In Afghanistan, a 15-Year Failure

Endemic corruption has prevented any sort of victory.


U.S. Army

There is a perverse symmetry on display in Afghanistan right now. Fifteen years ago, American warplanes bombed targets there, beginning an offensive against the Taliban government and al-Qaida precipitated by the 9/11 attacks. This week, they were in action once again.

There was, of course, a big difference in the two operations. In 2001, our forces were opening a campaign that would end quickly in victory. Today, they are part of a war that has no victory, or conclusion, in sight.

The original triumph came quickly. By the end of 2001, the Taliban had surrendered in the capital; a new, pro-American government was in place; and Osama bin Laden was running for his life.

It was a thrilling turn of events. President George W. Bush said of our enemies, "They saw liberty and thought they saw weakness, and now they see defeat." British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed "a total vindication of the strategy that we have worked out from the beginning." Things went so well that the Bush administration felt free to start planning another war, in Iraq.

It's hard to believe now, but at the time, we appeared to know what we were doing in Afghanistan. It was an illusion, magnified by faith in our unparalleled military might and righteous mission.

Our confidence led us into a fatal error. We committed ourselves to remaking Afghanistan, but not wholeheartedly. Given a choice between a massive commitment of military and civilian resources to serious nation building on one hand and leaving as soon as the enemy was vanquished, we did neither.

Instead, we chose a middle course, a limited commitment, which averted the worst outcome but offered no way out. We remain wedded to that option for the indefinite future.

Despite sacrificing more than 2,300 lives and some $800 billion, we no longer expect anything but bleak reports from Afghanistan. Even the rare item of good news is bad. On Tuesday, for example, the government said it had reclaimed central Kunduz from Taliban units and was fighting to drive them out of other neighborhoods.

What's bad about that? Until last year, the city hadn't fallen to the Taliban since 2001. Then, they seized it and held it for two weeks. Their latest assault on the city—even if it can be reversed—indicates that security is still up for grabs.

All this fighting comes at the end of a bloody summer, in which Afghan forces took record casualties from a resilient foe. Only two-thirds of the country is under government control.

Unemployment is estimated at 40 percent. Millions of desperate Afghans have given up and fled, turning up as refugees in Pakistan, Iran or Europe. This week, the Kabul government, a perpetual charity case, sent representatives to ask for $3 billion in aid from donor nations at a conference in Brussels.

Any money is likely to be wasted. The watchdog group Transparency International rates Afghanistan one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. A unity government that is anything but unified has proved unable to act decisively on any of the grave problems afflicting the country.

No one dreamed in 2001 that in 2016, the United States would still be mired in Afghanistan. But some 9,800 American troops remain, along with another 5,000 troops from allied countries. Barack Obama, the anti-war candidate of 2008, can't bring himself to leave.

A report last month by the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction amounted to a chronicle of folly. It found that pervasive corruption has stymied our efforts, helped the enemy and sapped public support for the government. It quoted an Afghan official who in 2010 argued that "corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance."

Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Kabul, told the investigators that "the ultimate point of failure for our efforts … wasn't an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption." The people in the regime we were helping were the true enemy.

Looking back, it's clear the U.S. took on a project far beyond its capabilities. Arriving in a backward, war-torn country where we didn't speak the language, know the history, share the religion or understand the culture, we assumed that Marines, money and good intentions would produce a happy outcome.

So far, that approach hasn't worked. What makes us think it ever will?

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: Kennedy Puts Bill Weld Through the Wringer

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Well, what did we really expect to happen? Like the article says, the US has stayed in this “middle ground” area of not going far enough w/ military operations and not completely leaving. Add endless corruption on top of that situation, and there is no good outcome. If I remember reading correctly, the only military power to successfully invade and occupy Afghanistan was Genghis Khan and his army, and they succeeded because of their uh…tactics…during the conflict. Since we won’t and shouldn’t do that, my vote is for the US to get out of Afghanistan completely and be done with it. What benefit is there to staying (except for the military contractors, of course)?

    1. What benefit is there to staying (except for the military contractors, of course)?

      Indeed, the American military contractors are key ‘stakeholders’ in the process. And the politicians do their usual doubletalk to justify pouring money into the scam: for the average taxpayer, it is about “nation building” and “exporting democracy” and “investing in civil society” and similar pap. For the ‘hawks’, the Realpolitik-minded, it is about the Great Game, about geopolitics, about having influence in a strategically important place.

