The former US general who led President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan has called the American withdrawal from Kabul a heartbreaking and tragic failure.
David Petraeus tells Tortoise the sudden end to Nato’s 20-year Afghan operation was a “failure of strategic patience” because
- America’s Nato allies were willing to stay;
- the human cost was sustainable – US had not lost a soldier in combat in Afghanistan in 18 months; and
- while not a “win”, the status quo was better than the alternative for the US and “more importantly for Afghanistan and the Afghan people”.
Petraeus was speaking to Andrew Neil for The Backstory, a new Tortoise podcast series launched yesterday. The evidence for his argument is plain to see even if the world has turned away to focus on Ukraine.
Eight months on from the withdrawal, Afghanistan has no functioning economy. A quarter of its people are at risk of starvation. Ninety-five per cent lack enough food. Isis bombings are on the rise. The security situation is expected to get worse with the summer fighting season and fully half the population – Afghanistan’s women and girls – are confined by the Taliban to a form of purgatory that for two decades Nato helped to hold at bay.
Economy. Foreign aid accounted for three quarters of public spending and up to 40 per cent of all economic activity in Afghanistan for most of the past 20 years. That aid was frozen last August along with $9 billion of Central Bank reserves held abroad. Two executive orders signed by President Biden in February allowed limited access to those reserves to enable the UN to distribute cash directly to households, but…
- $3.5 billion of the reserves remain frozen and subject to litigation in the US by families of victims of 9/11;
- the Afghan Central Bank is still not functioning;
- private banks remain closed;
- foreign banks have no way of bringing money into the country;
- Afghan citizens cannot access credit; and
- US sanctions first imposed on the Taliban in 2001 remain in force and now extend to the Central Bank and other financial institutions under Taliban control.
Food. The UN’s Special Representative for Afghanistan told the UN Security Council in March that her worst fears of famine and starvation had been averted, but the reality is that 95 per cent of of Afghans are not getting enough to eat.
According to the World Food Programme and Unicef
- 22.8 million people – more than half the population – face acute food insecurity;
- 8.7 million people face emergency levels of food insecurity;
- 3.2 million children in Afghanistan will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2022; and
- a million severely malnourished children will be at risk of death.
Obstacles to feeding Afghanistan include
- Lack of money, which is proving as dangerous as a lack of food. There have been multiple reports of people selling kidneys and even their own children in desperate attempts to pay for food, and most current aid is based on expensive and unsustainable handouts that will only become more expensive as the war in Ukraine pushes up prices of staples such as wheat. The WFP is seeking $4.4 billion from the UN, its biggest-ever ask for a single country, but even that is unlikely to be enough.
- The Taliban. Aid agencies are struggling to get food to where it needs to be, as opposed to where the Taliban would like it to be. Food has long been used as a weapon by the Taliban to gather support and crush dissent. To bring aid to the most vulnerable requires navigating centuries-old disputes between Afghanistan’s myriad ethnic groups.
- Drought and Covid. The worst drought in 27 years and a health system over-burdened by the pandemic have left Afghanistan even more vulnerable to malnutrition than it would have been thanks to the takeover alone.
Women’s rights. Women are bearing the brunt of the country’s food and economic crises. The UN reported in March that almost 100 per cent of women-led households were experiencing hunger. In addition:
- Public spaces. As under the previous Taliban regime in the 1990s, women’s access to public spaces, education and work is being increasingly curtailed. The Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (which replaced the Afghan Ministry of Women Affairs) has tightened constraints on women, including requiring a male guardian (mahram) for journeys of more than 45 miles within the country and abroad. There are similar restrictions on accessing healthcare and parks, and reports of women being banned from taxis and public transport in cities.
- Work. Women are allowed to work and study, “subject to Islamic Law”. The result is a culture of fear among working women, and restrictions on girls’ education. According to the International Labour Organisation, Afghan women’s employment levels fell by around 16 per cent in the third quarter of 2021, compared with 6 per cent for men. By the middle of this year women’s employment is expected to be 21 per cent lower than before the Taliban took over. For widows and women who are sole breadwinners, this means relying on aid to survive.
- Schools. After a campaign of international pressure it seemed schools would allow female students to return last month after a seven-month absence. But after two days back in classrooms girls were turned away until their education was deemed “compliant with Islamic law”. Despite condemnation from other Muslim-majority countries, ”the Taliban appear to have stopped giving any pretence of appeasing donors in hopes of gaining aid and recognition,” Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch writes. The impact on girls excluded from education is likely to be felt for generations.
Security. US and UN officials have identified 20 militant groups operating in and from Afghanistan. By far the most serious threat to Taliban control is posed by Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), now stepping up attacks after being suppressed in the first few months after the Taliban’s return. Unlike the Taliban, IS-K targets Afghanistan’s Shia minority and dreams of a Sunni emirate straddling Central Asia’s borders. It claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that killed a total of 18 people earlier this month in a boys’ school in Kabul and a mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, and is blamed by Pakistan for dozens of cross-border attacks despite a new 1600-mile border fence declared 90 per cent complete last year. Pakistan also accuses Kabul of helping the Pakistani Taliban mount hundreds of attacks on government forces in northwest Pakistan since last August – to which Islamabad has responded with cross-border airstrikes.
“Whether we like it or not in the West, Afghanistan will remain… an ungoverned space for international terrorism,” says Roh Yakobi, a former refugee and associate fellow at Human Security Centre. You can hear Roh’s story in our Slow Newscast, A son of Afghanistan.
Petraeus says the Nato could have maintained an acceptable level of security in Afghanistan with
- 3500 US troops
- 8500 troops from non-US Nato allies
- an expanded drone presence; and
- a functioning helicopter capability that was the “lynchpin” of Afghan security until last year.
Refugees. The August takeover led to a new exodus of refugees. 2.6 million Afghans are now registered as displaced, 2.2 million of them in Iran and Pakistan. Western countries’ promises of support have seldom been kept. As of last month 12,000 of the 16,000 Afghan refugees to have arrived in the UK since the withdrawal from Kabul were still living in hotels at a cost to the government of £1.2 million a day.
Petraeus invoked the image of a circus performer to remind America of its role as the indispensable nation at a time of multiple geostrategic emergencies, from keeping Ukraine supplied with heavy weapons to managing a critically important relationship with China.
“The US uniquely has to keep a whole bunch of plates spinning,” he told Neil. “We have to have a capability that is full-spectrum, and we can, and we do.” Except, apparently, in Afghanistan.
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