Alexis Loh, World
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Afghanistan: What Next?

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By Alexis Loh

It has been close to half a year since the United States completed the disastrous withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, effectively giving the country over to Taliban control. The abruptness of the decision created chaos that rocked through the country. The capital city Kabul broke down into mayhem, and scenes of civilians clinging onto US Air Force planes out of desperation to flee the country were televised worldwide. Though news of Afghanistan has long since faded from national headlines, the tragedy in the country has only taken a turn for the worse, with the economy in freefall, political suppression abound, and increasing security threats disrupting people’s lives.

A Brief History

The Central Asian country of Afghanistan first came to the world’s attention in 1979 when the Soviets invaded and installed a leader that was more friendly to the communist regime. Fuelled by Cold War animosity, the US responded by supplying arms to various mujahideen groups, or guerilla Islamic militias. The protracted conflict became highly unpopular within the USSR, leading President Mikhail Gorbachev to withdraw all troops from the country in 1989, and eventually all financial support when the USSR fell. In the remaining power vacuum, the Taliban easily took over large swaths of Afghan land and established stability, eventually taking full control of the country in 1996. 
The Bush Administration was never friendly with the Taliban regime due to the latter’s sheltering of Al-Qaeda, and relations boiled over after 9/11, when the Taliban refused to extradite Osama Bin-Laden to the US. Operation Enduring Freedom was launched on October 7, 2001 to destabilize the Taliban government and by December 9 the Taliban gave up their last stronghold in Kandahar, giving control of Afghanistan over to the US. From then, attention turned towards development.

Afghanistan under the US

Aid poured into Afghanistan under US control, helping it make major leaps in both social and economic progress. The World Bank, for example, has committed more than $5.3 billion for development projects, and the Bank-administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund has raised another $12.9 billion. These contributions helped triple the rate of electricity access in the country, slashed maternal mortality rates by three fold, and increased gender equality in education. GDP per capita also increased sharply, from $21.80 in 2002 to $647 in 2018.

Figure 1: As a whole, Afghanistan’s GDP per capita grew 32-fold under US control, but strong growth began tapering off from 2012 onwards. (Source)

But the reality on the ground was not so optimistic. Despite notable gains in the economy, more than half of the population still lives under the poverty line and Afghanistan consistently ranks near the bottom in global measures of health, security, and living conditions. Corruption also festered under US control. In order to uphold the security objective of limiting American deployment of troops while still maintaining stability in the country, the US had to work together with local warlords. As a result, the US government forked out large sums of aid and granted political power to warlords with documented records of attacks on civilians, heavy involvement with the illicit opium trade, murder, abduction and rape. Not only had the US failed to fix the broken systems within Afghanistan that they had inherited, they actively pursued policies that worsened it in the name of stability.    

Notably, the Afghan economy began stagnating somewhere around 2012 and fell even before US withdrawal. After 2001, the Afghan economy had been largely premised on official development assistance, which was worth 50% of the country’s GDP from 2007-2009, but the fragile state of security and constant territorial skirmishes meant that investments often bore no fruit. The corresponding decline in GDP growth from 2012 onwards with decreasing troop deployments and aid easily reveals the vulnerability in Afghanistan’s economy.

Furthermore, poppy cultivation still remains a highly lucrative trade in Afghanistan. The value of the drug economy has been consistently higher than that of Afghanistan’s legal exports of goods and services, while land used to cultivate poppies tripled between 1979 and 2020. Under the US counternarcotics efforts often yielded little results, so much so that they were eventually rolled back due to the increased instability they brought, reversing the decline in poppy growth brought about by Taliban policies. The result was the flourishing of opium production under US control, hindering efforts to develop a legitimate agricultural sector and stable export revenue.

