To a large extent, the US departure from Afghanistan is similar to its departure from Iraq: after years of military presence, not much of a maintainable legacy is left behind. The fate of Kabul is largely similar to the fate of Mosul, where ISIS overtook the city and much of the Iraqi Army’s arsenal.
For decades, Americans prided themselves on outdoing Soviets and European colonialists -- be they British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, or Dutch -- with “occupation” and “liberation.”
Among the success stories of US models, we find South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Then the greatest US achievement was managing the post-WWII era in Western Europe. West Berlin was the more successful model compared to its Communist eastern twin, whose citizens commonly fled for their lives by trying to cross the wall.
So, why did Douglas MacArthur succeed in Japan and the Philippines, but Paul Bremer and Zalmay Khalilzad didn’t in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The truth is, there was no shortage of US funds being spent on Afghanistan, first during the initial direct occupation, then while running the Afghani Government, which means over a period that spanned two long decades.
Contrary to popular belief, the US achieved great things during that period. Most schools, airports, and roads were built in the US era, 8 million students enrolled in Afghani schools and universities, and healthcare in Afghanistan was better than in neighboring countries. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report, out of the $145 billion the US spent on running the Afghani Government, $35 billion went to infrastructure and services.
Still, Afghanistan failed as a US political project. Now, all the efforts and billions of dollars that were spent have vanished into thin air. Ryan Crocker, a veteran US Ambassador with extensive experience in the region, says: “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts wasn’t an insurgency (the Taliban). It was the weight of endemic corruption.” In fact, the same applies to Iraq, where the US administration exhausted an enormous budget, only to leave with neither a supportive state nor supportive grassroots.
The US partially achieved the objectives it set for these two wars. From a military standpoint, Washington managed to swiftly remove the existing regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But its project of building a supportive, alternative system like the ones it built in its other successful wars failed.
Why did empowering 8 million students to pursue their education and 30 million citizens to get medical and other services fail to keep the pro-US Afghani Government on its feet for a single day, despite providing the 300,000-soldier Afghani Army with state-of-the-art weapons?
There was no national political project, and there was no national state. Instead, there were institutional services with no sense of belonging. Naturally, these services collapsed upon the departure of US forces, which acted as the glue holding everything together.
Twenty years were wasted on managing daily military, security, and bureaucratic workings. However, not one Afghani idea or institution emerged that is capable of motivating Afghans to fight for these principles and for their country.
I am positive that most Afghans are against the Taliban, for it is only human nature to repulse from extremist groups. Nonetheless, this majority of Afghans saw no alternative, nor did they find a national bond to rally around.
To be continued…
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.