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A Fresh Look at the Afghan War

NEW YORK – With the Syria crisis dominating headlines, few are paying attention to America’s longest war. In fact, the war in Afghanistan has hardly been mentioned in the early months of US President Donald Trump’s administration, despite the presence of two experienced military officers – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster – in key positions. This must change.

After 15 years of failed intervention, the situation in Afghanistan is out of control. The unity government that emerged after the contested presidential election of 2014 is dysfunctional, and security conditions are rapidly deteriorating. Meanwhile, opium production is surging, and Afghanistan now ranks second in the world in money laundering (after Iran). In Europe and elsewhere, inflows of Afghan refugees continue unabated.

The war in Afghanistan has exacted enormous costs. So far, fatalities include roughly 3,500 coalition soldiers (some 70% of which were US troops), about the same number of contractors, and some 100,000 Afghans (including security forces, opposition fighters, and civilians). Since 2002, the US has spent over $780 billion on the war – roughly equivalent to the entire US foreign-affairs budget for more than two decades. Additional non-budgetary expenditure, including disability payments and compensation to the families of fallen soldiers, will add hundreds of billions more to the war’s total cost.

The war in Afghanistan was supposed to be over a long time ago. After all, US troops did not enter the country to reconstruct it or create a democracy. But a series of missteps – misguided civilian policies and misplaced priorities on the part of the government and its donors – have boosted recruitment for the very groups the US is supposed to be quelling, including al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and, more recently, the Islamic State.

The “nation-building” and counterinsurgency strategy that accompanied US President Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2010 was meant to turn the war around. Instead, as US and allied troops left areas that had supposedly been “cleared,” the Taliban and other extremist groups soon returned.

The 43% increase in opium production in just the last year both reflects and reinforces the growing strength of these groups, which use drug-trafficking revenues to finance their operations. Of global annual flows of 430-450 tons of heroin and morphine, about 380 tons are produced with Afghan opium.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan has been allowed to fall into an aid trap. The US has disbursed about $110 billion for Afghan reconstruction. (Adjusted for inflation, that is equivalent to the $12.5 billion cost of the Marshall Plan for reconstruction in Europe after World War II.) Roughly $70 billion of those funds went to creating and financing Afghan security forces, and $40 billion went to non-military expenditure.

Yet, despite all that spending, Afghanistan will be unable to stand on its own feet for decades to come. The country’s cumulative GDP from 2002 to 2015 was only $170 billion; GDP in 2016 totaled just $17 billion, or $525 per capita. Non-military aid from the US and others has amounted to 50% of GDP, on average, every year since 2002. And that aid has consistently been delivered in the same inefficient ways, even as the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and others have repeatedly highlighted enormous amounts of waste, fraud, and abuse.

As the Trump administration alters US foreign-policy priorities, devising a more effective strategy for America’s Afghan operations must be a priority. Only after such a strategy is in place should the administration meet the US military’s requests to send more troops.

Fortunately, both Mattis and McMaster know that simply throwing more troops and more money at Afghanistan won’t do the job. Indeed, both have emphasized the need to support counterinsurgency operations with effective policies that do not create new enemies and fuel the need for “more ammunition.” Retired high-level officers from all branches of the US Armed Forces have taken this logic a step further, telling congressional leaders that combating terrorism requires addressing its causes, such as lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.

To create more cost-effective, integrated, and inclusive policies that benefit most Afghans, not just the privileged few, US leaders will need to engage in some radical rethinking. Various proposals are on the table, including one of my own: to create synergistic “reconstruction zones” (RZs) – one aimed at local production and another aimed at exports – that support economic recovery.

Such RZs can help the resource-rich Afghanistan to replace aid with foreign direct investment and export revenues. Foreign investors would work in support of local communities, enabling them to produce food and services for local consumption, rather than displacing them, as is so often the case. In exchange, the communities would protect the RZs, so that investors can produce for export at a lower security risk.

After 15 years of conflict, ending the war in Afghanistan may seem to have lost some of its urgency. But the truth is that it is more urgent than ever, not just to check the flows of refugees to Europe and elsewhere, but also to undermine terrorist recruitment efforts. By promoting “impact investment” by those seeking both economic gain and social progress, and by advancing projects that benefit foreign investors and local communities alike, the Trump administration may be able to do just that.