      But ultimately, it is about funneling the taxpayers’ monies to the supporters of the regime. That’s why “Barack Obama, the anti-war candidate of 2008, can’t bring himself to leave”; would he have ended the racket, all those who benefit from it directly or indirectly would have abandoned him.

      1. The reason President Obama couldn’t find the resolve to get out of Afghanistan, I believe, is that at some point he was briefed enough times to figure out the Afghan government would fall in short order following an American withdrawal. The decision to stay in Afghanistan had nothing to do with those dastardly contractors but a lot to do with wanting to avoid being assigned blame for “losing” Afghanistan.

    2. “and there is no good outcome”

      You ignore the fact that opium production is at an all-time high. This means money in the pockets of US and Afghan politicians.

      1. Yep. WIN WIN!

        As long as the military (or any bureaucracy) remains half-assed, it assures them perpetual budget increases that exceed the inflation rate.

      2. Opium production is up, opium profits are down. Inelastic demand.

        In 2000 the entire Afghan economy was only $8 billion, the Taliban lived off 20% of that, half from their tax on opium/heroin and half from their tax on smuggling stuff back into Pakistan (there’s a tax free road between one of the Pakistani ports and Afghanistan – yet another government ‘ban’ that supports criminals).

        The big money in Pakistan now comes from the US, not opium.

  2. Former Nobel chief: Obama Peace Prize a failure…../72396794/

    1. No shit Sherlock

    2. Give a socialist warmonger a peace prize. There was a noble idea.

    3. Look closer.

      the prize committee had expected the honor to deliver a boost to Obama, something he believes did not happen

      In other words, the problem was all the racists who dared question everything he did the past 8 years.
      Fuck these people. How about you just award someone who earned the award (past tense) vice someone you expect to do your bidding.

      1. the prize committee had expected the honor to deliver a boost to Obama,

        Actually, I think it did.

        Its just that Obama doesn’t really give a shit about peace, is all.

  3. I dunno man maybe if we keep bombing the Middle East something good will eventually happen?

    1. As with anything, if it’s the right “Top Men” in charge then it’ll work next time.

      Welfare and Warfare, the idiot co-joined twins of Misery. It is the backbone of the 20th century and still going strong into the 21st. And will continue to do so so long as there’s enough people who ardently believe that the failures of the past aren’t pre-built into the system but simply not having the correct Top Men in place.

    2. One of the biggest industries in Laos is digging up unexploded Vietnam war era unexploded bombs. Someone once referred to it as the most effective foreign aid program ever.

      1) requires industry on the part of the recipients,
      2) hard for the leaders of the country to steal,
      3) extends over decades,
      4) provides hard currency to the industrious.

      Deaths and injuries have plummeted, too, as workers have figured out how not to explode the stuff. Innovation at work.

  4. If you don’t succeed, try, try again! and again… and again… and again…

    1. Something something “definition of insanity…”

    2. and spend…spend…spend…spend….

      Something something- only thing government is good at.

  5. George W bush left hillary Clinton with a bigger mess than we initially realized.

    1. That fucking guy.

  6. Look, this is an understandable mistake. If we had some history to look back on we might have seen this coming. Someone had to be the first to fail in Afghanistan.

    1. I laughed at the Russians for going in despite the lessons of the British Empire. I just shook my head when we followed the Russians.

      1. “…Ha ha you fool. You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is, never get into a land war in Asia. But only slightly less well known….”

  7. It was the handling of 9/11 that turned into attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq – instead of a settling between East and West – and the passing of Medicare Part D that tossed my fully into libertarianism. It became clear that IF there is a fundamental conflict between East and West that needs to be settled, it wasn’t effectively going to be. There was going to be just enough Warfare to be the equivalent of poking at the black wasp nest from a safe distance, line profiteers pockets, and create a nice generation of Welfare cases missing various chunks of their body. It became clear that the governing class’ objective was to hold on to their space and time as best they could, ruling with the same disdain whether it was in Afghanistan or Nebraska, implementing the same Welfare/Warfare dyad here and there, and whatever threat – real or imagined – oriental cultures proffers wasn’t going to be addressed.

