In Kabul, there is strikingly little evidence of the long and costly American effort. I asked Amrullah Saleh, the former head of intelligence, what had been achieved in Afghanistan in the past fifteen years. “From the American point of view, very little,” he said. “From the Afghan point of view, very much. I may have a lot of personal grievances, but, if you look at the picture from a bird’s eye, things have changed enormously.”
Saleh didn’t mean roads or dams. He meant the transformation of Afghan society, of public discourse, among activists and intellectuals, women and youth.
“Prior to 9/11, the biggest theme of our discussion was: 'How do you form a state?' Today, it’s not that. The biggest discourse today is how the state can deliver, how the state can survive, how Afghanistan’s diversity can remain intact, and how it can be a partner with the world community.”New Yorker staff writer George Packer's great profile of Worldbankia Civilization denizen Ashraf Ghani's time as Afghanistan's head of state does double duty as a crash course on the country's centuries of struggle to become a modern state -- always set back, as Packer explains, by the reformers' blinkered top-down policies that infuriate the conservatives ("The Arg is haunted by its murdered occupants.")
Coming to the present day the USA and its NATO allies repeated the worst mistakes of the country's earlier reformers:
Instead of sending money to local communities through Afghan channels, donors like U.S.A.I.D. bid out contracts to large international companies, which in turn hired subcontractors and private security companies, none of which had a long-term stake in Afghanistan.
In a 2005 ted talk on failed states, Ghani called such programs “the ugly face of the developed world to the developing countries,” adding, “Tens of billions of dollars are supposedly spent on building capacity with people who are paid up to fifteen hundred dollars a day, who are incapable of thinking creatively or organically.”
The National Solidarity Program didn’t get to write Afghanistan’s future. Some estimate that during the peak years of foreign spending on Afghanistan only ten to twenty cents of every aid dollar reached the intended beneficiaries.
Waste on a scale of several hundred billion dollars is the work of many authors, but the U.S. government was among the chief ones.Despite this, Afghanistan has lurched forward, as Amrullah Saleh explains. How much of the progress is due simply to technology -- cell phones, the internet, TV stations -- which created an explosion of communications that allowed the country's progressives to get a word in edgewise against the conservatives and elites who pander to them? Probably a great deal.
But there you have it: without the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the international circus they brought to town, the country would still be where Pakistan's military and its Taliban proxies want it: back in the Dark Ages.
What's needed now to move the dial? Security, security, security, and putting into policy what everyone already knows is needed: unless the screws are turned on Pakistan's warlords and their Saudi backers, all security measures are just continuing to empty the ocean with a sieve. So it comes back to Washington's elites and their counterparts in other Western capitals.
Which is to say the West has its own Dark Ages to deal with, which settled in during the cold war against the Soviets and is propped up by our version of Afghanistan's conservatives and the elites who pander to them.