Ralph Lopez majored in Economics and Political Science at Yale University. He is an advocate of "impact journalism."
Calling the idea that the Taliban would not provide Al Qaeda with safe refuge after an American withdrawal "sheer fantasy," a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, and other experts, are throwing cold water on the Trump administration's hope that a peace deal can be cut which guarantees that the Taliban will not harbor Al Qaeda. Worse, perhaps, the appearance of ISIS on the scene adds an extra dimension of uncertainty. The Taliban exerts little control over ISIS, which is prone to even worse atrocities than the Taliban.
Javid Ahmad of the Atlantic Council told Voice of America News this October:
“The main problem is that some Taliban members can’t seem to distinguish their objectives from that of al-Qaida’s. To many, those objectives, long rooted in jihad, have remained the same...There are also reports about a quiet rebranding of some of those hardliners into al-Qaida, which has solidified this co-dependent relationship. That’s why the Taliban promises to break ties with the group is a sheer fantasy for now.”
In November of last year, ISIS in Afghanistan targeted a boys' wrestling gym in a bombing that killed 30 and wounded over 50. Working to ignite sectarian war in Afghanistan, Sunni ISIS targeted the gym solely because most of the boys were Shia. In a typically Afghan gesture of resistance to the violence, the coach has re-opened the gym, missing an arm, and the boys have come back.
This June, hundreds of Afghan peace marchers crossed hundreds of miles of scorching desert to take their request for a ceasefire directly to the Taliban.
After 17 years of occupation, conditions in Afghanistan are such that a Taliban takeover would be imminent if American troops withdrew. Unemployment hovers at around 40%, according to the Afghan Central Statistics Organization, which derives its data from the ministry of labor and social affairs. In May of this year, UNICEF reported that 600,000 children under the age of 5 were in danger of imminent starvation due to the shortage of funding for emergency treatments. Many of the children have died since.
Rohullah Ahmadzai, a spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, told the Voice of America News that the Taliban and Al Qaeda continue to maintain firm ties.
“Unlike their [Taliban] claims and promise, they are in close relation with Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and their leaders live together outside Afghanistan,” Ahmadzai said, referring to neighboring Pakistan.
With one of the youngest burgeoning populations in the world, and an excess of misery, unemployment, and hunger, another phenomenon is on the rise in Kabul and across the country: gang violence and criminal activity. In March of this year, a 6-year-old girl was kidnapped in Kabul for a $300,000 ransom. When the ransom wasn't paid the girl was killed and thrown into the Kabul River.
For the duration of the US occupation, malnutrition in Afghanistan has always been at alarming levels, with assistance workers predicting hundreds of thousands of children, now coming of age, being permanently stunted in physical and mental development. The extraordinary violence now being seen may be related to this.
As disliked as the Taliban has been in the past, and even hated as a result of its wanton disregard for civilians in its bombing attacks, the US occupation may have accomplished the impossible by causing the Taliban to be welcomed back. The disciplined religious fanatics have always been effective in at least one thing: the restoration of law and order. The Taliban came to power in 1996 after years of brutal internecine warfare in which rape, pillage, and slaughter were part of daily life.
Compared to military expenditures on US bases and military operations of nearly a trillion dollars since 2001, the US has spent a relatively paltry amount on the reconstruction. The bulk of the State Department's assistance to the Afghan government has been for the hiring and training of police and the national army, many of whom are "ghosts" who do not exist except to pad payrolls.
Compared to the Marshall Plan, which spent an average of $600 per European for four years after World War II, the Afghan effort amounts to less than $60 per year, much of that absorbed by overhead costs tacked on by Western contractors such as Chemonics. It has been estimated that of every genuine aid dollar, only 40 cents or less has reached the ordinary Afghan.
Matt Dearing, an assistant professor at the Washington-based National Defense University, told Voice of America:
“Unfortunately, the pressure to 'make a deal' with the Taliban before the summer of 2020 ended is based more on politics than policy. The Taliban know this, and their negotiators will tell the U.S. what it wants to hear.”
Fortunately, there is an avenue open which might prevent a Taliban and Al Qaeda takeover of fanatical jihadis, brought up on watching videos of US soldiers raping Muslim women in Iraq. Although entirely a US creation, these jihadis are now intent on doing serious harm to the US and Americans.
The US's worst enemy in the Middle East is itself. Generations of young children bombed or droned at one time or another by American F-16s have produced the hatred desired by those who would continue the cycle of war, for geopolitical ambitions or defense contractor profits.
