What's Going On In Afghanistan?

While everyone's attention has been diverted for the past few months onto insane conspiracy theories about Russia and, now, twitter wars with CNN hosts, what has been happening with some of the things that are actually important?  For example, have you heard anything lately about the war in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is famous as the country that no one can subjugate.  In the nineteenth century Britain fought endless wars there without ever bringing the place to heel.  In the 1980s the Soviet Union invaded and made a big push to gain control; but by 1991 it was the Soviet Union that had collapsed, and Afghanistan was basically back to its wild state.  After the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, when it emerged that Osama bin Laden had been using remote areas in Afghanistan for his training bases, the U.S. decided to take its chance.  

Seven years later, it was the same old morass.  If you are old enough to remember when Barack Obama was first running for President in 2008, you will likely recall that he made a big distinction between the two foreign wars that the U.S. was conducting at the time.  The war in Iraq was a "dumb war" that "never should have been authorised and never should have been waged."  But the war in Afghanistan was "the good war" that could be a success if only we did it right.  If it was going poorly, that was just due to Bush's incompetence.  What we needed to do was to make the effort to go ahead and win it, say, within 16 months, and then bring the troops home.  

After his election, Obama got going with a "surge" to over 100,000 troops in the country.  The coalition forces were led by the highly-regarded General Stanley McChrystal.  In the spring of 2010, I was invited to a seminar in Washington at which McChrystal (on a brief trip home) spoke.  After his talk, I got to ask a question, which went something like this:  "The Afghan economy is hugely dependent on the production of opium, with some estimates of the percent of Afghan GDP from opium in excess of 50%.  Yet the U.S. says it plans both to turn Afghanistan into a functioning country and also do away with the opium production.  How is it possible to eliminate the Afghans' dominant source of income without turning them all against us?"  I still remember how McChrystal's began his answer, which was "It's difficult."  The answer went on some from there, but it was completely clear that there was no idea or strategy that had any real chance to work.

Just a couple of weeks later, Obama fired McChrystal (replacing him with David Petraeus).  A few commanders later, in 2014, Obama decided to declare the American "combat mission" over and bring most (although not all) of the remaining troops home.  But several thousand troops still remained, and as Obama's presidency wound down, the insurgency in Afghanistan just wouldn't go away.  In July 2016 Obama decided to raise the number of troops back up.  A Bloomberg report on a statement Obama made on July 6, 2016, got the headline "Obama Finds He Can't Escape Afghan War He Once Vowed to End."  Over to you, Donald Trump!

What's the latest from Afghanistan?  I mean, we've now spent an estimated $800 billion plus in just direct military expenditures on this war (per the Watson Institute here) -- and that doesn't count plenty of things to come, like future healthcare costs for the vets.  You can be forgiven if you haven't noticed anything about this important subject lately, what with the Russia thing and the CNN twitter exchanges and whatever.  But Afghanistan involves serious questions of national security, let alone the trillion plus bucks.  What's going on?

The short answer is that fighting continues seemingly without end and the security situation has only deteriorated recently.  On May 31 a huge truck bomb went off right in the middle of Kabul, killing more than 80 and damaging much property, including several foreign embassies.  From a report in the Globe and Mail on that event:

Sixteen years after the United States and its NATO allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom – promising to deny safe haven to terrorist groups and to liberate Afghanistan’s people, primarily its women – the country’s unity government is dangerously fragile and its army controls a shrinking share of territory.  The Taliban are rapidly regaining ground, and women’s rights in the parts of the country back under their control are little different than in the days before the U.S.-led invasion.

The most recent substantive report in the New York Times was on June 28.  Excerpt:

Two Taliban groups that recently switched allegiance to the Islamic State have overrun an embattled district in northern Afghanistan, killing at least 10 government fighters and a large number of civilians, according to Afghan officials in the area. . . .  Last week, Islamic State fighters overran all of Darzab, according to the acting district governor, Baz Mohammad Dawar. Government officials were able to regain control of the district’s center, but not most of the rest of the territory; 10 police officers or soldiers were killed in the fight, he said.

