successor made one payment to the National Directorate of Security for two billion afghanis. It was for the fight in the provinces – the Popular Uprising Forces – but that money should have gone to the NDS, and it was not more than 30 million dollars. If the 169 million dollars figure is correct, it could not have come from the budget even over one year.

Assuming that the 169 million figure is correct, there might be other sources, like some of the shady appointments and problematic contracts. A lot of funds were channelled from [line] ministries to the National Development Corporation [10] that had serious transparency problems. But honestly, until the day he left, I never thought the president would leave everything and flee, and I also never thought he could be financially corrupt. A part of me still strongly believes that the president would not be involved in financial corruption. It could be that he took some money because, if based on the manifest disclosed by some media channels, 53 people left [Afghanistan] with him, [11]) he would have needed some money to sustain expenditures when abroad. The fact that he first went to Uzbekistan tells me that he did not know where exactly he was going. So, he needed some money, but 169 [million dollars in cash] is a bit of a stretch.

To answer the second part of your question about the sums of money [recovered] from officials’ homes. I have doubts [about] the money they [the Taleban] say was recovered from Amrullah Saleh’s house in Panjshir. Even if he had access to that sort of cash, he would have taken the bag of money [with him] when he fled. I think it’s part of Taleban propaganda to defame him. Regardless of what he did in the government and how he played the game, I think his move, even if it was symbolic, to show resistance, salvaged his reputation. I think the Taleban and the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] wanted to damage his reputation. I don’t believe that the amount of money that they reported was right. They also reported, for example, that they recovered many bottles of wine from a cellar in Rabbani’s house; it turned out to be a western embassy. [12] So this is part of a propaganda campaign. But having said that, people who were involved [in corruption] were very savvy. [They would] not have kept large sums of cash in [their homes] nor [would they have] used the banking system. The money was already transferred [out of the country], possibly through the money service providers, the sarafs [hawaladars or currency brokers] who would keep it for them.

AAN

A lot has been said about the role of the donors – proponents point to the achievements of the past 20 years and detractors argue that ill-conceived donor policies and programmes were largely to blame for the failures of the past 20 years, including corruption. Where do you land in this discussion?

Khalid Payenda

In the immediate wake of the tragedy, let’s not forget that a lot was achieved in Afghanistan in 20 years with the help of donors that has not been achieved elsewhere when you look at it globally. Obviously, when you have 40 donors and everyone has their own interests and beliefs and thinks their approach is the right one, it becomes very difficult to have a coherent overall strategy even with the best intentions. Having said that, I believe the amount of money that flew into Afghanistan with few checks and balances in place was obviously going to be difficult to account for. The effectiveness of aid and making sure that it [was used for its] intended purposes could have been improved. The ownership could have been improved. One important thing, while it’s all over now, it’s still important to note that not every donation that came to Afghanistan went through the government. So, holding the government accountable for all of it, which is mostly the case, is unfair.

Donors chose to funnel large sums of development assistance outside government channels. This not only undermined the legitimacy of the government but also caused serious issues with alignment with national priorities, priorities that were prepared in consultation with and endorsed by the donors. While on-budget financing was put under so much scrutiny, off-budget was not subject to the same level of examination. A few years back, the Ministry of Finance carried out an institutional assessment with USAID to help identify the problems and weaknesses in our systems to be fixed, so that more budget could be channelled through the national budget. SIGAR got a hold of this assessment and this was used as an excuse not to channel funds directly through the national budget, instead of it being used as a baseline to build upon and improve.

There were programmes [about which] there was clearly no consultation or engagement with the government. The donors chose to do it through their contractors. What comes immediately to my mind is the 300-million-dollar USAID women’s empowerment PROMOTE programme. [13] The government introduced a 20-million-dollar national programme for women’s empowerment [which was] presented and endorsed by the donors at a big conference. But the US had already started PROMOTE and its funds went through off-budget mechanisms, which meant that the [government’s programme] was not funded and neither programme achieved very much. [14] So donors also bear part of the blame.

At times, the government was confused between fighting corruption and the coalition [building] that the big donors stressed. Some people, especially the warlords whom the government was encouraged to bring in, had a background of corruption, abuse and human rights violations, and most of it was overlooked – for example, the strongmen in the north or south and their role in siphoning off revenues. But [the donors] still pushed for them to be part of a coalition, even though they all knew how corrupt and involved in illicit trade these men were. Coalitions forces, in some cases chose to overlook allegations of child abuse made against some Afghan allies because they were staunch supporters in the fight against the Taleban.

The more structural issue, which I think was a missed opportunity, was caused by focusing more on the prosecution side of corruption rather than system-building, which could have prevented most of it [the corruption] from getting a foothold. We talked of accountability and reporting, but not much was done to develop the government’s capacity to report, audit and hold people to account in a holistic manner. The donors chose to sort of ringfence their own donations and financing that they channelled through the government. But trying to ringfence [part of the funds] in a bigger budget doesn’t really work. For example, in a four or five billion dollar budget, it didn’t mean much when the ARTF monitoring agent only looked at ineligible expenditures for [their own] one billion dollars.

In all my ten years of engagement with the World Bank, I don’t recall them telling us: Okay, let’s talk about fixing the whole accountability system so that [in the future] we will not need the monitoring and supervisory agents. I think building better systems should have been part of it. We advocated looking at corruption through a public finance lens. The donors were interested in projects rather than [fixing] the whole system. So fixing some parts of the budget process, amending the external audit law was all the donors wanted to do. They did not see the entire picture – how things worked and did not work – and whether it [the system] worked for the people. These things were overlooked and it was where the donors could have played a stronger, more assertive role.

Some donors tried to ‘projectise’ institution-building based on their own internal organisational arrangements and priorities. For example, there was a time when the ministry of finance had four different projects financed by the World Bank/ARTF – one department at the World Bank managed the treasury and audit [project], another department the customs [project], a third department oversaw civil service reforms and administration and a fourth worked with the budget department. Each department had its own PIU (project implementation unit) working with the relevant department. This [approach] caused a lot of fragmentation and did not help us create state institutions that functioned as a whole. With so many different donor projects, government institutions, such as the Ministry of Finance, had become a collection of fiefdoms. But this was the case in nearly all key ministries. For example, in 2018, the Ministry of Agriculture had around 48 PIUs. The Directors-General saw the World Bank’s TTL (Task Team Leader) or the UNOPS Project Director, not the minister, as their immediate supervisor.

In 2016, we eventually managed to convince the World Bank and the ARTF donors to support a holistic government approach covering all of the finance ministry and even the Supreme Audit Office and the National Procurement Authority. But it quickly became evident that the World Bank’s different departments were not very good at getting along with each other – every TTL wanted [his or her] own separate project.

Key appointments were also a place where a more assertive role [for the donors] was warranted. Unfortunately, all these 20 years, some people, some ministers, with bad reputations were tolerated by the donors, especially since their salaries were coming directly or indirectly from donor funds. I know that it’s really difficult for some donors and they [don’t want to] overstep into political issues. Still, their embassies who deal primarily with politics could have [taken it on] and given feedback to the government that this person is not acceptable or that person has an issue in his background. These were the things that the donors unfortunately tolerated in Afghanistan.

AAN

What about all the incentives from the donors, the mutual accountability frameworks and the conditionalities? Were they effective or helpful in addressing these issues?

Khalid Payenda

Some programmes were very effective, for example, the World Bank’s ARTF Incentive Programme. It was isolated from wider politics, focused on key reforms and conditioned financing to [achievements]. Doing it for not one year only, but over three years, allowed us to take a systematic, chained and sequenced approach to reforms. If you wanted [to implement] a big reform that needed three steps, it was possible to use an ARTF incentive programme because you could deliver the first condition in year one and then build on it in the second and third years. The IMF was also very important. They supported a limited area – macroeconomics, monetary and fiscal stability and some  specific anti-corruption measures, such as asset declarations of senior government officials. The EU’s [European Union] State and Resilience Building Contract is another good example.

But when it comes to the big conferences and aid based on mutual accountability [frameworks], that’s when things started to get murky because some of these benchmarks and indicators were too vague and became a bit meaningless. They were political. When we look at the very last one in Geneva, [15] you read the [commitments] and it’s difficult to understand how you would measure them and if you can’t measure [something], then it’s vague and not useful. So, the accountability [framework] and conditioned financing was a mixed bag. In some places, specific ones worked brilliantly, but it became a bit difficult when politics got involved.

AAN

If you had to do it all over again, what would you recommend to the donors? How could they be more effective in their support to system building, fighting corruption and getting state institutions on track?

Khalid Payenda

Honestly, I don’t know how to give an answer that takes the entire picture into account. Anyone who says that they have an across-the-board answer to this [question] is deluded. One thing that is not primarily an aid or development issue but a prerequisite to getting it right was the political structure after [the 2001] Bonn [conference]. [16] Leaving out the Taleban and giving it all to the Northern Alliance was a big, missed opportunity. That could have been the basis for a more inclusive [government]. The cost of development with an ongoing conflict became incredibly high. Another critical area was decentralisation of authority. The presidential system in Afghanistan gave so much power to the centre and the presidency. On fiscal matters, the provinces had little or no say in the revenues collected or allocation of budgetary expenditures. Everything was controlled from the centre. Governors were appointed from the centre. But when you come to these specific issues, I don’t think anyone [in the international community] thought they would be engaged in Afghanistan for 20 years. So, the programming was usually very short-term. For most donors, programming was seen from within their assignments – a USAID chief wanted to see results by next July when he was leaving. In retrospect, you can see that [while] we had 20 years, we did not have the longer horizon thinking and perspective that I think was needed [because] when you have that perspective, you invest more in state institutions and try to fix systems rather than create parallel structures that become problematic in the long-term because they siphon capacity away from existing institutions.

