In the newly published documents, senior U.S. officials describe serious missteps that have cost thousands of lives. Yet the framing is predictable in where it places the blame. The officials cite a list of challenges that make Afghanistan a so-called unwinnable conflict: corruption, opium production, warlords and a culture that has made democratic progress impossible despite the supposed investments in security and reconstruction that the United States and its allies have made.
But the underlying, problematic assumption is that Afghanistan is a country with little hope for reform and modernization, with people who can’t handle or do not want democracy. There is little interrogation of the ill-informed decision to launch a war against a country for a crime it did not commit and little reflection on the unimaginable suffering to the Afghan and American families who have lost their sons and daughters in the war.
There is also no honest exploration of the real roots of many of the failures.
As early as 2008, an Oxfam analysis of aid distribution in Afghanistan highlighted endemic exploitation within the American aid industry itself, with two-thirds of aid received bypassing the Afghan government and people completely. The U.S. Agency for International Development awarded 50 percent of its aid to American contractors who paid their consultants up to $500,000 a year in a country where Afghans working for the same aid agencies earn vastly lower salaries. Where the Afghan government was required to report on 77 measurable benchmarks for any assistance received, major donors and contractors faced little or no scrutiny.
A nation-building paradigm that placed accountability without representation on Afghan shoulders was destined to fail. When the United States has engaged with Afghans, it has made consistently poor choices. The Americans and their allies made deals with warlords whose track record on human rights was no better than the Taliban’s. When the United States had leverage, it repeatedly ignored the Afghan pleas to negotiate for peace. The Pentagon profiled men, young and old, as an insurgent, and Afghan civilians were frequently harassed, killed and imprisoned with little to no evidence that they had anything to do with “insurgency.” In some cases, wearing a Casio wristwatch was sufficient evidence for an Afghan to be detained on terrorism charges. Those recruited for the security forces — Afghans who stepped forward to protect their fellow citizens — were left exposed and vulnerable, and almost 70,000 have lost their lives.
Against these odds, a generation of young Afghans has kept fighting to secure democracy and rebuild their country. A recent survey by Asia Foundation revealed a country with rising levels of optimism. Democracy, women’s rights and the new constitution top the list of priorities that Afghans want to protect in any peace negotiations. The Afghan government has made significant progress in building institutions that protect and engage their citizens, including parliament, where 28 percent of lawmakers are women. Entrepreneurship and the media and entertainment industries are growing every year.
This fall, young people in Kabul marched for climate justice in solidarity with their peers in New York, London and Berlin. Such activism is not limited to urban areas. Thousands of Afghan women across the country recently mobilized to advocate inclusion in the peace talks. A nationwide nonviolent movement has flourished from northern Afghanistan. Cross-country marches, sit-ins and vigils are bringing together generations of Afghans.
The danger is that none of this will be considered in the way Americans grapple with The Post’s revelations. There may be chorus of shock and disbelief from politicians and analysts on the left and right of the political spectrum, but it is a chorus that once again could ignore the experiences of Afghans and threaten to reinforce the tired and predictable colonial trope that deflects accountability from those who exercise power to the people who have had little agency in the decisions making process.
Instead, it will likely fuel support for a precipitous exit from Afghanistan in the name of ending the “forever wars.”
To be sure, both Afghans and Americans want an end to this conflict. The current efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban are a testament to this. The publication of these papers presents an opportunity to learn from the mistakes committed over decades of intervention in Afghanistan — which have claimed the lives of 1.5 million Afghans (estimates vary, and most Afghans believe casualties are underestimated) and more recently those of thousands of American service members. Their sacrifices deserve a new and considered approach to foreign policy — one that respects and protects human life.
What the Afghan people need now is a strong commitment to a long-term diplomatic process that puts them at the heart of the peace negotiations, a commitment to development and reconstruction, and support for those who are in grave danger if the United States moves ahead with its current plan of making the Taliban their counterterrorism partner in the region. Anything less would be history repeating and another stain on the American consciousness.