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6 August 2021

The graveyard of empires: Why American power failed in Afghanistan

In the 1990s, the Taliban exploited and took charge of a country eviscerated by war with the Soviet Union. Will it do the same again today?  

By Adam Tooze

This piece was originally published on the Adam Tooze Chartbook

What do you do if you can see the end of your world approaching? Do you flee? Do you resign yourself? These questions were jarred into focus recently by reports of desperate professional-class Afghans bracing for the likely return to power of the Taliban.

For a large part of my adult life, the Western intervention in Afghanistan has been in the background. There was a time in the early 2010s when I was routinely teaching classes at Yale full of aid workers and veterans from Afghanistan. For a while, Stan McChrystal, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, was a colleague. General David Petraeus came for lunch. Though I had been fascinated with military history all my life, I had never been that close to a war. When you see the numbers, it becomes easier to understand why the footprint of the Afghan war in American society was as large as it was. The Western intervention in Afghanistan that began in 2001 has cost the US more than $2.2trn dollars. 

The US has spent more than $2trn on the war in Afghanistan
US costs to date of the war in Afghanistan, 2001-2021

Grasping for some perspective, it makes sense to put the last 20 years of Western intervention in Afghanistan in the context of a century of contested and often violent struggle over the country's modernisation. The revolution of 1978, in which President Mohammed Daoud Khan’s government was overthrown by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the Soviet intervention in 1979 and Western sponsorship of the resistance turned Afghanistan into a battlefield in the late Cold War. It was a conflict of staggering proportions.

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Even by conservative estimates, the death toll in the 1980s was three times that of the following 30 years
Estimated casualties of conflict in Afghanistan

According to some conservative estimates, the death toll for the period 1978-1987 was 870,000. There are not unreasonable estimates that put overall mortality at twice that level. The scale of this violence in the 1980s was far greater than anything that followed. In 2019, 0.078 of the Afghan population were killed in clashes between government and Taliban forces. In 1984, a staggering 1.35 per cent of the Afghan population fell victim to the war in a single year. In relation to the population, that is 19 times worse than the current casualty rate.

I do not cite these figures to excuse or relativise the violence that has followed. More people were killed in Afghanistan in 2019 than at any time since the end of the Afghan-Soviet war; more than during the conquest of the country by the Taliban during the late 1990s. But, the scale of the 1980s cataclysm is staggering. The losses, at between 7 and 10 per cent of total pre-war population, are similar to the numbers of those who suffered in Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the Second World War. Only big wars with large civilian casualties have significant demographic impact. In the 1980s Afghanistan’s population stopped growing.

By comparison, the warlord and Taliban periods of the 1990s were relatively less lethal. That does not mean that they were good times, especially for those Afghan women who had participated in the emancipatory politics and culture of the cities and found themselves living under the misogynistic regime of the Taliban.

Going by the mortality data, the Western intervention in Afghanistan after 2001 at first continued the downward arc of violence. Measured in terms of the death toll, 2003 and 2004 were the most peaceful years that Afghanistan has enjoyed since the 1970s. But from 2006 the intensity of Taliban resistance surged and the Western alliance responded. Between 2009 and 2013, the US and its allies mounted something akin to a full-scale occupation of the country. In 2011 the combined strength of the US, allied and Afghan forces deployed against the Taliban insurgency peaked at more than 450,000.

At its peak, forces in Afghanistan against the Taliban numbered more 450,000
Number of troops in Afghanistan, annual

The casualties were never on a scale that can be compared with the Afghan-Soviet war. A better measure of the disruption is the internal displacement of population, which surged along with the scale of troops deployed. Beginning in 2014 there was a wave of asylum seeking abroad, which, in 2015 in Europe, merged with the “Syrian” refugee crisis. Then, as the drawdown of Western military forces began in earnest and the Taliban mobilised, the scale of the fighting widened dramatically. The Afghan security forces began to take serious casualties and internal displacement spiked alarmingly.

Seen from high altitude, the pattern of economic development in Afghanistan over the last 20 years follows a similar path. At first, Western aid was surprisingly small-scale and modest in conception. It built to a sudden crescendo in the early 2010s at the time of the US surge and has ebbed since.

Western aid to Afghanistan increased suddenly in the early 2010s
Total foreign aid disbursement to Afghanistan, 2002-2018

Given Afghanistan’s huge socio-economic challenges, one might think that economic development would be the top priority. In fact, the ratio of military to civilian development spending was in the order of ten to one. But, the scale of Western involvement is staggering, nevertheless. Western aid spending often exceeded the measured size of Afghan GDP. The figures have a surreal quality. How could you fit so much aid money into such a small economy? Where did the money go?

One obvious answer is that tens of billions were swallowed up by corruption and the grey economy. Wealthy Afghans became large property owners in the Gulf states. So crass are these divides that they call into question the very notion of an Afghan national economy as we normally understand it. All statistics are constructs. GDP is a particularly elaborate construction, and in the case of Afghanistan it obscures the fact that a national economy barely exists.

On the ground there are “economies” of urban merchants and handicrafts and communities of hard-scrabble farmers, but they did not constitute the kind of integrated circular flow as we imagine in a modern economy. Achieving a circular flow was actually a strategic issue in Afghanistan. A huge amount of effort went into the $3bn project of completing the ring road that notionally enables the circulation of goods and people around Afghanistan. The ring never closed.

Afghanistan’s most valuable crop is illegal opium, and since the early 2000s, cultivation has progressively increased.

Poppy cultivation grew five-fold between 1997 and 2017
Hectares of land under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan

At farm-gate prices, in 2017 opium generated about $1.5bn in income for Afghan peasants. The fortunes of the countryside fluctuate with heroine prices in the West.