In the first few years, a lot of money flew into Afghanistan and the problem was how to spend it – the burn rate was an issue. Maybe keeping it in a trust fund such as the ARTF or another pooled fund [for the long-term], rather than trying to burn as much as you can in the short-term, would have been a better idea. Too many priorities were pursued in an incoherent manner with every donor doing it themselves. Some of these are lessons that you [can] pick up from any international aid development [text] book. Unfortunately, [these lessons] – building systems of accountability, investing in the government, holding the government to account – were not applied, or applied too late, in Afghanistan. Just to summarise, a long-term perspective was needed.

AAN

Do you know how much of the aid was off-budget? What percentage?

Khalid Payenda

We don’t know the exact amount because the off-budget was never fully reported, but it was always more than the on-budget [support], which never went above 50 per cent [of the total amount]. Some years, the [combined] ODA [official development assistance] and defence expenditures were 100 times more than the national budget, for example, during the surge in 2009 and 2010, the US spent 108 billion [dollars] on security in Afghanistan but [contributed] less than 3 million to the [national] budget. In recent years, it’s been maybe 40:60, with 60 per cent off-budget.

AAN

I think the question on everybody’s mind is the future of aid to Afghanistan. Since the government fell and the Taleban took over, Afghanistan assets have been frozen and the donors have suspended aid. They’re re-thinking the scope of their assistance to Afghanistan. 1.2 billion in humanitarian aid has been pledged, but development funding hangs in the balance. How do you think the donors should proceed with their future support to Afghanistan?

Khalid Payenda

We are facing an unfolding catastrophe in Afghanistan. So many people have been plunged into poverty. Let’s not forget the harsh impact of Covid-19, particularly in the third wave, the drought and [conflict] displacement all hitting the country at the same time and finally, the total collapse of the state. It’s a really bad situation. Some of our achievements and the gains, the ones we’ve been saying should be preserved and built on – the human development indices for education and health – were entirely dependent on donors. The basic package of health services that [provides medical] care to all Afghans in all 34 provinces and the education services to get nine to ten million Afghan kids into schools were all financed by donors. I believe those need to be continued. Any disruption will harm ordinary Afghans. They [the donors] do not have to go through the Taleban government. The community development, health services and education could still be done through non-governmental organisations. The government only supervised and made payments [using] ARTF funds. This could still be done by the World Bank directly or maybe by a UN agency. I think it’s very important to keep these.

But on the reserves and monetary issues, I have a slightly different view than many experts, who think funds and assets should be unfrozen. I don’t support an immediate unfreezing of all assets because I don’t see a clear and direct link to the people and their wellbeing. Then there is the morality of giving our country’s assets to an organisation [many of whose] members are designated as terrorists and are on watchlists.

Given that the donors and West seem to have abandoned Afghanistan, our reserves and financial assistance are the only leverage we have [in the absence of] soldiers and a military. These [funds] should be released against some measurable benchmarks that relate to [improvements for] the Afghan population and, in particular, women’s rights. For example, why are girls not allowed to go to school? We could unfreeze a portion of the aid and reserves based on the Taleban’s willingness to restore those rights. The inclusivity of the government, which was apparently agreed between the US and the Taleban, is another issue. You could use [the funds] for that as well.

These key services, like getting food and medicine to people, are critical, and you don’t need to go through the government or the Taleban. What you need is an assurance that they will not hinder your operations as service providers. If they give you these assurances, then we should get food, healthcare and [other] key services to the population. That is what the international community should do, but I’m a bit sceptical about what percentage of the 1.2 billion will eventually benefit the recipients – because the overhead costs of these operations are sometimes unreasonably [high]. So much goes on procuring Land Cruisers, big salaries and flights first and only what’s left goes to the people. It is crucial to have a mechanism to ensure transparency.

Also, I need to look into the details of the pledges – for how long and for what purpose. But when a national budget of three to four billion and another four to five billion in off-budget security and development spending have totally collapsed, then 1.2 billion is sufficient only for a few months. But it’s a start before more could come. Afghanistan still has, I believe, the commitments from Geneva that could continue. It’s only the matter of changing the modality of [the aid].

AAN

In your opinion, what’s the future outlook for the economy in Afghanistan in the short and medium-term?

Khalid Payenda

I think it’s going to get worse because everything is slowing down. I haven’t run any forecasts, but it would not be an exaggeration to say there will be a 30 to 40 per cent contraction in the economy this year. Next year could be worse. A thriving economy cannot run on subsistence imports and donations from neighbouring countries. There has to be more than that. Purchasing power is an issue, people don’t have money and they are going to suffer. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie before in the late 1990s. If you visited Kabul, then, as I did during the Taleban regime, you would have seen extreme poverty and destitute. We could expect the same but hope that the humanitarian assistance continues and that the international community uses its leverage to make sure that some sort of a coalition government that is acceptable to Afghans and the world is built. Otherwise, the current trajectory does not provide for an optimistic forecast for the future.

AAN

Do you have any regrets?

Khalid Payenda

Yes, taking the job. But I also think had I not taken the job [of finance minister] I would have had regrets later at an old age and it would have been too late by then. At the end of my life, I would have thought that I could have done something for my country and I didn’t. At least I won’t have that regret. I tried to do as much as I could in the six or seven months [I was minister]. But when you look at it now, I failed. We started a lot of fundamental reforms that needed time and the results were not yet visible. The customs and also budget reforms were crucial and fundamental. We had a digitalisation project to integrate our fragmented systems. We had a new revenue system to replace SIGTAS [Standard Integrated Government Tax Administration System] and a new AFMIS [Afghanistan Financial Management Information System] ready to go, fully developed by Afghans. My team worked with NSIA [National Statistic and Information Authority] for hours, my team and I did a lot of technical work that had not been done before by my predecessors. We were going to fundamentally overhaul the budget process to address serious rent-seeking opportunities and ensure that the budget worked for the people and not the elite. The new budget process for 2022 was going to introduce unprecedented transparency and accountability. We had recently abolished repetitive processes that caused confusion and provided opportunities for corrupt practices such as the allotment process. [17] We abolished the allotment process and reduced the payment process from 18 steps and many weeks and months to a few days and just four steps.

The Ministry of Finance was starting to set an example for public access and accountability by an open door [policy] and walk-in public meetings for the minister and the leadership group to hear people’s complaints and address them on the spot. I had dedicated Tuesday evenings to do live Facebook sessions and answer questions from citizens. But we have nothing to show for it. It was all undone in a matter of days and weeks. It does not mean there weren’t issues at the ministry; the corruption in revenue collection, the quality and speed of service delivery and the corporate backbone all needed a lot of improvement.

When I see the bigger tragedy, I think the importance of my work and my team’s work pales in comparison – people are losing their lives, people are losing their rights. Millions went from a respectable living standard to into abject poverty overnight.

My heart is shattered for the youth of Afghanistan. These bright young women, who had ambitions and were going to make a difference for the whole country, are now confined to their own houses. In one week, they suddenly went from young hopeful Afghan females to nobodies who cannot go outside without a chaperone. It’s devastating. By choosing to flee, the president might well have secured a particular hatred in history for himself, but we all bear responsibility. Everyone who had a hand in the affairs of the past 20 years bears a responsibility. It’s true, the end was shockingly fast and unpredicted, but it was in the making for 20 years. Every donor agency, every political office, every minister and governor had a role to play. I see myself as part of the problem, part of a corrupt bureaucracy that had 20 years and all the world’s attention to secure a better future for Afghanistan but instead betrayed its people.

References

References
1 See former governor of Central Bank Ajmal Ahmady’s 18 August 2021 Twitter thread that provides a breakdown of national reserves managed by DAB (Da Afghanistan Bank).
2 On-budget funds are included in the national budget and processed through the state’s planning, expenditure and accountability mechanisms. Off-budget funds bypass the national budget altogether. This type of aid does not allow for any government control and often weakens the state’s ability for ‘whole of government’ planning and action.
3 The Transparency International topic guide defines PFM as:

Public financial management (PFM) is a central element of a functioning administration, underlying all government activities. It encompasses the mechanisms through which public resources are collected, allocated, spent and accounted for. As such, PFM processes comprise the whole budget cycle, public procurement, audit practices and revenue collection. Sound, transparent and accountable public financial management is a key pillar of governance reform and of vital importance to provide public services of good quality to citizens, as well as to create and maintain fair and sustainable economic and social conditions in a country.

