- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Ethan B. Kapstein
Best Defense directorate of military-economic affairs
Will Afghanistan collapse after the departure of American troops in 2013? That grim outcome appears all too likely. But the reason why Afghanistan may be heading toward anarchy is not simply due to the Afghan National Army’s lack of military preparedness to fight an insurgency without foreign support. Rather, some of the most challenging problems that the government must face once the U.S. leaves will be economic.
Today, the United States and its allies provide the government of Afghanistan with the vast majority of its operating budget. American taxpayers have not only built up schools, hospitals, government ministries, and the Afghan National Army and police force; they have also paid the salaries of those who man these institutions. Further, U.S. military and foreign assistance operations in Afghanistan support many thousands of soldiers, foreign aid workers, and contractors, who pump millions of dollars into the local economy.
What will happen when the last Americans depart? If history is any guide, "foreign assistance follows the flag," meaning that aid spending will flee in the absence of a strong military presence. First, Americans will inevitably lose interest in Afghanistan and redirect spending to the next crisis zone; today, for example, the calamity in Syria is dominating the airwaves. Second, without American troops around to provide a modicum of security, foreign aid workers will have no choice but to leave the country; they won’t be able to work in safety (and it shouldn’t be forgotten that several hundred aid workers have already been killed during the war). As a result of the American withdrawal, both the motivation for aid spending and any possibility of monitoring aid effectiveness will quickly disappear.
An abject lesson in how economics can shape a war zone is provided by Vietnam. During the early 1970s, there were some glimmers of hope in South Vietnam following the North’s severe military defeat during the 1968 Tet offensive. The United States, however, had already grown tired of the war, and the Nixon administration embarked upon a path of Vietnamization. As America’s military and economic commitment to Vietnam declined, the weak Saigon government had no choice but to raise taxes and impose austerity measures. These policies fueled popular opinion against the regime, helping smooth the way for the North’s successful invasion in 1975.
In preparing for its eventual departure from Afghanistan, there is much the United States could have done on the economic front but has tragically failed to implement. Incredibly, after more than ten years of war, the U.S. has no free trade agreement with Kabul, inadvertently promoting cross-border flows with Iran and Pakistan instead. Worse, these flows consist largely of needed imports, since the U.S. has promoted a strong Afghan currency that makes it near impossible to produce goods competitively within the country. The lack of an export-oriented industry, in turn, means that Afghanistan lacks a strong and forward-looking entrepreneurial class that could have served as a foundation for an anti-Taliban society; this is an even greater shame when one recognizes the tremendous craftsmanship that Afghan society is capable of in such sectors as woodworking and glassmaking.
The U.S. has also failed after more than a decade’s presence to help Afghanistan create a credible statistics agency or a system of "national accounts" that would track how the government’s money is being spent. This lack of transparency, in turn, enables corrupt practices to flourish. A cynic might think that America’s failure to develop more robust Afghan economic data has been one of commission rather than omission.
When the history of America’s involvement in Afghanistan is written, there will be much ink spilled over military strategy and tactics. Analysts will debate whether the U.S. should have been more aggressive in Pakistan or risked higher numbers of civilian casualties when taking the fight to the Taliban. Less attention, sadly, will be paid to the economic policies made in Washington and Kabul that were also instrumental in bringing about the demise of the Afghan regime.
Ethan B. Kapstein teaches global strategy at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. A retired naval officer, he has served as an academic advisor to the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team in Kabul. The opinions expressed in this piece are strictly his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he is or has been associated.
Yochi Dreazen is a Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy. He is also writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security. His book about military suicide was published by Random House's Crown division in 2014.
Prior to joining Foreign Policy, Dreazen was a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the senior national security correspondent for National Journal. He began his career at the Wall Street Journal and spent 11 years at the newspaper, most recently as its military correspondent. He was born in Chicago, and later attended the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, he edited the award-winning daily campus newspaper and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1999 with degrees in History and English. He was hired by the Wall Street Journal immediately after graduation. Dreazen arrived in Iraq in April 2003 with the Fourth Infantry Division, and spent the next two years living in Baghdad as the Wall Street Journal's main Iraq correspondent.
Dreazen has made more than 12 lengthy trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and has spent a total of nearly four years on the ground in the two countries, mostly doing front-line combat embeds. He has reported from more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Israel, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
In 2010, Dreazen received the Military Reporters & Editors association’s top award for domestic military reporting in a large publication for a series of articles about military suicide and the psychological traumas impacting veterans of the two long wars. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Tablet and the New Republic and he appears regularly on TV and radio programs such as NPR's Diane Rehm Show and PBS' Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Dreazen gives frequent lectures about journalism, the wars and current events to both civilian and military audiences.
Dreazen lives in Washington with his wife, Annie Rosenzweig Dreazen, and their beloved Golden Retriever, Charlie.| The Complex |
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.| The Complex |