Data for Afghanistan’s GDP per capita shows a surge between 2000 and 2014. GDP per capita was driven upwards by injections of foreign spending and the restoration of ordinary farming and commerce, as security was restored. Since 2014, as aid dwindled and violence returned, GDP has stagnated. With a rapidly growing population, that means that GDP per capita is shrinking.

Afghanistan's GDP surged between 2000 and 2014
GDP per capita, standardised to 2010 dollar ($)

This data is clearly hedged by uncertainty. But other markers of modernisation track the same curve.

Life expectancy has increased. This is driven by a rapid fall in infant mortality and striking life expectancy gains for women, presumably through much better maternal care. Whereas in 2000 Afghan men lived longer than women, now Afghanistan has the more normal pattern of women outliving men.

Women's life expectancy has grown by almost a decade since the early 2000s
Average life expectancy in 2001 compared to 2019, by years

From 30,000 in 2003, the number of students enrolled in universities in Afghanistan has risen to more than 180,000. In 2018 there were 49,000 female students.

Women now make up a quarter of Afghanistan's university students
Students at university in Afghanistan, 2003 - 2018

Like everyone else, Afghans are addicted to their mobile phones. There are enough mobile phone subscriptions for more than half the population, and phone providers make up one of the few parts of Afghanistan’s modern economy that has truly flourished. To run phones, people need power. Electricity consumption per capita has soared since 2000. To feed that growing demand, Afghanistan has expanded its own generating capacity. But, increasingly, Afghanistan has come to rely on power imports, from Uzbekistan, Iran and Turkmenistan, which account for almost 80 per cent of its power needs. The inflow of aid covers Afghanistan’s yawning trade deficit.

Afghanistan relies on imports to meet its power needs
Afghanistan's annual electricity consumption, production and imports, kilowatt-hours

But for all the recorded signs of economic growth and modernisation over the past years, there has been no success in poverty eradication. As per-capita income increased, so did the rate of poverty. And in recent years, as growth has ground to a halt, the poverty rate has surged. Today, over half of Afghanistan’s population is officially classed as poor.

Poverty in Afghanistan has surged in the past decade
Percentage of Afghanistan population living in poverty, 2007 - 2017

The defining feature of modern Afghanistan is uneven development and gross inequality. The six major cities of Kabul, Mazar, Jalalabad, Herat, Kunduz and Kandahar are a world apart from the country's other 28 provinces. Critics of the aid regime refer to Afghanistan as a "rentier state". Western aid funnelled into a hierarchical and balkanised social and political system has given rise to parallel economies. Elites have monopolised growth for themselves while those at the bottom are left behind. The Taliban is sustained by resilient organisation, by commitment and by an underground economy of considerable scope. But what ultimately keeps their movement alive is the misery of the Afghan countryside and the rage against pervasive corruption and injustice felt by so many young men.

The Afghan political class and its outside backers have, periodically, shown an awareness of this basic connection. Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, is a cultural anthropologist who earned his PhD from Columbia in the early 1980s with a thesis entitled, "Production and domination: Afghanistan, 1747-1901". After taking several positions in US academia, he moved to the World Bank 1991. Unsurprisingly, given this background, when he was finance minister under Hamid Karzai in the early 2000s, Ghani pushed a full suite of rural development programmes. As they intensified their engagement with Afghanistan after 2006, the Americans became more focused on stabilisation, and rural development programmes were the essential complement to counter-insurgency operations.

At their most grandiose, the US’s plans for Afghanistan saw the country as a key staging post in a “New Silk Road”. General Petraeus and a “tiger team” at the US Central Command (CentCom) envisioned Afghanistan as a vital link in a transcontinental trade route. Trade and economic growth would fill the gap left when America’s troop surge wound down. On 20 July 2011, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton embraced the CentCom New Silk Road initiative in a speech she gave in India. But the idea never took off. A few months after her speech, Clinton announced the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, which was widely seen as a turn away from Afghanistan towards broader horizons. It would be China that took up the New Silk Road vision, with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) adopted in 2013. But, China’s BRI bypasses Afghanistan, leaving it to the Americans.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the data told a depressing story of rural retardation. While the rest of the Afghan economy grew rapidly between 2001 and 2013, agricultural output barely increased.

The failure of development not only makes the countryside a recruiting ground for the Taliban. It also increases vulnerability to natural shocks. In 2018 Afghanistan was ravaged by extreme drought. The rains returned in 2019. But in 2021, in the north and west of the country, two to three million people who rely on rain-fed agriculture and natural pasturage are again facing disaster. As the US prepares its exit from the country, the Norwegian Refugee Council is warning that “more than 12 million Afghans – one-third of the population – now face 'crisis' or 'emergency' levels of food insecurity”.

With Afghanistan in crisis, the Taliban seem poised to sweep back to power. Once again it is exploiting a mood of crisis. But in the 1990s, it took charge of a country eviscerated by the war with the Soviet Union. Afghanistan today is still poor, but it is not in the condition it was in 25 years ago. Kabul in the 1990s was a ruined city with a population of around a million people. Today, it is a sprawling low-income metropolis, studded with high-rise offices and apartment blocks, with an official population of more than four million. What kind of regime could be established by the Taliban over such a city? What kind of future can the group deliver for Afghanistan and for its constituency in the countryside? Little wonder that the Taliban has been assiduously courting Beijing. Afghanistan needs all the friends it can get.

Adam Tooze is the author of “Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy”, published by Allen Lane in September. This piece was originally published on the Adam Tooze Chartbook

[see also: Resettling Afghan interpreters is a moral imperative for this Conservative government]

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