4 See Ghani, Ashraf, and Clare Lockhart. Fixing Failed States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
5 See Andrew Laing’s Development Practice Note “Follow-the-Money Corruption Cycle: Revealing National Accountability Failures,” Institute for Effectiveness here.
6 The National Technical Assistance (NTA) programme was established alongside the Capacity Building for Results (CBR) facility and both were funded by the World Bank managed Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). The programme was designed to build technical capacity in Afghanistan’s civil service by hiring skilled technical staff contracted outside the formal civil service structure to work at state institutions. Individuals engaged under the NTA scheme were paid donor-funded ‘super-sized’ salaries, which according to the government and donors, were market-competitive and designed to attract highly skilled workers to the public sector (see the original 2012 plan here and the harmonised plan here). In 2018, there were some 20,000 staff working for the government, prompting the World Bank to raise the alarm on potential issues in financing the wage bill of this “Parallel Civil Service”. The NTA programme was a perennial source of controversy, especially during the standoff for the 1400 (2021) national budget, with MPs citing it as a barrier to creating parity in the salaries of civil servants. For its part, the government, while acknowledging the need to reform NTA hiring practices, argued that NTA staff provided critical technical know-how to the government (see, for example, this Tolo News programme).
7 Khatib & Alami is a Lebanese “multidisciplinary design consultancy which operates primarily across the Middle East & Africa, Levant, Central and South-East Asia, and Europe” (see here). Its founding members Dr Zuheeri Alami and Professor Mounir Khatib, were both faculty members at AUB. In 2017, the Kabul-based news website Pajhwok reported that seven high-ticket infrastructure projects were awarded to Khatib & Alami without being put to tender. Allegations that then president Ghani’s brother in law, Raid Saada, had a beneficial relationship with Khatib and Alami were strongly refuted by the technical deputy minister of public works, Ahmad Wali Sherzai. According to Tolo News, Sherzai and Riad Ghani met when they were both students at AUB and have remained friends since (see here) (See also this Tolo News programme.
8 In an 18 August 2021 press conference, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Mohammad Zahir Agbar, claimed that Ghani had fled the country with 169 million dollars. The former president of Afghanistan has denied the allegations (see here and here).
9 On 13 September 2021, pro-Taleban social media accounts started reported that 6.5 million USD in cash had been found in Amrullah Saleh’s home, including video footage of men counting two suitcases filled with US dollars and gold bars and money scattered on the floor. The footage, which could not be independently verified, went viral on social media and was reported in the Afghan and international media (see, for example, herehere, and here). A Central Bank source confirmed that the “mentioned cash and gold have been turned over to Da Afghanistan Bank,” according to a report by Pajhwok news.
10 The Operation and Support Office of the President for National Development (commonly referred to as the presidential operations unit, see the archived website here), and its subsidiary the National Development Corporation (NDC), were managed by president Ghani and involved in major development projects, from building dams to rebuilding monuments. The creation of the NDC in January 2020, when the then president merged eight state entities into a single one, drew strong condemnations from the parliament and the construction sector, including the Afghanistan Builders Association (ABA), who accused the government of impeding their ability to successfully bid for infrastructure projects in a process that they say is already rigged “against them”. (see ToloNews here). The controversial allocation of 9.7 billion Afs (about 1.2 million USD) to the Presidential Operations Unit and the National Development Corporation was one of the issues raised by lawmakers when they rejected the 1400 (2021) national budget. MPs claimed these units compete with the government proper and the private sector, taking away precious government jobs and weakening the private sector. They also said that because these entities were not budgetary units (a ministry or other state entity that, by law, can have allocations in the national budget), they were not obliged to account to parliament for their spending. The speaker also accused the Palace of undermining government institutions by transferring “All projects from sectoral ministries to the [presidential] operations unit.” (see video here and ToloNews’ Mehwar here).
11 On 18 August 2021, Afghanistan International television released what it said was the manifest for the flight that took president Ghani and 51 others from Afghanistan to Tajikistan (see Sobbh-e Kabul news website’s report here and a copy of the purported manifest here.
12 On 13 September 2021, Pamir News tweeted video footage of what it said was a cache of alcohol discovered by Taleban fighters in the home of former foreign minister and Jamiat-e Islami leader Salahuddin Rabbani. This claim was later refuted AFP Fact Check, which reported that the location was the Czech embassy in Kabul.
13 See the USAID website here and this Christian Science Monitor report.
14 See this 2018 SIGAR assessment of the USAID PROMOTE program, the New York Times report about the assessment and SIGAR’s February 2021 report “Support for Gender Equality: Lessons from the US Experience in Afghanistan.” For more information on the Women’s Economic Empowerment national priority programme, see this World Bank report.
15 See the Afghanistan Partnership Framework adopted at the 2020 Geneva Afghanistan Conference in Geneva 23-24 November 2020 here.
16 See the Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions (Bonn Agreement) here.
17 The allotment process was a second budgetary allocation system used for cash management purposes after the national budget had been approved by parliament to give funds to line ministries. Under this process, a ministry’s annual allocation was not released in one go but in tranches whereby the state entity would make multiple requests throughout the financial year for funds. This process gave grafters multiple opportunities to seek bribes and led to financial losses for the government.
The Khalid Payenda Interview (2): Reforms, regrets and the final bid to save a collapsing Republic
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Will Afghanistan’s powerful neighbours engage the Taliban?

Zahir Sherazi

Pakistan, China, and Iran are yet to recognise the Taliban government, but they all have an interest in doing so.

The withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan is inevitably leaving a political vacuum in South and Central Asia. The question that many are asking is who will step in to fill it. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours – Pakistan, Iran and China – all have special interests in the country that they are likely to pursue with renewed vigour.

None is likely to play the same significant role the US did in shaping the future of the country but all three want to see a stable government in Kabul and security established across the country in view of their own national security interests.

The Taliban, for its part, is looking to establish positive relations with its neighbours to earn international legitimacy and attract investment for much needed economic development. So what does this mean for relations with Pakistan, China and Iran?

Pakistan

Pakistan, which shares a 2,670km-long (1,659-mile) border with Afghanistan, has suffered a lot during the past four decades of turmoil. It has had to pay a heavy price for acting as a launching pad for Washington’s and its allies’ “Afghan jihad” on the USSR after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent “war on terror” only worsened the security situation in Pakistan.

The instability has enabled armed groups along the Pakistan-Afghan border to flourish. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban) and Baloch insurgents have been attacking targets in Pakistan for years, killing more than 83,000 and inflicted billions of dollars worth of losses on the Pakistani economy. Islamabad has often alleged that violent attacks on Pakistan have been planned and executed from Afghan soil with the active support of Indian intelligence. At the same time, Pakistani security agencies have been accused of backing the Afghan Taliban, especially the Haqqani network.

In this context, the Taliban takeover of Kabul and the withdrawal of US forces were perceived as a positive development by policy and military circles in Islamabad. Their attitude has been: “We are happy because with the Taliban in power, our western borders will be secured as archrival India will be out of the game.”

This optimism about a friendly government in Kabul is also strengthened by the fact that the Taliban never retaliated with violence for Pakistan providing support for the US-led military operation which dislodged them from power in 2001 or for handing over some of its members to western forces. Some have even speculated about a prominent role that Islamabad may play in Kabul, specifically after news of a September 4 visit to the Afghan capital by Pakistani intelligence chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed emerged.

In the international arena, Islamabad has also been actively campaigning for international engagement with the Taliban. In his video messages to the UN General Assembly aired on September 24, Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the world community to support the Taliban government and help the country with much-needed humanitarian aid.

However, Pakistan may not enjoy an unrivalled authority over the Taliban, as some have speculated. Well-placed sources divulged to the author that during an August 16 National Security Council meeting in Islamabad, the military commanders clarified to the parliamentarians that the Taliban may not listen to Pakistan, as it used to in the past. That is why, Islamabad is also cautious and not going for a solo flight to quickly recognise the Taliban government, as it did in the 1990s.

Although it still has not formally recognised the government in Kabul, Pakistan has high hopes for engagement with it on the economic front. During former President Ashraf Ghani’s time in office, the flow of imported goods through Pakistani ports to landlocked Afghanistan dropped by 80 percent, as Kabul started favouring Iranian ports, funded by India. Bilateral trade also declined from $2.8bn in 2011 to $1.8bn. Islamabad would like to see the use of Pakistani ports for Afghan imports restored and bilateral trade boosted.

Pakistan also hopes that increased security under the Taliban would allow it to intensify its trade with Central Asia, where there is potential for significant growth. It is eyeing the completion of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to the three South Asian nations. The construction of the pipeline stalled in recent years, as the Afghan government was unable to provide security for the project works on Afghan territory.

Moving forward, Pakistan can expect a friendly government in Kabul only if it develops a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the Afghans.

China

The April announcement of US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan increased concern in China about border security in the Wakhan Corridor, where it shares a 92km (57 miles) border strip with Afghanistan, but also encouraged the Chinese government to approach the Taliban leadership for preliminary talks.

Beijing fears a chaotic Afghanistan may cause a spillover of violence to Xinjiang province and hurt its strategic regional investment in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Taliban takeover has opened a strategic door for China into Afghanistan that could turn out to be laden with risks.

On July 28, Mullah Ghani Baradar and a nine-member Taliban delegation met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, which resulted in the Taliban giving assurances that it will not allow Afghan soil to be used for attacks against China in exchange for Chinese economic support and investment for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.

This meeting was a turning point for the Taliban, as Mullah Baradar was able to earn the backing of a superpower that could play a major role in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. In an August 16 statement on the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China is “ready” to develop further relations with Afghanistan.

And China made good on its promise. While other powers shunned the Taliban government announced in early September, China responded to its calls for humanitarian aid and pledged $31m worth of assistance. On September 23, Yi criticised the US for freezing Afghan assets during a virtual conference of G20 foreign ministers. Less than a week later, the first batch of Chinese aid landed at Kabul airport.