    1. (cont)

      In the end, I – now – only worry about staying on the right side of the razor wire for my lot. If the West is ultimately caving in to the oriental mentalities, I – and my children – will likely be dead before that happens. We’re at greater risk directly from our own ruling class and what they will resort to when the Ponzi schemes shortly fail. We’ve had over 100 years of spasmodic Welfare breeding Warfare breeding Welfare breeding Warfare breeding Welfare. Soon the ruling class isn’t going to have enough money to pound the shit out of Iraqis or Afghans and I have no doubt they will be finding nails closer to home for their Hammers Of Liberty.

      1. “the West is ultimately caving in to the oriental mentalities”

        I don’t think you have to worry about this. It is race, not class or religion, that defines American politics.

  8. so whats your solution smart ass? Has it failed yes Do you want to pull out, okay but is that the best answer and tell us why. there is none of that in your article.

    1. New to libertarianism? The understood answer is to gtfo and let the boy fucking barbarians deal with their own problems and let them decide if they want to enter the 21st century.

  9. Good article. Nice to see somebody acknowledge that the wars didn’t end on Jan 19, 2009. Quick, somebody alert the rest of the media.

    1. The media will say, its not a war because Congress didn’t declare war. They will continue with the story that the troops are just advisors and trainers.

      You can pleasantly remind them that progs and neocons don’t care if Congress Declares war for it to be a war. Furthermore, JFK had advisors and Special Forces trainers in Vietnam and that debacle lasted less than 15 years.

  10. Unless we are willing to make it the 51st state we will NEVER succeed there. You can not defeat a guerilla force unless the surrounding countries are supporting your efforts. They can run to safety and bide their time basically forever.

    1. You cannot defeat a guerilla force without moral high ground and support in that country either.

      History teaches us many lessons. Only if we learned.

  11. Should have just went In low key and nab UBL and some of his commanders, alive is possible then try and convict them in court. Overthrowing the entire regime and trying to rebuild was just stupid.

  12. Absent political concerns, the ideamresponse to 9/11 would have been to tevevise a lottery of Islamic cities, and then nuke them, followed by a statement along the lines of “This is what happens when you piss us off”.

    Not acceptable to the majority of the voters,and horrifying to the Washington Establishment. Bush would have been impeached, and convicted, and never mind if it was legal.

    So Bush waged limited war for limited ends. Pity he didn’t pull out, saying “Keep your nutcakes at home, or we WILL be back”, but that wasn’t politically possible either.

  13. Did they expect to be able to remake a country in anything but their own image?

  14. my friend’s mom makes $67 an hour on the internet . She has been fired for five months but last month her pay check was $20360 just working on the internet for a few hours. view….

  15. Bryce . even though Samuel `s story is unbelievable… on tuesday I bought a great Peugeot 205 GTi after making $4790 this – four weeks past an would you believe $10k last month . it’s definitly the most-comfortable work Ive ever done . I actually started 4 months ago and right away startad earning more than $85 p/h . find more info


  16. We only spent $800 billion?

    Did I miss the $400 billion rebate?

    Trivia: The entire economy of Afghanistan (that would be GDP), in 2010, was $7 billion.

    Can someone do a quick Net Present Value calculation for me …

  17. what Nancy replied I am dazzled that someone can make $5739 in 1 month on the computer
    see more at———–>>>

  18. what Nancy replied I am dazzled that someone can make $5739 in 1 month on the computer
    see more at———–>>>

  19. my friend’s mom makes $67 an hour on the internet . She has been fired for five months but last month her pay check was $20360 just working on the internet for a few hours. view….

  20. “Arriving in a backward, war-torn country ”

    Why Steve, how racist of you!

    Racist! Racist! Racist!

    You can only call poor whites “downscale” or “deplorable”, and suggest that their communities are not quite up to snuff, to the point that they “deserve to die”.

    Not so many poor whites in Afghanistan.

    Do you know what that means?

    You’re a Racist!
    Racist! Racist! Racist!

  21. Bryce . even though Samuel `s story is unbelievable… on tuesday I bought a great Peugeot 205 GTi after making $4790 this – four weeks past an would you believe $10k last month . it’s definitly the most-comfortable work Ive ever done . I actually started 4 months ago and right away startad earning more than $85 p/h . find more info


Please to post comments

Comments are closed.