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The US cannot save Afghanistan

By Andrew Mwenda

Last week, I finished reading Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, an inside account of Obama’s approach to the war in Afghanistan. Then on Sunday night, I watched a two-hour documentary on National Geographic titled Inside Talibanistan, an interesting tale of the complexity of fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Both the book and the documentary demonstrate the pitfalls a foreign power, however powerful and well intentioned, encounters in trying to fight a local insurgency and help rebuild a state.

It is almost impossible for foreigners to alter the fortunes of a country except under extremely exceptional circumstances that are rare to find and difficult to create. For a country to undergo progressive change, it needs a politically weighted majority in the local society in favour of the necessary policy and institutional reforms. So state building is largely an endogenous process of transformation. Foreign assistance can help only when internal conditions are ripe.

For example, the US has been in Afghanistan for nine years now; in Iraq for seven. With over 90,000 troops in each country, the US has spent over $1.3 trillion trying to bolster those countries’ security, re-building their states and reconstructing their economies. Indeed, the mandate of NATO in Afghanistan (just like the US role in Iraq) is to assist the government ‘in exercising and extending its authority and influence across the country, paving the way for reconstruction and effective governance.’

Yet on August 10, 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then newly appointed U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said that the Taliban ‘has presently gained the upper hand’ and that NATO ‘is not winning in the eight-year-old war.’ Instead, the militants ‘have aggressively spread their influence into the north and west’ of Afghanistan and ‘stepped up their attacks in an attempt to disrupt August 20 presidential polls.’ June 2010 was the worst month for NATO, losing over 100 troops in one month.

Now the US and her allies have also been involved in trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by financing economic reconstruction of the country and to deliver humanitarian assistance. USAID alone has spent over $5.4 billion on development aid. Indeed, Afghanistan ($3.5 billion every year) is only second to Iraq ($9.5 billion per year) in receiving development aid.

Compare this with Uganda, with 32 million people; we have received about $ 23 billion in aid and debt relief over the last 25 years. We think this is a lot of money and that our government is incompetent. Yet with only 50,000 soldiers and a budget of US$ 250m per year, Yoweri Museveni has been able to contain insurgents and ensure security in most of the country while at the same time sustain economic growth for 22 years.

On the other hand, Afghanistan has over 120,000 highly trained and enormously resourced NATO troops. It has another 100,000 troops from the national army who are trained by NATO. Their combined budget is over $340 billion per year; to fight poorly trained and ill-equipped Taliban insurgents. Yet this force is unable to ensure basic law and order in most of the country ‘ nine years down the road. With a population of 29 million, Afghanistan is swimming in aid money. Yet the UN ranks it 174th out of 178 countries in terms of wealth.

The Taliban, which is increasing its attacks, spends less than $500 per soldier per year. The US spends $250,000 on each of its soldiers per year; and $12,000 on each Afghan soldier per year. How can the US army, its NATO allies and its comparatively highly resourced local auxiliary force fail to defeat a poorly trained, poorly equipped Taliban force?

I have increasingly come to believe that in Africa, we are quick to ignore our achievements and think others are better than us. Our rebels-turned-presidents are clearly superior to NATO in terms of efficiency. They have built armies on a string-budget and pacified large areas of their territories; and they have sustained robust growth of their local economies. Their success is clearly because they are rooted within the local context and able to appreciate and understand the necessary political deals that need to be made in order to ensure that the state functions effectively and efficiently.

Foreign military and development aid has not been able to build local capacity to ensure basic law and order or to build a viable economy that can finance a robust state in Afghanistan. This is because in spite of claims to building a democracy, the Afghan people are not in charge of their destiny. That is now the responsibility of the US and her allies who tell the government what to do. The Afghan government has no capacity and has little incentive to build an effective military because NATO is doing that for them.

The solution for Afghanistan does not lie in sustaining a poorly organised civilian administration in power in Kabul in order to pretend that there is democracy in the country. You cannot have democracy in anarchy. The best option for the US is to tactfully withdraw from Afghanistan and allow a strong and better organised Taliban force take power. For then, the US can use a combination of bribes (aid) and threats (of aerial bombardment) to cajole, bribe and coerce the Taliban to collaborate with it in fighting Al Qaeda.

At an international conference on Afghanistan on January 26, 2010 in London, Afghan president Hamid Karzai told world leaders that he intended to reach out to the top echelons of the Taliban within a few weeks with a peace initiative. Karzai set the framework for dialogue with Taliban leaders when he called on the group’s leadership to take part in a ‘loya jirga’ or large assembly of elders’to initiate peace talks.

I found Karzai’s position (which had earlier been argued by US defence secretary Robert Gates) refreshing. It is futile to look at the Taliban as terrorists and ignore their potential as partners in the search for peace in Afghanistan. The international community, however well intentioned, powerful and well resourced, cannot solve the crisis of the state in Afghanistan; only Afghans can.

amwenda@independent.co.ug

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