China is also eyeing to cash in on the untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan, which are estimated to have a value of $1 to $3 trillion. Apart from rare earth elements, the country also has vast reserves of gold, platinum, silver, copper, iron, chromite, lithium, uranium, and aluminium as well as precious stones. The Taliban appears to be willing to give access to these resources and use the revenue to solidify its rule.

However, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan also worries China. If the Taliban government fails to control the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or other violent groups on Afghan territory, this could destabilise Xinjiang province. Furthermore, an unstable Afghanistan could harbour other militant groups that could undermine or sabotage China’s BRI initiatives in the region. Insecurity in the country would also prevent any Chinese mining or other economic projects from kicking off.

Other regional and global players are also eyeing Afghan resources and they might end up using local militant groups or warlords to secure their interests. This could undermine Chinese economic interests in Afghanistan and the region.

So Beijing will likely approach relations with the Taliban government with caution and take its time in making investments in the country.

Iran

Iran, which shares a 921km (572-mile) border with Afghanistan, has also suffered from the instability ravaging its neighbour for decades. In the 1990s, Tehran was backing the Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban forces and did not recognise Taliban rule in Kabul.

Worried by the vast US military presence in the region after 2001, Iran established ties with the group and tried to undermine US interests by covertly supporting it.

Overall, the Iranians were pleased with the US withdrawal, which Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi termed a military “failure” in an August 16 statement. But his government has also been worried about security and political developments in the country ever since. In early September, it reacted sharply to the Taliban offensive against the opposition stronghold in Panjshir valley.

Tehran also criticised the Taliban for not including minorities in the cabinet it announced. One of its main concerns in Afghanistan is safeguarding the Hazara Shia community, which faced severe persecution during the last Taliban rule.

Apart from political interests, Iran also looks to Afghanistan for economic opportunities. US sanctions severely hurt Iranian global trade, but Afghanistan under the Taliban would not shun economic engagement with it to please the US.

Iran will strive to maintain its access to the Afghan market, which in recent years has been flooded with Iranian goods. In 2018, Iran became Afghanistan’s biggest trade partner, with its exports reaching nearly $2bn, in addition to a large volume of Afghan imports passing through Iranian ports.

While maintaining high trade volumes, Iran will also seek to stem the flow of narcotics through its porous border with Afghanistan. Iran is a major market for Afghan opium and an important corridor for shipping narcotics to Europe and the Persian Gulf. The Taliban has been repeatedly accused of benefitting from the drug trade and encouraging it. Therefore, establishing effective mechanisms with the Taliban government to solve the narcotics problem will be a major challenge for Iran.

Another contentious issue between Kabul and Tehran are militants threatening Iranian security. Iran’s border regions of Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchistan have seen a number of terrorist attacks in recent years blamed on extremist groups operating along the Afghan-Iranian and Pakistani-Iranian borders. The Taliban has given assurances that it will not allow armed groups on Afghan soil to threaten other countries, but Iran will expect more than just words.

The more than two million Afghan refugees on Iranian territory also worry Tehran. With its own economy in tatters and socioeconomic tensions within Iranian society rising, the Iranian government is hardly in a position to provide for them or welcome more newcomers. That is why Iran wants to see stability in Afghanistan that would allow some of these refugees to return.

Thus, Afghanistan’s neighbours – Pakistan, China and Iran – all have a vested interest in a stable government in Kabul that can secure Afghan borders and economic activities. They will likely cooperate with each other, as well as Russia, to see that through. In this way, the Taliban government will be under the influence of an emerging anti-US axis, which will seek to eliminate US influence in the region and determine its new security infrastructure.

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

Will Afghanistan’s powerful neighbours engage the Taliban?
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Afghanistan Is Facing a Total Economic Meltdown

Mr. Egeland is secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and has 30 years experience working as a humanitarian.

The New York Times

Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

When I was traveling around Kabul a few weeks ago, the city felt worlds apart from my last visit in 2019 — and not just because a 20-year war had finally ended. The economy is spiraling out of control. And unless money starts flowing soon, a total economic collapse will plunge Afghans into a humanitarian catastrophe.

The desperation is everywhere. Mothers I sat down with in makeshift tents told me their families have no income and no reserves, and they’re worried that their children will starve and freeze to death this winter.

I met teachers, health workers and water engineers who have not been paid since May. They can no longer support their extended families or keep vital public services afloat. Without functioning banks and liquidity, ordinary Afghans are cut off from their life savings and have no way of surviving.

When the Taliban toppled Afghanistan’s government in August, the country suddenly lost access to more than $9 billion in central bank reserves, frozen by the Biden administration. This sent shock waves through the banking system and prompted capital control measures by the new Taliban leaders, leading to bank closures and halting the economy.

The political conflict with the Taliban must not punish the civilian population. The international community must urgently broker multilateral agreements to stabilize the economy and fund public services. This means finding safe payment channels to get aid flowing and safeguarding humanitarian action from international sanctions and other counterterrorism financing measures.

Our organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council, is one of many trying to provide assistance in this new and challenging environment. We have been unable to securely move aid money into the country to buy emergency supplies for families who face homelessness and hunger this winter. The banking crisis has left several Afghan banks closed and others operating at limited capacity. This has left us struggling to pay our staff and suppliers in Afghanistan. Instead, we are forced to purchase tents, blankets and food in neighboring Pakistan.

Now imagine this dilemma multiplied for every employer across Afghanistan.

In addition to the liquidity emergency, a donor funding freeze has contributed to crippling public services. Some 75 percent of Afghanistan’s public expenditure had in recent years been funded by foreign aid. This lifeline has been largely cut off because the international community is grappling with how to work with a Taliban-run government — including ministers on international sanctions lists.

Even before the latest seismic political shift, Afghanistan faced a dire humanitarian crisis. More than 18 million people urgently needed aid.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

New mechanisms need to be urgently launched to directly pay hundreds of thousands of municipal and state public servants by channeling the frozen World Bank money through United Nations agencies. This is what I raised in a letter to the heads of the United Nations and the World Bank urging action — suggesting that U.N.-administered trust funds be set up to pay public workers directly. Since the resources already exist within the World Bank and the trusted U.N. channels already are available in the country, these types of transfers can be established quickly.

We need more out-of-the-box thinking, so that banks can reopen and social services can restart.

The World Bank suspended $600 million in funds that form the backbone of the country’s health system. If doctors and nurses are not paid, hospitals will be forced to shut their doors. The alliance recently formed by key aid groups to address the health crisis is a step in the right direction. A special agreement was signed by four agencies to set up mechanisms that would allow direct funding to hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan — but that won’t be enough. Aid groups have nowhere near the capacity to plug the enormous gaps that remain in the health system.

We also need financial instruments that enable donors to pool large sums of relief money, to help us navigate the complexity of international sanctions and restrictions that make it hard for our aid to reach those who need it most.

Even before the latest seismic political shift in Afghanistan, the country faced a dire humanitarian crisis. More than 18 million people urgently needed humanitarian aid. Some 3.5 million Afghans were internally displaced. Failed rains drove hunger levels up — one-third of the people did not know where their next meal would come from.

Some countries and individual actors have suggested that the Taliban must meet certain conditions in exchange for funds. As a humanitarian organization, we do not advocate the conditionality of aid. We are not here to weigh in on political issues or political solutions to the current crisis. We need the international community to realize the urgency here: The economic crisis will only exacerbate humanitarian needs.

I told Taliban leaders I met with in Kabul that for humanitarian action to be most effective, we need both our female and male colleagues to have equal rights, just as it’s important for both girls and boys to be able to go to school. We have been given verbal assurances on these issues in most parts of the country — and will continue to press the Taliban to adhere to humanitarian principles and ensure we can reach those in greatest need.

Whether we will succeed in our race against time to scale up before winter will depend not only on the Taliban’s willingness to turn their words into action, but also on the international community.

Trillions of dollars were spent over the past two decades on the war in Afghanistan that ended so monumentally when the United States evacuated, leaving some 40 million people to fend for themselves. While many were caught off guard by the rapid change of power, the international community cannot continue to stand idly by and watch the country’s free fall.

We must avert Afghanistan’s full economic meltdown, regardless of who controls its territory. Otherwise millions of Afghan children, women and men will pay the heaviest price.

Jan Egeland (@NRC_Egeland) has 30 years of experience in human rights, humanitarian crises and conflict resolution. Currently the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, he previously served as a United Nations Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs.

Afghanistan Is Facing a Total Economic Meltdown
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The Last Days of Intervention

Leaving Kunduz, Afghanistan, March 2011
Damon Winter / The New York Times / Redux

The extravagant lurches of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan—from a $1 trillion surge to total withdrawal, culminating in the reestablishment of a Taliban government 20 years after the 9/11 attacks—must rank among the most surreal and disturbing episodes in modern foreign policy. At the heart of the tragedy was an obsession with universal plans and extensive resources, which stymied the modest but meaningful progress that could have been achieved with far fewer troops and at a lower cost. Yet this failure to chart a middle path between ruinous overinvestment and complete neglect says less about what was possible in Afghanistan than it does about the fantasies of those who intervened there.

The age of intervention began in Bosnia in 1995 and accelerated with the missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Over this period, the United States and its allies developed a vision of themselves as turnaround CEOs: they had the strategy and resources to fix things, collect their bonuses, and get out as soon as possible. The symbol of the age was the American general up at 4 am to run eight miles before mending the failed state.