Former US Representative John Tierney (D-MA) in 2011 chaired a subcommittee which produced a seminal report, Warlord, Inc., which showed that one of the biggest sources of funding for the Taliban was the US military, through paying extortion charges to the Taliban for the safe passage of military supply convoys. The convoys represent billions in profits to US military contractors. Tierney said, "War is the business and the business is war, and what we've got is Warlord Inc. going on over there."
Trump has a problem. He has committed to getting US troops out of Afghanistan, but he cannot do so without blowing his legacy by being the president who gave Afghanistan over to Al Qaeda and ISIS, and allowed a safe harbor for terrorist operations. The possible solution is the one thing George W. Bush said we did not do in Afghanistan, and for which we are now paying the price: nation-building.
When Bush said "We don't do nation-building" he may as well have said we don't do national security. After Europe was ravished during World War II, US policymakers understood that failed states in Europe would mean communist parties almost certainly coming to power, even if they shot their way in, past dysfunctional and hapless governments.
Hence the Marshall Plan was enacted to the tune of about $600 per person for four years, (adjusted dollars) versus $60 per person for a longer period in Afghanistan, just enough to prolong the misery of the patient but not cure him.
This avenue for avoiding a Taliban takeover lies in reversing the hopelessness of 40% unemployment, widespread starvation, and no better means to feeding oneself than criminal activity or the Taliban, which in its riches pays a good wage of $10 per day to its fighters. Not really a home-grown creation nor especially liked, young men join the Taliban for lack of any other opportunities.
In 2014, Khaama Press, Afghanistan's largest online news agencies, reported:
"Most Afghans believe that unemployment is the main cause of continuous insurgency in the country. There are many examples that young unemployed Afghans joined the anti government armed groups, In fact they are not joining the extremists or insurgents to follow their ideology, and sometimes they are against their ideology but they joined them to earn money to buy a loaf of bread for themselves and for their families."
For years, Afghan officials have called for efforts for reconciliation with the "ten-dollar Taliban," the wage that the Taliban is said to pay its fighters.
Any program to move Afghanistan into a sustainable economic future must involve two components: worker skills training and immediate employment. At the moment there is a fair amount of construction work in Kabul, which holds nearly a third of the country's population, but most of the better paying skilled jobs go to workers who must be imported from Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, or India. A country that is dependent on government works projects for unskilled laborers is not sustainable.
A foundation of established vocational training centers need only be greatly bolstered by funding and scholarships, such as the Afghan Technical Vocational Institute, with 6,000 students currently enrolled but the demand for which is easily ten times that. There is no need to reinvent the wheel in worker training. The administration of the present capacity has proven efficient and effective, but lacking in funding.
The two main players which have proven effective in development are Afghan civil society organizations, such as Development and Humanitarian Services in Afghanistan, and the widely-praised National Solidarity Program, now overhauled and rebranded as the Citizens' Charter Afghanistan Project. (See: "The Schools the Taliban Won't Torch")
In 2011, the Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) wrote in an audit of the National Solidarity Program:
“We found that [the controls instituted by the NSP] provided reasonable assurance that NSP funds were used as intended.”
The problem with the anemic Afghanistan reconstruction, such as it is, is not corruption, but in the US choosing to work with corrupt players over non-corrupt ones, and underfunding the players that are not corrupt.
In a 2018 report by the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which provides the bulk of the funding for the National Solidarity Program and its successor, the ARTF shows that assistance does work, but there has not been nearly enough. The report said that work projects were responsible for:
"A drop in the prevalence of stunting (chronic malnutrition) among children 6–59 months to 41 percent in 2013, from 61 percent in 2004;"
The fight against stunting malnutrition has been working, but 41% of children under age 5, in 2013, and probably unchanged or worse now since aid has declined, is still an appalling figure.
So far the policymakers who have excelled at creating an impossible situation have prevailed in Washington, but Trump is stuck between a rock and a hard place. This may represent an opportunity. No one wants to keep US troops in Afghanistan. But no one wants a nest of vicious psychopaths who deliberately kill innocents by the hundreds either. What to do?
By reigning in Pakistan, a key state sponsor of the Taliban, and giving Afghan youth an opportunity, a perilous course between Scylla and Charybdis can be charted.
There is no shortage of inspiring stories showing that Afghans are eager to take charge of their future, given half a chance, or showing that much work needs to be done. This month, Foreign Policy reported on a women's de-mining team, which after 17 years of occupation by the US, which possesses sophisticated de-mining equipment, is now addressing the massive problem of millions of landmines that remain in the country from years of civil war and Russian occupation. The women work at the de-mining the dangerous way, probing with hand tools. In 2018 alone, more than 1,400 Afghans were killed or injured by land mines and other explosives, a number that has tripled since 2012. Around 80 percent of the victims are children.