Early days of Taliban takeover: International Aid money dries up

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

August 18, 2021

It is still early days, and the picture of what is happening in Afghanistan now that the Taliban has regained control of the country continues to develop.

Central to affairs there is money. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with about half its population requiring humanitarian aid this year and about 90% of its people living below the poverty line of making $2 a day.

The country depends on foreign aid. Under the U.S.-supported Afghan government, the United States and other nations funded about 80% of Afghanistan’s budget. In 2020, foreign aid made up about 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP (the GDP, or gross domestic product, is the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in a country), down from 100% of it in 2009.

This is a huge problem for the Taliban, because their takeover of the country means that the money the country so desperately needs has dried up. The U.S. has frozen billions of dollars of Afghan government money held here in the U.S. The European Union and Germany have also suspended their financial support for the country, and today the International Monetary Fund blocked Afghanistan’s access to $460 million in currency reserves.

Adam M. Smith, who served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, told Jeff Stein of the Washington Post that the financial squeeze is potentially “cataclysmic for Afghanistan.” It threatens to spark a humanitarian crisis that, in turn, will create a refugee crisis in central Asia. Already, the fighting in the last eight months has displaced more than half a million Afghans.

People fleeing from the Taliban threaten to destabilize the region more generally. While Russia was happy to support the Taliban in a war against the U.S., now that its fighters are in charge of the country, Russia needs to keep the Taliban’s extremism from spreading to other countries in the area. So it is tentatively saying supportive things about the Taliban, but it is also stepping up its protection of neighboring countries’ borders with Afghanistan. Other countries are also leery of refugees in the region: large numbers of refugees have, in the past, led countries to turn against immigrants, giving a leg up to right-wing governments.

Canada and Britain are each taking an additional 20,000 Afghan women leaders, reporters, LGBTQ people, and human rights workers on top of those they have already volunteered to take, but Turkey—which is governed by strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan—is building a wall to block refugees, and French President Emmanuel Macron asked officials in Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey to prevent migrants reaching their countries from traveling any further. The European Union has asked its member states to take more Afghan refugees.

In the U.S., the question of Afghan refugees is splitting the Republican Party, with about 30% of it following the hard anti-immigrant line of former president Donald Trump. Others, though, especially those whose districts include military installations, are saying they welcome our Afghan allies.

The people fleeing the country also present a problem for those now in control of Afghanistan. The idea that people are terrified of their rule is a foreign relations nightmare, at the same time that those leaving are the ones most likely to have the skills necessary to help govern the country. But leaders can’t really stop the outward flow—at least immediately—because they do not want to antagonize the international community so thoroughly that it continues to withhold the financial aid the country so badly needs. So, while on the streets, Taliban fighters are harassing Afghans who are trying to get away, Taliban leaders are saying they will permit people to evacuate, that they will offer blanket amnesty to those who opposed them, and also that they will defend some rights for women and girls.

The Biden administration is sending more personnel to help evacuate those who want to leave. The president has promised to evacuate all Americans in the country—as many as 15,000 people—but said only that we would evacuate as many of the estimated 65,000 Afghans who want to leave as possible. The Taliban has put up checkpoints on the roads to the airport and are not permitting everyone to pass. U.S. military leaders say they will be able to evacuate between 5000 and 9000 people a day.

Today, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley tried to explain the frantic rush to evacuate people from Afghanistan to reporters by saying: “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.” Maybe. But military analyst Jason Dempsey condemned the whole U.S. military project in Afghanistan when he told NPR’s Don Gonyea that the collapse of the Afghan government showed that the U.S. had fundamentally misunderstood the people of Afghanistan and had tried to impose a military system that simply made no sense for a society based in patronage networks and family relationships.

Even with Dempsey’s likely accurate assessment, the statement that U.S. military intelligence missed that a 300,000 person army was going to melt away still seems to me astonishing. Still, foreign policy and national security policy analyst Dr. John Gans of the University of Pennsylvania speculated on Twitter that such a lapse might be more “normal”—his word and quotation marks—than it seems, reflecting the slips possible in government bureaucracy. He points out that the Department of Defense has largely controlled Afghanistan and the way the U.S. involvement there was handled in Washington. But with the end of the military mission, the Defense Department was eager to hand off responsibility to the State Department, which was badly weakened under the previous administration and has not yet rebuilt fully enough to handle what was clearly a complicated handoff. “There have not been many transitions between an American war & an American diplomatic relationship with a sovereign, friendly country,” Gans wrote. “Fewer still when the friendly regime disintegrates so quickly.” When things started to go wrong, they snowballed.

And yet, the media portrayal of our withdrawal as a catastrophe also seems to me surprising. To date, at least as far as I have seen, there have been no reports of such atrocities as the top American diplomat in Syria reported in the chaos when the U.S. pulled out of northern Syria in 2019. Violence against our Kurdish allies there was widely expected and it indeed occurred. In a memo made public in November of that year, Ambassador William V. Roebuck wrote that “Islamist groups” paid by Turkey were deliberately engaged in ethnic cleansing of Kurds, and were committing “widely publicized, fear-inducing atrocities” even while “our military forces and diplomats were on the ground.” The memo continued: “The Turkey operation damaged our regional and international credibility and has significantly destabilized northeastern Syria.”

Reports of that ethnic cleansing in the wake of our withdrawal seemed to get very little media attention in 2019, perhaps because the former president’s first impeachment inquiry took up all the oxygen. But it strikes me that the sensibility of Roebuck’s memo is now being read onto our withdrawal from Afghanistan although conditions there are not—yet—like that.