Had the same U.S. and European officials been seeking to improve the lives of people in a poor ex-coal town in eastern Kentucky or to work with Native American tribes in South Dakota, they might have been more skeptical of universal blueprints for societal transformation, paid more attention to the history and trauma of local communities, and been more modest about their own status as outsiders. They might have understood that messiness was inevitable, failure possible, and patience essential. They might even have grasped why humility was better than a heavy footprint and why listening was better than lecturing.

Yet in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq—places far more traumatized, impoverished, and damaged than anywhere at home—U.S. and European officials insisted that there could be a formula for success, a “clearly defined mission,” and an “exit strategy.” Any setback, they reasoned, could be blamed only on a lack of international planning or resources.

These ideas were damaging in Bosnia and Kosovo. But in the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq—unstable hybrids of humanitarianism and counterterrorism that soon became even more unstable hybrids of state building and counterinsurgency—they proved fatal. From the very beginning, the international plans were surreally detached from the local reality. The first draft of the development strategy for Afghanistan, written by international consultants in 2002, described the Afghans as committed to “an accountable, broad-based, multi-ethnic, representative government” based on “respect for human rights.” That same year, then U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed that terrorism from Afghanistan posed “an existential threat to our security.”

Such hyperbolic untruths, which multiplied with each new strategy or plan, were designed to win resources and defend the intervention at home. By exaggerating both the potential for success and the risks of failure in Afghanistan, they made it difficult to resist calls for more troops. And when troops were killed (and more of them were killed than at any time since the Vietnam War), domestic politics dictated ever more strident mission statements, increasingly inflated plans, and additional troop deployments.

Eventually, the rhetorical Ponzi scheme collapsed. But having failed to fulfill their fantasies and realize their power as saviors, the United States and its allies now seemed unable to recognize or value the progress that was actually occurring on the ground—in part, because it was slow, unfamiliar, and often not in line with their plans. Political leaders had so overstated their case that once they were revealed to be wrong, they could not return to the moderate position of a light footprint and instead lurched from extreme overreach to denial, isolationism, and withdrawal. In the end, they walked out, blaming the chaos that followed on the corruption, ingratitude, and the supposed cowardice of their former partners.

THE AGE OF INTERVENTION

The obsession with universal plans backed by heavy resources that led to the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq stemmed in part from a misunderstanding of an earlier success. The first act in the 20-year age of intervention, the NATO operation in Bosnia, was largely effective. Not only did it end the war and preserve the peace for decades at almost no cost to the United States and its NATO allies, but it achieved things that not long before had seemed impossible: the protection of civilians, the demobilization of vicious militias, the safe return of refugees to ethnically cleansed areas, and the imprisonment of war criminals. Today, the Bosnian state remains fragile, ethnically divided, and corrupt—but also peaceful.

This success, which emerged from a large but very restrained international presence, was misinterpreted as an argument for bold international interventions grounded in universal state-building templates and backed by overwhelming resources. Paddy Ashdown, the British politician who was the senior international representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, asserted that Bosnia demonstrated seven “pillars of peace-making” that “apply more or less universally” and provided a plan to create everything from security to water supplies, prisons, and an efficient market-based economy. In his view, an international administration with absolute executive power was needed to achieve these things. Local elections or consultations should be avoided. The intervening powers should, he said, “go in hard from the start,” establishing the rule of law as quickly and decisively as possible, “even if you have to do that quite brutally.”

Many embraced Ashdown’s vision and developed similar blueprints. James Dobbins, a former U.S. special envoy to Bosnia and a future special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, co-authored The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building, published by the RAND Corporation, which asserted that “heavy” peace-enforcement operations required 13 soldiers for every 1,000 inhabitants and “light” peacekeeping operations required two. The future president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, matched this with a co-authored textbook titled Fixing Failed States that defined ten functions of a state and laid out a universal state construction scheme that could be applied from the Horn of Africa to the Urals.

At the heart of the tragedy in Afghanistan was an obsession with universal plans and extensive resources.

In Kosovo and Iraq, ever-greater power was deployed to advance such plans. In Kosovo, the UN administration assumed the authority to jail anyone, change the constitution, appoint officials, and approve the government’s budget (although it used these powers relatively cautiously). In Iraq, Paul Bremer, the American administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, assumed full executive power and sent American and British officials—I was one of them—to govern the Iraqi provinces. They rewrote university curricula, remade the army, and fired hundreds of thousands of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and detained tens of thousands more.

Afghanistan—the third of the four great interventions of the age—was the exception. There, the senior UN official, Lakhdar Brahimi, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proposed a light footprint. Although they came from very different political traditions (Brahimi was an anticolonial independence leader in Algeria), they both mocked Kosovo as a neocolonial farce. Both feared that a heavy footprint in Afghanistan would make the government too dependent on foreign money and troops and provoke an insurgency. Rumsfeld initially authorized only 2,000 U.S. troops and forbade any nation building. No attempt was made to create anything comparable to the mission in Kosovo or, later, that in Iraq. And in order to ensure that his idealistic UN staff was not tempted into running Afghanistan, Brahimi blocked the opening of UN field offices in many of the provinces. Instead, the lead was given to the Afghan transitional government under President Hamid Karzai.

By 2004, three years into the intervention, most of Afghanistan was safer, freer, and more prosperous, with better services and opportunities than it had had in 30 years. But there was a dark side to this story: the corruption was far worse than during the Soviet occupation or Taliban rule, the police were brutal, and the judicial system worked only for those who could afford the bribes. The production of opium poppies—which had been nearly eliminated by the Taliban by 2000—soared, with profits flowing to the most senior government officials.

Securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 2021
U.S. Marines / Reuters

Helmand Province was perhaps the most extreme failure. It was controlled by local strongmen—confirmed in government positions by Karzai—whose families had run the province in the 1980s and early 1990s and who used their newfound power to reignite a decades-long civil war over land and drugs. (Helmand was then producing 90 percent of Afghanistan’s opium and much of the heroin that found its way to Europe.) Regularly robbed and tortured by these commanders, Afghans in some parts of the province became nostalgic for the Taliban.

Many commentators blamed these setbacks on the light footprint, arguing that the United States had been distracted by Iraq, had failed to plan properly, and had not deployed enough resources or troops. UN officials, counternarcotics agents, journalists, and human rights and anticorruption campaigners all called for the toppling of the warlords. Academics warned that the lack of good governance would alienate the local population and undermine the credibility of the Afghan government. Practically everyone assumed that there was a realistic plan to fix governance in Afghanistan—and that the missing ingredients were more resources and international troops. As one 2003 RAND report on nation building argued: “The United States and its allies have put 25 times more money and 50 times more troops, on a per capita basis, into post-conflict Kosovo than into post-conflict Afghanistan. This higher level of input accounts in significant measure for the higher level of output measured in terms of democratic institutions and economic growth.”

These ideas led NATO to launch what was in effect a second, heavier intervention: a regime-change operation aimed this time not at the Taliban but at the power structures that had been established by the coalition’s ally Karzai. By 2005, NATO “provincial reconstruction teams” had sprouted up across the country, the UN had begun to disarm and demobilize the warlords and their militias, and the number of NATO troops had begun to climb. General John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, predicted that 2005 would be “the decisive year.”

As the troop counts rose, the problem of good governance became a problem of insurgency.

By 2006, the most powerful warlords had been stripped of their posts in Helmand, and the United Kingdom had deployed thousands of troops to the province. Their aim was not to fight the Taliban, perceived at the time as a weak force. Rather, the troops focused on improving governance and justice and on stamping out corruption and drugs. This plan, dubbed “the comprehensive approach,” demanded an ever-heavier international footprint. Few seemed to doubt its feasibility. The commander of the NATO-led operation, British General David Richards, insisted that the mission was “doable if we get the formula right, and it is properly resourced.” He increased the number of troops under his command from 9,000 to 33,000 and claimed that 2006 would be “the crunch year.”

But as the troop counts rose, the problem of good governance became a problem of insurgency. In 2006, the number of Taliban bomb attacks increased fivefold, and the number of British casualties increased tenfold. This, too, was blamed on an imperfect plan and insufficient resources. In 2007, a new general announced another strategy, requiring still more resources. The same thing happened in 2008. NATO troop increases were followed by U.S. troop increases. In 2009, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal announced a new plan for 130,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers, claiming he was “knee-deep in the decisive year.”

FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION

By this point, tens of thousands of Afghans and thousands of international troops had been killed, and Afghanistan was considerably less safe than it had been in 2005. But the interveners still insisted that somewhere out there was a formula for state building and counterinsurgency that could succeed. Counterinsurgency experts began to suggest that perhaps 700,000 troops would do it.

As the U.S. presence in Afghanistan increased, so did the temperature of the political rhetoric in Washington. In 2003, when 30 U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan, it was possible to justify the mission as one of a number of small U.S. operations stretching from Asia to the Horn of Africa. But by 2008, with five times as many U.S. soldiers dying per year and tens of billions of dollars being spent, more extreme justifications were demanded. Officials now argued that if Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Pakistan would, too, and extremists would get their hands on nuclear weapons. Catching Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama insisted, required “winning” in Afghanistan. Failure was not an option.

None of this was true, of course. Pakistan and much of the Middle East were more important threats in terms of terrorism and regional instability. Catching bin Laden required only catching bin Laden. But the savage and changeable winds of public opinion demanded ever more paranoid and grandiose statements. U.S. plans for state building and counterinsurgency became tissues of evasion and euphemism, justified with contorted logic, dressed in partial statistics, and decorated with false analogies. They were inflexible, simplistic, overly optimistic, and shrilly confident. And because these plans remained obsessed with fixing the Taliban-dominated areas of southern Afghanistan, they diverted investment from the stable, welcoming areas of central and northern Afghanistan, where significant development progress was still possible.