How could it be possible that things are going so badly?  Amazingly, almost nothing you read on the subject addresses the fundamental issue, which is that the people are just never going to support a regime imposed from outside that intends to take away the major source of their income.  The major source of their income is opium.  How much of their income?  Unfortunately, there are no trustworthy numbers from Afghanistan.  The UN Office of Drug Control did a big survey of Afghan opium production in 2014, which claims to show that opium exports declined from close to 100% of Afghan GDP in 2002 to maybe 15% by 2014 (page 16).  I'm highly dubious that the recent figure could be so small.  For one thing, the same report shows opium production increasing from 3400 tons annually to 8400 tons over the same 2002-2014 period (page 17).  And then, what is supposedly the rest of the Afghan economy that has grown so rapidly?  They don't say, but the likely answer is foreign aid and contractor disbursements from the U.S. and other countries, counted at 100 cents on the dollar as they tend to do with these things.  But when the foreigners withdraw, all of that goes away, and the people who have been working for the foreigners become unemployed.  The thing that is left on which they can rely is the opium.

Looking for a serious article that actually addresses this subject, I find a long piece in The Nation from February 2016 by Alfred McCoy, titled "The Drug That Makes the Taliban Possible."  The prescient subtitle is "Until Washington deals with Afghanistan’s economic dependence on opium, the Taliban aren’t going anywhere."  The article describes how, over the course of the 16 years of the U.S. operation, Washington continuously engaged in ineffective eradication efforts against the opium fields, even as production soared.

Washington came to rely on private contractors like DynCorp to train Afghan manual eradication teams. However, by 2005, according to New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall, that approach had already become “something of a joke.” Two years later, as the Taliban insurgency and opium cultivation both spread in what seemed to be a synergistic fashion, the US Embassy again pressed Kabul to accept the kind of aerial defoliation the United States had sponsored in Colombia. President Hamid Karzai refused, leaving this critical problem unresolved. . . .  [In 2007] UN stated that Taliban guerrillas had “started to extract from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics, and militia pay.” A study for the US Institute of Peace concluded that, by 2008, the movement had 50 heroin labs in its territory and controlled 98 percent of the country’s poppy fields. That year, it reportedly collected $425 million in “taxes” levied on opium traffic, and with every harvest, it gained the necessary funds to recruit a new crop of young fighters from the villages. Each of those prospective guerrillas could count on monthly payments of $300, far above the wages they would have made as agricultural laborers.

McCoy says that he foretold in 2009 that continued military efforts without a transformation of the Afghan economy would never work.  But when Obama came in, the strategy was just more of the same straight military approach:

By attacking the guerrillas but ignoring the opium harvest that funded new insurgents every spring, Obama’s surge soon suffered that defeat [that I had] foretold. As 2012 ended, the Taliban guerrillas had, according to The New York Times, “weathered the biggest push the American-led coalition is going to make against them.” Amid the rapid drawdown of allied forces to meet President Obama’s December 2014 deadline for “ending” US combat operations, reduced air operations allowed the Taliban to launch mass-formation attacksin the north, northeast, and south, killing record numbers of Afghan army troops and police.   

For the latest, we have this from the New York Review of Books on June 18, "Afghanistan: It's Too Late":

Until now, Western forces have been able to keep the government in power by financing the budget and paying salaries and maintaining the Afghan army in the field. But it has become increasingly difficult, with the Taliban advancing in many parts of the country making US and NATO forces look increasingly irrelevant.

What about President Trump?  He has barely spoken on the subject of Afghanistan.  But new Defense Secretary James Mattis addressed the issue a couple of days ago.  It will not surprise you to learn that Mattis's idea is -- more troops:

[Mattis] appeared to place blame on the Obama administration for cutting the number of troops "too rapidly."  "We may have pulled our troops out too rapidly, reduced the numbers a little too rapidly, but the difference today is that the Afghan army is actually able to carry the fight. . . ."

Well, he's a military guy.  You can't expect him to come up with a plan other than a military plan.

McCoy at The Nation, has an alternative plan:  The U.S. just needs to transform the Afghan economy by putting U.S. taxpayer money into supporting real agriculture, like "orchards" and "flocks":

[I]nvesting even a small portion of all that misspent military funding in rural Afghanistan could produce economic alternatives for the millions of farmers who depend upon the opium crop for employment. Such money could help rebuild that land’s ruined orchards, ravaged flocks, wasted seed stocks, and wrecked snowmelt irrigation systems that, before these decades of war, sustained a diverse agriculture.            

It is completely unclear why the Afghans would go along with this when opium pays far more.

I hate to say it, but there almost certainly is no perfect answer for Afghanistan.  Any hope of relative peace and calm in Afghanistan means living with widespread production of opium for the foreseeable future.  Alternatively, we can aggressively pursue eradication of the opium, and face the increasing ascendancy of the Taliban, widespread fighting, and the likely overthrow of the current Afghan regime within a few years.  Take your choice!  I guess it's no wonder that nobody wants to talk about it.