The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. replicated crucial flaws from the past in Afghanistan

The Afghan government was built on corruption for more than a century. The Taliban exploited it.

Taliban fighters stand guard alongside a road near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on Aug. 16 after taking power in Afghanistan. (AFP/Getty Images)
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President Biden made the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan a central piece of his foreign policy platform, enacting a plan set in motion by former president Donald Trump, who infamously negotiated with the Taliban for a hasty retreat.

Yet many analysts were caught unprepared for the swiftness of the Taliban advance and the abruptness of the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government on Sunday. But they shouldn’t be. By leaving behind a system of endemic corruption, a government and military overly reliant on foreign support and empowered regional warlords, the United States fomented the very conditions that allowed the brutal Taliban to sweep back into power after 20 years.

Afghanistan was born during the height of British colonialism in Asia in the early 19th century. Seen as a crucial gateway to India, the small landlocked country became a battleground for an imperial contest between the Russian Empire and the British.

The British invaded in 1839 and 1878, and each time Afghans repelled them. However, the British managed to entrench an economic crisis that would endure long after their exit as a colonial power. Despite resisting the British during numerous invasions, by 1879 Afghanistan agreed to a treaty that ended the armed conflict but also saw Great Britain as the de facto manager of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. In return the colonial power provided Afghanistan with a hefty subsidy.

By restricting Afghanistan’s international connection to only British India and fostering a relationship in which emirs and local rulers were reliant on foreign subsidies to fund their armies and palaces, the nascent nation-state was effectively molded to be dependent on a flow of cash from the outside. Under King Amanullah Khan, Afghanistan invaded British India and fought Britain to an armistice, forcing the colonial power to formally recognize Afghanistan as an independent state in the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1919. This also ended the British subsidy to the country.

Though now formally independent, Afghanistan’s economic situation had been shaped by British influence for decades. Britain relied heavily on buying off regional leaders to extend its influence, making the country almost entirely reliant on foreign aid. By flooding Afghanistan with payoffs, bribes and aid, the British created a system of endemic corruption in which local chieftains and favorable bureaucrats would enrich themselves while the rest of the country remained relatively poor.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union exploited this economic situation as a means to extend their competing spheres of influence. The two superpowers funneled large sums of money into Afghanistan ostensibly for infrastructure projects that claimed to modernize the country. For example, the Salang Tunnel built by Soviet engineers from 1958 to1964 connected northern Afghanistan with Kabul. The United States launched the Helmand Valley Project, which built dams and irrigation systems to modernize agriculture in the region.

Reliance on foreign aid was a central tenant of Afghan President Daud Khan’s policy in the mid-1970s. Having overthrown his cousin King Zahir Shah in a bloodless coup in 1973, Khan relied heavily on aid available from the United States and the Soviet Union to modernize Afghanistan. He famously described his diplomatic maneuvering, commenting, “I feel happiest when I light my American cigarette with Soviet matches.”

Yet it would be exactly his reliance on foreign money that would prove his undoing. In a country where the government was a major employer and where that government relied on foreign aid, corruption ran rampant. Technocrats and bureaucrats would skim from the money flowing in from the outside. This produced an economy that could not meet the needs of ordinary Afghans, making Afghanistan ripe for revolution.

In 1978, the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan overthrew President Khan in what would eventually be called the Saur Revolution. One of the revolution’s primary objectives was to stem the tide of corruption and create a new economic model to benefit all Afghans. Yet it didn’t happen. The tide of foreign payments continued as the Soviet Union propped up the new government. Meanwhile, the United States helped fund groups and local militias that resisted the Soviet-aligned government by funneling funds through Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI. This quickly fueled and escalated the conflict and in December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, overthrowing its allies and installing a new president.

Thus, during the final decade of the Cold War, the powerful groups in Afghanistan — the Soviet-backed government and the U.S.-supported insurgents — continued the pattern set by the British, with power built through payoffs, bribes and aid.

And now decades later, the United States seems to have continued this approach. The release of the Afghanistan Papers revealed that over the course of the past 20 years the United States flooded Afghanistan with a trillion dollars, which quickly went into the hands of various military contractors and advisers and lined the pockets of government officials. Like the British before it, the United States adopted a policy of paying off and co-opting local warlords and drug traffickers. One executive is quoted by The Washington Post as saying, “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and did, without reason.” Meanwhile, war merchants, profiteers and contractors enjoyed hefty paychecks in Kabul.

Indeed, when the Taliban troops took Mazar-e Sharif, social media was awash with videos of them entering the palace of Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, a regional warlord and member of the U.S.-backed Ghani government. Ostentatious couches lined opulent rooms decorated in gold and silver. The stark contrast of the ragtag, dusty insurgents surrounded by the extravagance of the former residence of a government official visually captured the reality of the situation: The United States entrenched a system of corruption that was first established by the British Empire, was fostered during the Cold War and had now become the 20-year legacy of the war in Afghanistan.

The Taliban was able to exploit this situation to its advantage by turning to those same regional warlords and local government officials who had lined their pockets with U.S. dollars for decades by promising them amnesty, position and money in a new Taliban regime.

The United States was caught completely off-guard by how quickly the Taliban was able to exploit the very system it had put in place over the past two decades. But for many Afghans on the ground and in the diaspora, there is a dreaded sense that the specters of history continue to haunt their homeland. History has taught Afghans that while empires come and go, corruption continues from one administration to the next, and Afghans continue to suffer.

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