Saturday, 15 February 2014


Remembering anniversaries is always difficult, some you may struggle to forget, others you may choose not to remember. Exactly twenty-five years ago today, on May 15, 1988, Soviet troops began a nine-month process of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Around 100,000 troops left the country by February 15, 1989, after nine years of war which saw the death of more than 14,000 Soviet soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Afghan combatants and civilians. 

The Soviet Army withdraws from Afghanistan - 25 years ago today.
It can be said that history by and large never repeats itself, the geography may remain constant, the same place names will keep cropping up and there may be similarities of circumstance and similarity of outcome – but that’s about it. By way of coincidence NATO, who it must be said have behaved with significantly more restraint and significantly less brutally than the forces of the old Soviet Union,  is also in the process of winding down it’s Afghan war and Afghan commitments, after nearly 13 years.

When the dust settles, at least the as far as the Western political leaders are concerned the Afghan problem will go away and drop out of the headlines. The spin will be spun and it will be laid on thick this spring and summer as success in Afghanistan will be brazenly redefined. The harsh reality is that military success, however dearly bought has not necessarily delivered political victory or political stability.

Cameron and Obama’s inherited war will end, hopefully, with a whimper rather than anything else, save for a faint whiff of imperial hubris. Military and political success have become intertwined in Afghanistan, now they will be separated. Our soldiers will finally come home, hopefully with the absolute minimum of casualties and what began in the autumn and winter of 2001 will come relatively peacefully to a conclusion.

The spin will endeavour to hide the failure to tackle the underlying poverty and the blatant institutional corruption in Afghanistan. At a very basic level this has meant that the country has been largely left un-taxable, which aside from not been able to pay for its own occupation, its government has been (and will be) left dangerously dependent on foreign aid.

The financial costs of ‘policing’ this largely inaccessible land alone have been on a different scale and have been pretty much born by the occupiers. The financial costs of keeping two US marine battalions in Helmand has resulted in financial costs per year greater than all the US military and development aid to Egypt per year, some $100 billion dollars).

Much of the foreign aid fails to get where it is supposed to go, getting skimmed off along the way. Now none of this should surprise anyone very much as when you factor in weak and corrupt local political leadership and our very poor choice of allies it was pretty predictable.

The Transparency International in 2013 Corruption Index (CPI) currently ranks Afghanistan (at 175) as one of the (joint) most corrupt country with North Korea and Somalia. President Hamid Karzai in the United State for the NATO Summit in Chicago (back in 2012) was asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about this rampant corruption issue in Afghanistan. As usual, President Karzai’s answer was “it is the contractual mechanism that the US applies in Afghanistan” that encourages bribery, fraud, and corruption.

The Afghan President continues to always blame the west for the loss of billions of aid dollars and the rise of corruption in Afghanistan. The reality is less simple as on a daily basis, ordinary Afghans are less concerned about the kinds of bribery that is (and does) occur when the US and Western  development agencies hand out big development contracts. Ordinary Afghans are more infuriated by the kinds of bribes that they often have to give to get what they are legally entitled to via “harassment bribes.”

Basically harassment bribes are like when a retired Afghan has to pay some cash to the pension officer to receive his retirement check. Or, when a young man or woman freshly graduated from college has to get his or her paperwork done in order to become a teacher. To accomplish this the prospective teacher will be asked to pay a hefty bribe. Or your Tazkira or national ID card is held up until you pay some cash to the officer in charge. These are all simple illustration of harassment bribes.

Harassment bribery is widespread in Afghanistan, and it plays a large role in breeding inefficiency and has a profoundly destructive effect on civil society. While President Karzai consistently wags the finger at the West for widespread corruption in Afghanistan, yet his administration has failed to take responsibility for banishing bribery on the lower level. The West, perhaps hoping for a compliant Afghan government has looked the other way, which means that local low level corruption gets written off as a fact of life – despite that it is something that indirectly may feed support for the Taliban. 

To this sorry mess you have to add what has pretty much been a complete lack of understanding of the real challenges in Afghanistan and not to mention regularly changing objectives. So it should be no surprise that there has been a real lack of a coherent or consistent planning and realistic objectives, so it is no wonder that the medium term future of Afghanistan is as yet undetermined.

The final telling factor that makes the Afghan situation so tragic considering the lives lost and changed forever not to mention the treasure spent, is that of mission creep. This has taken place on a heroic scale, with the war on terror becoming the war on drugs and the possibly fatal consequences of diverting resources to Iraq before the job in Afghanistan was even defined, let alone half done.  

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