Observations on Afghanistan

I shall take this opportunity to share some observations on the situation in Afghanistan, based on what I’ve read over the last few days, and learned since the conflict began. I have no particular expertise on Afghanistan, but I offer as a defence the palpable lack of veracity and foresight among many self-styled “experts” (especially those who got us into this mess in the first place). Here are my observations in no particular order.

How much did it cost? The official estimate is $1 trillion, with $824 billion being military spending, and $131 billion going toward “reconstruction”. However, once you include support for veterans, interest payments on war debt, and other miscellaneous items, you get to $2.26 trillion. Given that the population of Afghanistan was 22 million when the US arrived, the whole affair cost more than $100,000 per Afghan. $2 trillion, incidentally, is roughly the GDP of England. So invading and then occupying Afghanistan is like taking everything that’s produced in England in one year – all the food, cars, energy, tourism, financial services – and pouring it into a remote country in central Asia over the course of two decades.

Who is Ashraf Ghani? Dr Ghani is the erstwhile president of Afghanistan, who remained in his post for three whole months during the Taliban’s 2021 offensive, before bravely fleeing the country on 15th August. He was part way through his second term in office. Given Dr Ghani’s background, one might have hoped he’d have more success turning the country around. He holds a PhD from Columbia, and has worked at various universities, including Berkeley and John Hopkins, as well as the World Bank. In 2005, Dr Ghani co-founded the Institute for State Effectiveness. And in 2008, he co-authored a book titled Fixing Failed States. His 2005 TED talk is titled ‘How to rebuild a broken state’. I’m no expert, but isn’t ceding power to a band of cave-dwelling religious fanatics a bad way to “rebuild a broken state”?

Why did the government fall so quickly? The Taliban’s 2021 offensive began on 1st May, and by 15th August they’d taken Kabul. So after just three and a half months, they’d recaptured most of the country. (The scenes we witnessed on social media – convoys of pickup trucks with mounted machine guns cruising down dusty thoroughfares – was reminiscent of the fall of Mosul in 2014.) I haven’t come across a comprehensive explanation for why the government fell so quickly. But the proximate cause seems to be the almost immediate capitulation of the Afghan National Army – a force of 180,000 men which the US had spent 20 years training and equipping. So why did the Army capitulate? Again, I don’t have a complete understanding, but there seem to be a number of factor involved.

The first is widespread and rampant corruption. In 2020, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan a rather discouraging 165 out of 180 countries. How did this lead to military capitulation? The Washington Post reports that the Army’s collapse “began with a series of deals brokered in rural villages.” These deals reportedly involved the Taliban simply paying government forces to surrender. But why would soldiers lay down their arms so easily? According to the Post, some hadn’t been paid in six to nine months, which meant that “Taliban payoffs became ever more enticing”. (One assumes their salaries ended up in the Swiss bank account of some crooked bureaucrat.)

The second factor, partly related to the first, is recruitment; the Army and police force weren’t getting Afghanistan’s best. According to the Post, one special forces soldier described the Afghan police as “the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel”. And a US military officer reportedly estimated that one-third of recruits were either “drug addicts or Taliban”. Defending a country with battalions of feckless drug addicts is hard enough, but when the enemy has actually infiltrated your ranks, the problem becomes close to insurmountable. One Taliban fighter, who spoke quite articulate English in an interview with CNN, was identified on Twitter by a former colleague, who’d apparently worked with him on a “US-funded project”.

The third is the lack of patriotism and national identity, of any tangible Afghan “demos”. Although about 99% of Afghans are Muslims, the country is heavily fractured by ethnicity. There are Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and others; and within several of these groups, there are numerous tribes. According to the legal scholar Hassan Abbas, the Pashtun tribes number about 60, “but the figure rises above 400 if all sub-clans are counted”. (Note that most Taliban fighters are Pashtuns.) In the absence of something meaningful to fight for, an army can’t be expected to prevail against a highly-motivated enemy (one with much asabiyyah), especially given the scale of corruption I already mentioned.

