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How Afghanistan Was Really Lost

The West’s failure in Afghanistan may well have resulted from not spending enough money in the right places. A different balance between US military expenditure and economic aid might have convinced ordinary Afghans that they had a significant stake in the success of the state that the US and its allies were striving to build.

CAMBRIDGE – Assume you knew nothing about a particular low-income country except the following facts. Its annual income per capita in 2020 was just $509, the seventh lowest in the world. In the decade to 2019, annual aid inflows had halved, to just $114 per capita, or 31 cents per person per day. As a result, its GDP per capita fell by 14% over this period. Meanwhile, annual per capita imports also fell by half between 2012 and 2020, to $179, or just 49 cents per person per day – one of the lowest levels in the world. Exports per capita, at just under $38, were the world’s lowest. The official poverty rate increased from 38% in 2011 to 47.3% in 2020.

Given these numbers, you would not expect the population to have much enthusiasm for the status quo. Nor would you expect the government to garner significant support or exhibit much capacity to improve matters.

Indeed, aid flows to the country were by no means unusually large. According to the World Bank, the $114 in per capita assistance in 2019 was less than the aid received by 26 other countries, including Somalia ($121), Bosnia and Herzegovina ($141), Yemen ($151), the Central African Republic ($159), Lebanon ($223), Jordan ($277), the West Bank and Gaza ($477), Syria ($600), and the Marshall Islands ($1,122). Clearly, therefore, the reduction in aid was a choice, not an obvious necessity.