For now, it seems, the drive to keep the door open for foreign money is reining in Taliban extremism. That caution seems unlikely to last forever, but it might hold for long enough to complete an evacuation.

Much is still unclear and the situation is changing rapidly, but my guess is that keeping an eye on the money will be crucial for understanding how this plays out.

Meanwhile, the former president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has surfaced in the United Arab Emirates. He denies early reports that he fled the country with suitcases full of cash.

GasLit Nation: Hold Onto Your Humanity

Aug 18, 2021

GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR

We break down myths about “the unvaccinated” vs the anti-vaxxer propagandists and discuss the institutional distrust that have made a diverse crowd of Americans hesitant about the vaccine. We go through twenty years of horrific policy decisions that enabled a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, wasted trillions of tax dollars, and led to war crimes and tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties. And we end with hopeful words from our December 2019 interview with Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

Did military and intelligence leaders have no inkling of Taliban takeover?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

August 16, 2021

According to an article by Susannah George in the Washington Post, the lightning speed takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban forces—which captured all 17 of the regional capitals and the national capital of Kabul in about nine days with astonishing ease—was a result of “cease fire” deals, which amounted to bribes, negotiated after former president Trump’s administration came to an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. When U.S. officials excluded the Afghan government from the deal, soldiers believed that it was only a question of time until they were on their own and cut deals to switch sides. When Biden announced that he would honor Trump’s deal, the process sped up.

This seems to me to beg the question of how the Biden administration continued to have faith that the Afghan army would at the very least delay the Taliban victory, if not prevent it. Did military and intelligence leaders have no inkling of such a development? In a speech today in which he stood by his decision to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden explained that the U.S. did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner because some, still hoping they could hold off the Taliban, did not yet want to leave. 

At the same time, Biden said, “the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, ‘a crisis of confidence.’” He explained that he had urged Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chairman Abdullah Abdullah of the High Council for National Reconciliation to clean up government corruption, unite politically, and seek a political settlement with the Taliban. They “flatly refused” to do so, but “insisted the Afghan forces would fight.”

Instead, government officials themselves fled the country before the Taliban arrived in Kabul, throwing the capital into chaos.

Biden argued today that the disintegration of the Afghan military proved that pulling out the few remaining U.S. troops was the right decision. He inherited from former president Donald Trump the deal with the Taliban agreeing that if the Taliban stopped killing U.S. soldiers and refused to protect terrorists, the U.S. would withdraw its forces by May 1, 2021. The Taliban stopped killing soldiers after it negotiated the deal, and Trump dropped the number of soldiers in Afghanistan from about 15,500 to about 2,500. 

Biden had either to reject the deal, pour in more troops, and absorb more U.S. casualties, or honor the plan that was already underway. “I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said today. “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong—incredibly well equipped—a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies…. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided…close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future.  What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

“It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not. If the political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down, they would never have done so while U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan bearing the brunt of the fighting for them.”

Biden added, “I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight…Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?”  

The president recalled that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan almost 20 years ago to prevent another al Qaeda attack on America by making sure the Taliban government could not continue to protect al Qaeda and by removing Osama bin Laden. After accomplishing those goals, though, the U.S. expanded its mission to turn the country into a unified, centralized democracy, a mission that was not, Biden said, a vital national interest.

Biden, who is better versed in foreign affairs than any president since President George H. W. Bush, said today that the U.S. should focus not on counterinsurgency or on nation building, but narrowly on counterterrorism, which now reaches far beyond Afghanistan. Terrorism missions do not require a permanent military presence. The U.S. already conducts such missions, and will conduct them in Afghanistan in the future, if necessary, he said.

Biden claims that human rights are central to his foreign policy, but he wants to accomplish them through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying others to join us, rather than with “endless military deployments.” He explained that U.S. diplomats are secure at the Kabul airport, and he has authorized 6,000 U.S. troops to go to Afghanistan to help with evacuation.

Biden accepted responsibility for his decision to leave Afghanistan, and he maintained that it is the right decision for America. 

While a lot of U.S. observers have quite strong opinions about what the future looks like for Afghanistan, it seems to me far too soon to guess how the situation there will play out. There is a lot of power sloshing around in central Asia right now, and I don’t think either that Taliban leaders are the major players or that Afghanistan is the primary stage. Russia has just concluded military exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both of which border Afghanistan, out of concern about the military takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. At the same time, the area is about to have to deal with large numbers of Afghan refugees, who are already fleeing the country. 

But the attacks on Biden for the withdrawal from Afghanistan do raise the important question of when it is in America’s interest to fight a ground war. Should we limit foreign intervention to questions of the safety of Americans? Should we protect our economic interests? Should we fight to spread democracy? Should we fight to defend human rights? Should we fight to shorten other wars, or prevent genocide? 

These are not easy questions, and reasonable people can, and maybe should, disagree about the answers.

But none of them is about partisan politics, either; they are about defining our national interest. 

It strikes me that some of the same people currently expressing concern over the fate of Afghanistan’s women and girls work quite happily with Saudi Arabia, which has its own repressive government, and have voted against reauthorizing our own Violence Against Women Act. Some of the same people worrying about the slowness of our evacuation of our Afghan allies voted just last month against providing more visas for them, and others seemed to worry very little about our utter abandonment of our Kurdish allies when we withdrew from northern Syria in 2019. And those worrying about democracy in Afghanistan seem to be largely unconcerned about protecting voting rights here at home. 

Most notably to me, some of the same people who are now focusing on keeping troops in Afghanistan to protect Americans seem uninterested in stopping the spread of a disease that has already killed more than 620,000 of us and that is, once again, raging.