The fourth is the fact that Afghan forces sustained heavy casualties during the war. According to the Costs of War project at Brown University, at least 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have died since 2001. That’s compared to fewer than 4,000 coalition troops (as well as 3,846 US contractors). The New York Times reported that casualty rates among Afghan forces were so high in 2016 that the US and Afghan governments decided to keep death tolls secret the following year. As of late 2018, the Taliban was reportedly killing 57 Afghan servicemen per day. With these kind of casualty rates, it’s less surprising that so many soldiers deserted their posts or surrendered to the Taliban.

What do Afghans want? Several commentators have shared results from a 2013 Pew Research survey, which found that the vast majority of Afghans support Sharia law, including some of its more cruel and unusual elements, such as stoning as a punishment for adultery. One might therefore conclude that the Taliban’s return to power was inevitable. However, other surveys – such as the Asia Foundation’s ‘Survey of the Afghan People’ – paint a more nuanced picture. As Anatoly Karlin notes, when asked in 2019 whether they were sympathetic to the Taliban, 85% of Afghans said “no”. And even 70% of Pashtuns said “the Taliban” when asked who posed a threat to their local area.

The Asia Foundation’s survey also asked Afghans about the criteria for an ideal president. By far the most popular response, given by 36% of respondents, was “an honest, just and fair person”. By contrast, only 18% said “a pious, devout Muslim”. When asked about female participation in politics, 59% said “women should decide for themselves”, whereas only 17% said “men should decide for women” (the remaining 23% said “women should decide … in consultation with men”). Although a majority of Afghans identified the burka or niqab as the most appropriate dress for women in public, 87% said that women should have the same opportunities in education as men. On the other hand, a slight plurality said that political leaders should be “mostly men”.

Of course, there could be some social desirability bias in respondents’ answers (i.e., Afghans telling interviewers what they wanted to hear), and this bias may have increased over time, as people became more familiar with the values of their Western occupiers. Hence one might want to adjust the numbers from the Asia Foundation Survey in a more “traditional” direction. However, even if the 85% figure were adjusted down by, say, 15 percentage points, that’s still 70% of Afghans who have no sympathy for the Taliban. Interestingly, the survey also revealed that 97% of Afghans believe corruption is a problem in their country.

What about the country’s future? Since the Soviet invasion of 1979, Afghanistan has been racked by more or less constant war. Hence an immediate question is whether the country might enter a period of relative stability. Given that another Western intervention now looks extremely unlikely, the most plausible way in which stability might be achieved is under Taliban rule (notwithstanding the obvious drawbacks this will have). In order to remain extant, the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – as its now calling itself – will need recognition from the international community, including the United States. Will such recognition be forthcoming?

Aris Roussinos argues there’s no good reason why America shouldn’t recognise the nascent state. After all, it has backed various “moderate rebels” (in Syria and elsewhere) whose ideology is essentially the same as the Taliban’s. And of course, in the Soviet-Afghan war, it famously armed and funded the mujahideen fighters, who went on to defeat the Soviets (and whose sons went on to defeat the Western coalition). You may recall that Rambo III, set in Afghanistan, portrayed the mujahideen fighters as brave and heroic (though it seems to be a myth that the film was dedicated to them). If the US recognised the new Taliban government, it would only be back where it was in the mid 1980s.

Image: Lady Butler, Remnants of an Army, 1879


Activism in Nature

I wrote a piece for UnHerd about social justice activism at the Nature journals. Here’s an excerpt:

Nature is a revered name in academic publishing. The journal was founded in London in 1869, and has since become one of the two main titles (the other being Science) that every academic wants to publish in. Having just one “Nature paper” on your CV can be enough to land a tenure-track job at a top department … It’s all the more concerning then, that in the last few years, Nature has handed over an increasing amount of editorial space to social justice activism.


The Daily Sceptic

I’ve written four more posts since last time. The first asks whether it’s better to get a given amount of COVID over with more quickly. The second examines whether lockdowns pushed 100 million people into extreme poverty. The third responds to a New York Times article calling for universal masking in schools. The fourth summarises a study finding “clear evidence for a negative effect of COVID-19-related school closures on student achievement”.


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