McChrystal in Nakhonay, Afghanistan, June 2010
Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

Many of these optimistic plans contained barely concealed prophecies of failure. McChrystal, for example, maintained that no amount of U.S. military power could stabilize Afghanistan “as long as pervasive corruption and preying upon the people continue to characterize governance.” Obama himself acknowledged that such misconduct was unlikely to change—but he nonetheless authorized a slightly pared-down version of McChrystal’s request for almost 40,000 additional troops.

While the United States continued to refine its plans, the Taliban implemented their own vision for how to establish security, governance, and the rule of law. They called it sharia, and they sold it not from a military fort but from within tribal structures, appealing to rural habits and using Islamic references, in Pashto. And the more military power the interveners deployed against them, the more they could present themselves as leading a jihad for Afghanistan and Islam against a foreign military occupation.

To the Americans and their allies, it seemed impossible that the U.S. military, with its fleets of gunships and cyberwarfare capabilities, its cutting-edge plans for counterinsurgency and state building, and its billions of dollars in aid and investment, could be held off by a medieval group that lived in mud huts, carried guns designed in the 1940s, and rode ponies. The interveners continued to believe that the international community could succeed in nation building anywhere in the world, provided that it had the right plan and enough resources.

THE FALSE LESSONS OF BOSNIA

This view reflected a tragic misreading of the experience in Bosnia, which was a much more cautious and constrained intervention than many recall. The number of international troops was higher there than in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, but both foreign soldiers and foreign civilians in Bosnia were severely limited in what they could do. (Ashdown’s vision of an omnipotent international state builder, overruling local voices and implementing the perfect plan, was what he wished for, not what he found.)

Scarred by memories of Vietnam and the more recent failed intervention in Somalia, senior U.S. and European officials did not wish to be drawn into the long history of ethnic strife in the Balkans and so approached the conflict with immense caution. When the United States belatedly mounted a military intervention, it was focused on air operations to bomb the Bosnian Serb artillery around Sarajevo. The ground fighting was conducted by the Sarajevo-based Bosnia authority and by Croatian soldiers, who received their training from U.S. contractors. When international troops were deployed after the Dayton peace accords, they spent most of their time on their bases. More U.S. soldiers were injured playing sports than in action.

The Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina had much less power than its equivalent would be given in Kosovo and could not order military or police officers to enforce its decrees. The Dayton agreement handed 49 percent of the country’s territory to the Bosnian Serb aggressors and enshrined their power in areas that they had ethnically cleansed. The cautious international presence also initially left the Croatian and Serbian paramilitaries, special police forces, and intelligence services in place and did not disarm them. Instead of doing the equivalent of “de-Baathifying,” as Bremer did in Iraq, or toppling the warlords, as U.S. and coalition forces did later in southern Afghanistan, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina was required to work with the war criminals. The party of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was responsible for the massacre in Srebrenica, was allowed to participate in elections (and won the first postwar one, in 1996).

Success in Bosnia was due not to the strength of the international presence but to its comparative weakness.

Bosnia was ultimately transformed not by foreign hands but by messy and often unexpected local solutions that were supported by international diplomacy. The first breakthrough came when Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic split from her mentor, the war criminal Karadzic, and then requested international support. Plavsic was herself a war criminal who had described Bosnian Muslims as “genetically deformed material.” But the international forces worked with her to disarm the special police forces, Bosnian Serb units that acted as de facto militias. Later, the death of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and the toppling of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic fatally weakened their proxies in Bosnia. Neither of these events was part of a planned strategy by the international community, but both helped what had initially been a tiny and apparently toothless war crimes tribunal in The Hague expand its operations, leading eventually to the capture and prosecution not only of Karadzic but also of Plavsic herself. Cautious compromises ultimately led not to appeasement but to justice.

The reversal of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia also owed very little to international plans. Despite the Dayton agreement’s commitment to refugee return, many international experts considered it reckless to allow refugees to go back to villages that had been burned to the ground and occupied by hostile militias. Nonetheless, small groups of Bosnians tried to move back to their homes. Some were ejected immediately by armed groups, but others held on and persuaded international troops to follow and protect them. These small Bosnian-led initiatives—improvised, incremental, and following no international plan—opened the door for the return of over a million refugees.

Within a decade of the intervention, more than 200,000 homes had been given back to their owners, over 400,000 soldiers from three armies had been disarmed, and Bosnia had built a unified army of 15,000 soldiers. All the major war criminals were caught and tried, and Bosnia’s homicide rate fell below that of Sweden. All of this was achieved at a cost of almost zero American and NATO lives. And as Gerald Knaus, the chair of the European Stability Initiative, a European think tank specializing in the Balkans, has argued, such successes were due not to the strength of the international presence but to its comparative weakness: a relatively restrained intervention forced local politicians to take the lead, necessitated often uncomfortable compromises, and made foreign civilians and troops act cautiously to reinforce unexpected and improvised local initiatives.

THE VANISHING MIDDLE GROUND

Could a light footprint in Afghanistan have eventually led to similar successes? Perhaps, but with greater difficulty. Afghanistan was much poorer when the United States invaded than Bosnia was at the time of the NATO intervention: adult life expectancy was about 48, one in seven children died before the age of five, and most men (and almost all women) were unable to read or write. Afghan communities were far more conservative, religious, and suspicious of foreigners than Bosnian communities had been (thanks in part to CIA efforts to develop their identity as heroic resisters of foreign occupation during the Soviet period). But the initially limited and restrained international presence in Afghanistan still enabled far more progress than most critics of the war have acknowledged.

The violence and poor governance—particularly in Helmand, elsewhere in southern Afghanistan, and in eastern Afghanistan—that were used to discredit the light-footprint approach were not representative of all of rural Afghanistan. In Bamiyan, for example, a province of three million people in the center of the country, military strongmen retained power, but there was peace. Between 2001 and 2004, locals established excellent schools, even in outlying settlements, providing most girls with their first experience of formal education and laying the foundation for some of them to attend college. The people of Bamiyan—long a marginalized community—began to take senior positions in universities, the media, ministries, and other government agencies. The government extended paved roads and electricity to villages that had never seen them before. Life was much better than it had been under the Taliban, which had led genocidal attacks against Bamiyan communities. (In the winter of 2001–2, I walked through village after village that had been burned to the ground by the Taliban.) All this progress occurred with only a few dozen foreign soldiers in the province and no international civilian administrators.

There also was progress in other central regions and in areas to the north, including in Herat, much of Mazar-e Sharif, the Panjshir Valley, the Shomali Plain, and Kabul. In all these places, a light international footprint meant fewer international casualties, which in turn reduced the pressure on American and European politicians and generals to make exaggerated claims. It also compelled the international community to engage in a more modest discussion with the Afghan people about what kind of society they themselves desired and to accept ideas and values that Americans and Europeans did not always share. In short, it forced a partnership.

By 2005, the Afghan economy was almost twice as big as it had been in 2001. The population of Kabul had quadrupled in size, and new buildings were shooting up. On television, young female and male presenters had the confidence to satirize their rulers. And the progress was not confined to the capital: across the country, 1.5 million girls went to school for the first time. Mobile phones spread like wildfire. Health and life expectancy improved. There was less violence than at any point in the previous 40 years, and no insurgency remotely comparable to what had exploded in Iraq. Perhaps most encouraging of all was that although millions of people had fled in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, millions of Afghan refugees were choosing to return home during this period.

A light and sustained footprint modeled on the Bosnian intervention should have been the approach for Afghanistan.

What would have happened if the United States and NATO had tried to retain a light footprint and a restrained approach beyond 2005? What if they had deployed fewer troops, invested in generous development aid, and resisted fighting the drug trade, toppling warlords, and pursuing a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban? The answer would have depended to a great extent on the initiatives of local actors and the competition among them, the developments in neighboring countries, and luck—just as the outcome in Bosnia did. In many parts of Afghanistan, there would have been poverty, a lack of democratic representation, and strongman rule. In regions controlled by drug lords and racked by Pashtun infighting and Pakistani meddling, there probably would have been continued horror, especially if U.S. special operations forces and their proxies had continued to hunt for terrorists. But across much of the country, from Bamiyan to Panjshir, there could have been continued improvements in health, education, and employment—particularly if an overambitious surge had not diverted development funds away from these regions and to the insurgency areas. And for millions of people in Herat and Kabul, this progress could have been combined with an increasingly open and democratic civil society.

Most important, however, many of the problems caused by the heavier international presence and the surge would have been avoided. Well meaning though they were, the attempts to depose local warlords in the name of good governance created power vacuums in some of the most ungovernable regions of the country, alienated and undermined the elected government, and drove the warlords and their militias to ally with the Taliban. The counternarcotics campaigns alienated many others who lost their livelihoods.

The United States did attempt to return to a lighter footprint in 2014, but by then, immense damage had been done. The surge had formed an Afghan army that was entirely reliant on expensive U.S. aircraft and technology, created a new group of gangster capitalists fed from foreign military contracts, and supercharged corruption. Military operations had killed thousands of people, including many civilians, deepening hatred. And the presence of more than 100,000 international troops in rural villages had allowed the Taliban—which had been a weak and fragile group—to present themselves as fighting for Afghanistan and Islam against a foreign occupation. In 2005, under the light footprint, a British intelligence analyst told me there were between 2,000 and 3,000 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Six years later, after tens of thousands of Afghans had been killed and half a trillion dollars had been spent, General Richard Barrons of the British army estimated that there were 36,000 Taliban fighters in the country.

