Friday is the 15th anniversary of the United States’ and United Kingdom’s Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and it is a suitable, if sombre vantage point from which to consider America and Nato’s longest war. What did the blood and treasure of nearly two dozen countries buy Afghanistan and the world?
This is a grim week to ask the question. Taliban fighters have been making a spirited attempt to take Kunduz, almost exactly a year after they briefly overran the strategically important city in northern Afghanistan. A major conference in Brussels has wearily considered how best to support Afghanistan, even as the international community struggles to find resources for other urgent matters, not least Syria’s suffering and the worst migration crisis since the Second World War.
Worst of all, the Kunduz firefight and the city’s apparent susceptibility to the Taliban seems to prove an argument newly being made by some governments — that Afghanistan really is a basket case and that president Ashraf Ghani’s government has failed to govern for its people, build a constituency for peace and prove it can be trusted with still more monetary and military aid.
At the United Nations General Assembly last month, New Zealand’s foreign minister Murray McCully was cutting and direct. Describing the failures of Mr Ghani’s administration as “profoundly concerning”, he rebuked the president and his chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah for their “dysfunctional” relationship. Two years after their government took charge, he complained, the government “has yet to fill senior positions”. Promised reforms for improving governance and tackling corruption have “yet to be even seriously discussed, let alone implemented”, he added. And in a sign that he feared the future would be like Afghanistan’s irredeemable recent past, Mr McCully pointed out that the lack of necessary electoral reforms prevented parliamentary elections and sowed “the seeds of future electoral disputes and instability”. He meant the political agreement that created Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah’s power-sharing national unity government. It was meant to enable parliamentary elections.
The fulminations have continued with the Bulgarian prime minister Boiko Borissov suggesting that his country might end its military presence in Afghanistan because it had been “there for a long time” and there was little to show for its efforts.
At least part of Bulgaria’s irritation with Afghanistan appears to be caused by the ceaseless influx of undocumented Afghan migrants, a disproportionately high number this year, along with Iraqis and Syrians. “We are there [in Afghanistan] to impose peace and democracy,” Mr Borissov argued. “If people run away from that, it’s better for that money and military to be redirected to our border.”
Both New Zealand and Bulgaria have the right to criticise. They were early and enthusiastic members of the coalition that set about nation-building in Afghanistan. But they are not alone in their growing impatience. Although the world recognises that Afghanistan has suffered greatly, having been wracked by war, civil conflict and extremism for most of the past 40 years, the exasperation centres on its apparent inability — or unwillingness — to pull together, provide opportunities for its people and prevent their haemorrhaging out.
Ahead of its two-day aid summit in Brussels, the European Union was forced to deny a newspaper report that the financial support would be “migration sensitive”, which is to say Afghanistan must agree to take back 80,000 deportees in order not to lose billions of dollars.
Even Pakistan, which has hosted hundreds of thousands of displaced Afghans since the 1979 Soviet invasion, is efficiently supervising their expedient departure. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration say that 620,000 Afghans — those registered in Pakistan, as well those who’re not — will have returned to their fractious country by year-end.
What does the new international despondency about Afghanistan add up to? In real terms, a lot of new people for the Afghan government to look after even as the snows of winter come closer by the day. But it is manifestly unable to do so, which means those returning will not only face inevitable adjustment problems and harsh weather. They will also have to grapple with the worsening security situation. Afghanistan’s growing instability is at least part of the reason Afghans make up the second largest group of migrants arriving in Europe. Taliban attacks are on the rise. If the group’s briefly successful 2015 push into Kunduz was a milestone — the first urban centre to fall to it since the 2001 collapse of the Taliban regime — this year’s fighting betrays a decided self-confidence. The reasons for this are the very ones that make the wider world doleful about helping Afghanistan when it seems unable to help itself.
It’s often been said of Kunduz province, which the US military left in 2013, that it represents “failure by design”. Corruption has flourished to the point that governance seems a black fiction and most people’s only expectation is of inequity and injustice. The special inspector general for Afghan Reconstruction, the US government’s leading oversight authority on money allocated for Afghanistan, recently said that “endemic corruption poses an existential threat … by fuelling grievances against the Afghan government and channelling material support to the insurgency”.
So the fight for Kunduz may seem more significant than a Taliban attempt to reassert itself. To a watching world, it looks like Afghanistan’s future. It is an understandable fear.