The result of US emphasis on security priorities rather than a real commitment to the development of Afghanistan created a country that was overly dependent on foreign aid and illicit trade to keep its economy operating. In 2019, the Afghan government only managed to raise $2.5 billion for public spending, with the remaining 75% coming from grants. 37% of spending went towards the security sector, once again emphasizing the priority of security over development, much to Afghanistan’s own detriment. 
After years of seemingly endless involvement in Afghanistan, the US was eager to remove themselves from such an expensive and unpopular engagement. In 2011, President Obama announced the first scaling back of the US commitment in Afghanistan, planning to withdraw all troops by 2014. In reality, the troop withdrawal timetable was delayed multiple times as tensions within Afghanistan flared repeatedly. Attempted peace negotiations with the Taliban took many years to come to fruition, beginning in late 2018 between America and the Taliban, and in late 2020 between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Though Afghanistan was supposed to transition to a civilian government after US withdrawal, the Taliban took over Kabul with very little resistance from the weak government forces, just six weeks after President Biden assured that such an event was “not inevitable”.

Taliban Rule

With the Taliban now in power, billions of international funds that served as the lifeblood of Afghanistan’s economy are now frozen in the name of sanctioning the group. Humanitarian aid was stopped for a brief period before it was allowed to trickle back in, but it is far from enough to support the struggling economy. The weak institutions that barely held up under the US are near collapse, and combined with a drought over the summer that slashed agricultural yields by a third, Afghanistan is near the brink of economic freefall. The United Nations has forecasted that the country’s GDP could fall by as much as 13.2% within a year, increasing poverty rates to a devastating 97%

The economic peril has only been worsened by security threats, especially those from ISIS Khorasan, or ISIS-K. A regional affiliate of the Islamic State, the extremist terror group primarily recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and especially among disaffected Taliban members. It claims that the Taliban has betrayed Islam by negotiating for peace, and has launched numerous bloody terrorist attacks on Taliban-led Afghanistan, such as an attack on a Kabul airport in late August that killed more than 150 Afghan civilians and at least 13 US service members. 
There are also rampant worries that the Taliban’s current regime will employ the same repressive policies that they did in the late 1990s, prompting artists and activists to flee the country. And though the Taliban has insisted publicly that their policies will be different this time, such as allowing for girls to go to school albeit in gender-segregated classes, many families have kept their daughters at home out of fear that the changes will not last for long. Other women have resorted to hiding their education credentials or selling their car to appear as less of a target for sexist attacks.

Key Takeaways

The disastrous transition of power in Afghanistan from America to the Taliban has raised one critical question: could the economic and humanitarian collapse we are witnessing now have been prevented? In America’s defense, the twenty years in which they had control of Afghanistan were hardly enough to build a stable political structure from scratch. Furthermore, in President Biden’s words, America’s mission in Afghanistan was not to “nation-build”, but to “get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to … keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States”. 

But at the same time, America’s invasion of Afghanistan without any plans of strengthening its institutional foundations has proven to be extremely myopic, ironically going against America’s promise of increased peace in many ways. Just as in Iraq, the power vacuum and instability that the US has left behind in Afghanistan has become the perfect breeding ground for non-state terrorist actors. In fact, it already has, in the form of the growth of ISIS-K. Firmer commitment to combating corruption and equipping the Afghan government with the tools they needed for economic and political self-sufficiency could have gone a long way to creating a country that was more stable and independent, helping Afghanistan on its first step towards long-lasting peace.  
As it stands, even with the US out of Afghanistan, they remain inextricably connected to the country’s fate. Just last week, President Biden announced that $7 billion that the Afghan government had kept stored in the New York Federal Reserve branch would be split up, with half going to the “benefit of the Afghan people”, and the other half used to compensate a group of 9/11 victims that had sued the Taliban. While the victims of 9/11 certainly deserve compensation for their loss, to do so amidst the economic collapse in Afghanistan has led some to calling the seizure of funds “theft” or even “mass murder”. It remains unclear what foreign policy position America and the EU will take towards Afghanistan in the long-term, but without greater assistance, the future of the country remains bleak. □

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