But just as the initial light footprint was better than the surge, so the later light footprint was better than a total withdrawal. A few thousand international troops, supporting air operations, were still capable of preventing the Taliban from holding any district capital—much less marching on Kabul. And by preventing a Taliban takeover, the troops were able to buy valuable time for health and educational outcomes to improve, development assistance to continue, income and opportunity to grow, and rights to be more firmly established for millions of Afghans.

Although the cost of the surge had been immense, the cost of remaining beyond 2021 would have been minimal. The United States could have supported 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan almost indefinitely—and with little risk. So long as U.S. airpower and support for the Afghan air force remained in place, the Taliban would have posed a minimal threat to U.S. troops in their heavily defended air bases. (Eighteen U.S. service members were killed in 2019, perhaps the fiercest year of the fighting, before the cease-fire agreement.) The Taliban were not on the verge of victory; they won because the United States withdrew, crippled the Afghan air force on its way out, and left Afghan troops without air support or resupply lines. In other words, the decision to withdraw was driven not by military necessity, the interests of the Afghans, or even larger U.S. foreign policy objectives but by U.S. domestic politics.

Yet many Americans welcomed the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan because their leaders had not properly explained to them how light the U.S. presence had become or what it was protecting. Politics in the West seems to abhor the middle ground, swinging inexorably from overreach and overstatement to isolationism and withdrawal. A light and sustained footprint modeled on the Bosnian intervention should have been the approach for Afghanistan—and, indeed, for interventions elsewhere in the world. Yet instead of arguing that failure in Afghanistan was not an option, former U.S. President Donald Trump behaved as though failure had no consequences. He showed no concern for how a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would affect the United States’ reputation and alliances, regional stability, terrorism, or the lives of ordinary Afghans. And he responded to exaggerated claims about Afghanistan’s importance not with moderate claims but with a refusal to maintain even the smallest presence there or to bear the slightest cost.

President Joe Biden has followed Trump’s Afghan policy in every detail, despite having famously advocated a light footprint—and argued against the surge—when he was Obama’s vice president. Somehow, over the years, he seems to have convinced himself that such an approach had failed. But the light footprint did not fail. What failed was the political culture of the West and the imagination of Western bureaucrats. The United States and its allies lacked the patience, realism, and moderation needed to find the middle path.

  • RORY STEWART is a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University and a co-author, with Gerald Knaus, of Can Intervention Work? He is former British Secretary of State for International Development, served as a coalition official in Iraq, and ran a development organization in Afghanistan.
The Last Days of Intervention
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The West and the Taliban can find common ground on aid

Sultan Barakat

Director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute.

While Afghans have finally seen a glimpse of stability for the first time in decades, they now face a major humanitarian and developmental catastrophe. In order to prevent this outcome, it is essential that all stakeholders in Afghanistan and within the international community open a dialogue on how to get aid to the struggling Afghan population.

Though the country made significant strides in development over the last 20 years, its humanitarian situation was dire even before the Taliban takeover in August. In its aftermath, the majority of humanitarian activities ceased, which brought Afghanistan closer to the edge.

In recent weeks, the Afghan healthcare system has been described as “on the brink of collapse”. The World Food Programme has warned that only 5 percent of households in Afghanistan have enough to eat. The UN forecasts that, during the next fiscal year, its GDP will shrink by somewhere in the range of 3.6 percent to 13.2 percent. If no action is taken, the country will face near-“universal poverty”, with poverty rates rising to 97-98 percent.

In response to these multi-dimensional challenges, at the September 13 Geneva conference, donors pledged more than $1bn to help Afghanistan. Although this is 30-percent higher than what the UN requested for emergency assistance, it pales in comparison to US military expenditure of $300m per day over the past two decades. In spite of the pledges, much of what has been committed cannot be utilised because of the gridlock between the Taliban and the international community.

Since mid-August, Afghanistan has been cut off from critically needed resources that would enable it to deal with pressing humanitarian and development challenges. Presently, Afghan state institutions are facing a financial crisis due to the US government’s decision to freeze nearly $9.5bn of central bank assets in US-based financial institutions.

Due to the destabilising effect this move has had on the banking system and the lack of funds, the country may be forced to rely on money transfers via the Hawala system and traditional forms of money lending and bartering in order to survive. These forms of informal transactions have often been associated with criminal activities, money laundering, and terrorism financing.

Back in August, just as Kabul fell, I argued that a disaster in Afghanistan can be averted. This required both the Taliban and the West to convey their expectations and set clear, measurable targets moving forward – and this remains true today. In charting a way forward towards international cooperation to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, all concerned stakeholders should heed the following important messages.

First, the Taliban must overcome its instinctive rejection of the West. Despite the tremendous temptation and desire for vengeance, its leadership must also ensure that humanitarian aid is not siphoned off to its fighters and is not used to exert pressure on the international community at any time.

The Taliban may perceive non-recognition as a snub, but it should be aware that Western governments are constrained by their own electorates appalled by media reporting on human rights abuses and mistreatment of women and minorities.

Second, leading Western donors should recognise that a business-as-usual approach will not work in Afghanistan today. The country under a Taliban government is very different from post-disaster or state collapse zones in which the UN and others can step in to provide aid outside of the framework of the state.

Whether or not it is recognised internationally, the Afghan government is functioning within the Afghan state and its national institutions, which have been built up at a great cost in resources and effort over the past 20 years. They may have some deficiencies and suffer from corruption, but they work.

Yet large-scale development without engaging state institutions is unlikely to go ahead. There is an urgent need to explore potential means of coordination that would allow some form of development assistance to proceed short of full recognition of the de facto Taliban government.

Education and health are two sectors in which Western aid can open channels of communication and coordination with the Taliban without the need for formal recognition. National institutions with a demonstrated record of effective collaboration are already in place with a wide network of community-based governance structures, non-governmental organisations, and private firms able to lead a whole-of-society approach to development. One example is the Citizen’s Charter, which replaced the National Solidarity Programme, one of the largest and most successful community-based reconstruction schemes globally.

It is crucial that international aid builds up rather than replaces local capacities. The Taliban lacks the resources, knowledge, and skills to effectively govern Afghanistan on its own. Financing local priorities, utilising untapped resources, and investing in developing local capacity and public administration would build confidence and make the Taliban more cooperative.

Despite the fact that 120,000 people have fled Afghanistan, including many highly skilled and educated individuals, there is still a large pool of specialists and workers there that can be mobilised for development projects. The recent post-evacuation “brain drain” should not be used as an excuse by internationals for continuing longstanding and harmful practices of importing human resources.

Third, life-saving humanitarian aid should not be used as a bargaining chip to win political concessions. The West has often tried to utilise humanitarian aid as leverage against the Taliban. This counterproductive approach must be avoided at all costs, to prevent the Taliban from taking desperate measures to pursue close relations with non-traditional donors not equipped to effectively support development in Afghanistan.

Western donors should recognise that there are important political dynamics within the Taliban that affect its decision-making. In particular, there is a split between military leaders and the political or peace wing that negotiated with the US in Doha. Over time, lack of engagement with the Taliban will only reinforce the position of the hardline military elements. If the West does not revise its approaches, Afghanistan could easily become a breeding ground for insecurity and a thriving narcotics trade, regionally and globally.

In conclusion, humanitarian assistance is one of the only common languages shared by Kabul and the West today. On all sides there is a strong will to communicate yet what is missing is an effective medium for dialogue. One immediate step in the right direction would be to establish an independent council of nationally-respected Afghans who could act as an intermediary and facilitate communication between the Taliban and outside parties. At first, this would enable a shared understanding on lifesaving aid delivery and over time, it could open up the potential for the West to constructively engage the Taliban on a range of other issues.

Direct or indirect dialogue is vital to not just preventing a humanitarian crisis but also enhancing opportunities for more effective ways of working across the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus.

The West and the Taliban can find common ground on aid
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AVERTING AFGHANISTAN’S ECONOMIC AND FOOD CRISES

By 

Foreign Policy in Focus

October 6, 2021

Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation is spiraling into catastrophe.

Millions of Afghans are now facing severe economic stress and food insecurity in the wake of the Taliban’s August takeover, set off by widespread lost income, cash shortages, and rising food costsOfficials with the UN and several foreign governments are warning of an economic collapse and risks of worsening acute malnutrition and outright famine.

Surveys by the World Food Program (WFP) reveal over nine in ten Afghan families have insufficient food for daily consumption, half stating they have run out of food at least once in the last two weeks. One in three Afghans is already acutely hungry. Other United Nations reports warn that over 1 million more children could face acute malnutrition in the coming year.

One main cause of the crisis is that governments in August stopped payments from the World Bank-administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, previously used to pay salaries to millions of civil servants, doctors, nurses, teachers, and other essential workers. Afghanistan’s health and education systems, among other sectors, are collapsing. Millions of Afghan families have lost their incomes.

At the same time, Afghan banks and global financial institutions, including Western Union, MoneyGram, and the Central Bank of Afghanistan, now lack enough paper currency to cover withdrawals. Account holders receiving foreign transfers or with “money in the bank” — ordinary Afghans, companies, UN agencies, humanitarian aid organizations — can’t access their money.

Donor governments are understandably concerned about actions that would bolster or appear to legitimate Taliban authorities who are arbitrarily arresting and attacking activists, journalists, and former government workers and adopting policies and practices that violate the rights of women and girls to education, employment, and freedom of movement. They have already imposed severe restraints on activists, women, and the media and resumed executions.

But Afghanistan’s underlying economic and humanitarian problems, which disproportionately affect women and girls, cannot simply be ignored because of the Taliban’s record.

The U.S. Treasury on September 24 did issue new guidance and licenses that authorize electronic transfers with Afghanistan banks and other entities for humanitarian purposes. The problem is that electronic transactions alone cannot address the crisis. The Afghan Central Bank needs to be able to supply physical dollars and afghanis.

But after the Taliban takeover, the New York Federal Reserve cut off the Central Bank’s access to its U.S. dollar assets and capacity to settle U.S. dollar transactions with other banks — and its capacity to purchase paper dollars from the Federal Reserve to ensure liquidity and currency stability. The World Bank also stopped the bank from accessing its assets held by the International Monetary Fund.

U.S. dollar transactions, including paper transactions, are integral to Afghanistan’s economy. Most of the country’s gross domestic product comes from outside the country in the form of dollars — donor money, remittances, export income. If the Afghan Central Bank isn’t provided with a method of settling dollar accounts and obtaining new paper currency in dollars, liquidity problems and cash shortages will only grow worse. Local currency issues also need to be addressed. Companies that print Afghan currency in Europe, concerned about sanctions, still cannot ship new bills to Kabul. Taliban authorities have no capacity to print money.

Afghanistan’s economy has a limited capacity for resilience. The new Taliban authorities, like the previous government, do not possess adequate revenue sources to fund basic government services. This is a country that has relied on outside donors to help with such services for most of its modern existence.

The UN has announced a plan to send $45 million to support the health sector via UN agencies — but this will not solve the paper and liquidity crises. It’s not the UN’s role to fly millions of physical U.S. dollars into Afghanistan. Foreign governments need to figure out how to restore funding to public services, not only health but also education, using the country’s banks and without enriching the Taliban or facilitating their abuses.

In doing so, the U.S. government and other main donors to Afghanistan will need to adjust sanctions policies and reach agreements allowing the Central Bank to process selected transactions and obtain paper currency. Donors and the Taliban will also need to agree on methods for supporting vital services through independent organizations such as the UN or non-governmental organizations.

The Taliban will have to accept that concerns about providing direct budgetary support, and preventing corruption, will require independent financial oversight of transactions — something UN and international financial authorities already do. The Taliban will also need to accept that donors will only support assistance and services that are equitably distributed to women and men, girls and boys, and allow systems to monitor and ensure that services benefit all Afghans.

Inaction is untenable. The Taliban’s cruelties are horrendous, but walking away from past support for vital services, politically and economically isolating the country, and maintaining overbroad, blanket financial restrictions, won’t mitigate the abuses, but only hurt the Afghan people more.

John Sifton is the Asia Advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

AVERTING AFGHANISTAN’S ECONOMIC AND FOOD CRISES
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Why the Taliban’s Repression of Women May Be More Tactical Than Ideological

The New York Times

October 4, 2021

For Afghanistan’s new rulers, keeping the clamps on women is a kind of marketing. But it may still cost them dearly.

The defaced windows of a beauty shop in Kabul in August.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Why are the Taliban stripping away so many of Afghan women’s hard-won freedoms?

That may seem like a facetious question. When the Taliban ruled the country in the 1990s, after all, their regime was known for having some of the world’s harshest restrictions on women. The group still adheres to a fundamentalist vision of Islamic society.

But ideology is only part of the story.

Every group has a range of beliefs, and not all of them become priorities for governance. Some Taliban officials, particularly those who conducted peace negotiations and favored international engagement, have suggested that this iteration of Taliban governance might be less restrictive toward women. And there are certainly economic incentives, as the resumption of international aid would be based at least in part on human rights considerations.

None of that has seemed to make a difference thus far. Though some Taliban officials continue to say that conditions will improve, women are still being kept from workplaces and schools. Each week seems to bring a new report of restrictions.

In that light, the Taliban’s decision to restrict women’s freedom begins to look like a political choice as much as it is a matter of ideology. Understanding why the Taliban might see that choice as rewarding, experts say, offers insight into the group’s state-building efforts, and to the nature of the society they now rule again.

On the walls outside the former Ministry for Women's Affairs in Kabul, women’s faces were erased from murals last month.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“I did not for a minute believe that the Taliban had changed,” said Muqaddesa Yourish, a former deputy minister of commerce who fled to the United States with her family when the Taliban took power. “If anything has changed about them, it is that they know how to deal with the West.”

Less than two months after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, their promised allowances for women in the workplace and schools have yet to appear. Most women are still banned from going to work, a supposedly temporary measure the Taliban claim is necessary for security.

The leadership is using the same wording in describing when women might be allowed to attend public universities. And when secondary schools reopened this month, the Taliban directed boys to return to the classroom but said nothing about girls, which families across the country understood as a directive that girls should stay home.

Groups like the Taliban often struggle to make the transition from violent insurgency to actual governance, said Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who studies rebel governance in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.

A march by women in support of the Taliban last month in Kabul. The Taliban’s main strength is controlling security.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

“We shouldn’t buy this narrative that they are an alternative to the previous government because they are providing security,” said Metra Mehran, the co-founder of the Feminine Perspectives Campaign, which sought to bring women’s voices into peace negotiations. “They’re not providing security; they’ve just stopped killing us.”

Dr. Mukhopadhyay echoed that sentiment. “That’s the cornerstone of understanding what the Taliban is offering: security and also the threat of force,” she said. “But people, particularly women, know that form of security comes with an ideology attached to it.”

Viewed through that lens, restricting women’s freedom serves as a powerful demonstration of the Taliban’s power. When women and girls vanish from offices and schools, it shows that the Taliban have enough power — and implicitly, enough capacity and willingness to use violence — to dramatically re-engineer public spaces.

Dr. Mukhopadhyay noted that the Taliban had not only dismantled the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, but had also replaced it with the Ministry for Vice and Virtue, the feared religious police known for their public beatings of women who went out without a male relative or were dressed in something other than a burqa.
“That’s a very potent symbol of who’s winning within the Taliban right now,” she said.
Taliban fighters on patrol in Kabul last month. When women and girls vanish from offices and schools, it shows that the Taliban have enough power to dramatically re-engineer public spaces.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

But marketing is only part of the story. Despite support and funding for gender-equality efforts during 20 years of U.S.-backed governments, Afghan women’s freedoms have always been fragile.

Ms. Yourish said she has always sensed that many Afghan men were uncomfortable with women in public life. Although her own father and husband were supportive of her career, she said, they often seemed like outliers.

In the final days before the Taliban took power, Ms. Yourish said, she and her friends traded stories of how “the Talib in every man is coming out,” she said. Male strangers approached her and other women on the street, shouting cryptic threats like “your days will be over soon,” she said. She could sense women’s progress crumbling, she said, even before the previous government fell.

On paper and in the tables of foreign aid budgets, gender equality was a priority for two decades. And there were substantial improvements for many women, especially those who were educated and lived in more urban areas.

But Afghanistan remains a deeply patriarchal society. The Taliban’s promise to return to “traditional” values, in which women are subordinate to their male relatives, is an attractive offer to many Afghan men.

Alice Evans, a researcher at King’s College London who studies women’s economic and social progress, said women’s rights were caught in a “patrilineal trap.”

Societies where family wealth passes through the male line traditionally place a high value on brides’ chastity, Dr. Evans said. “Girls are then closely policed to improve their marriage prospects and family honor,” she said, and norms develop that keep women out of public life.

Women in Ghazni, Afghanistan, last month.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The dynamic is self-reinforcing: Families do not want to risk deviating from social norms on their own, so everyone ends up stuck in a system in which women have to stay close to home.

To get out of that trap, women’s wages have to become high enough that the benefits of working outweigh the risks to family honor, Dr. Evans said. In East Asia, for instance, rapid industrialization raised women’s potential earnings, effectively buying them out of the honor-based rules that constrained them to the home.

That did not happen in Afghanistan, where economic productivity and employment languished despite the influx of aid. Women’s wages did not rise enough, in enough places, to outweigh their families’ honor-based concerns, or to transform social norms.

That may strengthen the Taliban. Rebel groups that are seen as grounded in local communities and values tend to be more successful, Dr. Mukhopadhyay said. For conservative Afghans, particularly men, restricting women’s freedom may be a way for the Taliban to claim they support local values.

But it could still backfire, Dr. Mukhopadhyay said, if restrictions are so extreme that Afghans see them as overreach by leaders who do not understand how the country has changed. For decades, “the Talibs were living across the border in Pakistan,” she said. “Their perceptions of Islam, and modernity, are not the same as those of people in Afghanistan.”

Women’s employment did become widespread enough that many families relied, at least partly, on their income, said Manizha Wafeq, the co-founder and president of the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Their earnings have vanished in recent weeks as a result of Taliban restrictions, and that could cut into the public’s acceptance of their rule.

“It’s already an economic crisis for the whole country,” Ms. Wafeq said. “People are already trying to figure out how to feed their families.”

Why the Taliban’s Repression of Women May Be More Tactical Than Ideological
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