The Afghanistan War turns 10 years old Friday, and the United States seems much further from reaching its goals than it did in 2001. But the most significant underlying reason for that, experts say, is neither the Taliban insurgency and sanctuary in Pakistan nor the Afghan government’s corruption and incompetence.
In fact, the most important problem is less well-known — and virtually impossible to address. Afghanistan is arguably the most primitive nation on earth.
“We’re trying to jump-start them from the 15th century into the 21st,” Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer who served in Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war, said in an interview. “This is at least a one- or two-generation project.”
As Karl Eikenberry, former military commander and ambassador to Afghanistan, put it, “We’re facing some extraordinary challenges.”
A few statistics demonstrate the depth of this dilemma. CIA figures show that Afghanistan has the world’s second-highest infant mortality rate: 149.2 of every 1,000 children die before they reach their first birthday. By age 5, 26 percent of them are dead. Diplomats and aid organizations consider infant mortality a primary indicator of a failed state.
For children who survive childhood, six of every 10 will grow up stunted, meaning they will be short and mentally challenged because of malnutrition during the first years of life. That is the world’s worst rate.
More than 70 percent of Afghans are illiterate. In congressional testimony late last month, Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy noted that the literacy rate among the Afghan army’s “recruiting population of 18-to-40-year-olds is only 14 percent,” meaning most recruits can neither read nor write letters or numbers.
“If a soldier cannot read, how can he know what equipment he is supposed to have and maintain?” Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, commander of the NATO training mission there, asked in an op-ed column last year.
Electricity usage is another commonly used measure of development, and Afghanistan is near the bottom. On average, Afghans use about three watt-hours of electricity a year, the equivalent of burning a 3-watt light bulb for one hour. Average life expectancy — “a measure of the quality of life in a country,” the CIA says — stands at 45 years. Only Angola’s is lower.
Why does all of this matter?
The United States and NATO plan to leave the country by 2014. As soon as Western forces depart, no one doubts that the Taliban and their militant allies will pour back into Afghanistan from their western Pakistan sanctuaries, intent on regaining control. If by then, Afghanistan does not have a competent standing army and a reliable functioning government to sustain it, 13 years of warfare — thousands of lives, billions of dollars — will have been for naught.
Right now, 10 years on, it has neither.
The United States and NATO did not start in earnest to build a large, serious army until 2009. Eikenberry started the first effort seven years earlier, and the goals then — before the Taliban insurgency began — were modest: a relatively small force to be available primarily for “possible domestic disorder,” he said, and to provide Afghans an example of “a visible sign of unity to a people divided through several decades of conflict and civil war.”
When the NATO training mission began two years ago, the army’s attrition rate — the number of soldiers who deserted — stood at 85 percent of the troops every few months. It has fallen dramatically. From January to June, the last period for which NATO released figures, more than 24,000 soldiers, 14 percent of the 170,000-man force, deserted.
Still, literacy and competence remain serious problems. The United States and its allies are forced to operate numerous elementary schools. The NATO training mission now estimates that security forces “will achieve 50 percent overall literacy rates at the third-grade level in 2012,” Flournoy said.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, Peter Fuller, a U.S. major general who is a deputy commander of the training mission, recently announced that in the next few months, NATO “will deliver to the Afghan army, air force and police over 22,000 vehicles, 38 aircraft, over 50,000 pieces of communications equipment and almost 40,000 weapons.” In the same news release, he said his unit is setting up driver training schools. Fewer than three of every 100 Afghans have a motor vehicle.
Loyalty remains a serious problem, too. Scores of times in recent years, Afghan soldiers have opened fire on their NATO counterparts, killing at least 60 of them since 2007. And hundreds of Afghan soldiers are heroin addicts.
“An army generally reflects the society it is from,” Eikenberry noted. He stepped down as ambassador in July.
The governance side inspires even less faith. Caldwell, speaking at a news briefing last week, estimated that when Afghan security forces reach their full strength — about 350,000 soldiers and police — maintaining them will cost about $6 billion per year.
But it’s far from clear where the Afghan government, practically the most corrupt on earth, will find that money. As an example of the corruption, doctors in government hospitals are leaving wounded Afghan soldiers to die in their beds if they fail to pay requested bribes.
Afghanistan doesn’t have a transparent, workable “budget,” in the traditional sense, and the government doesn’t even work on fiscal years. It bases its theoretical budgets on solar years, which may vary by a few days from year to year. For the current solar year, the government is offering a $14.3 billion budget — nearly all of it derived from foreign aid, much of it purloined on the way to its intended purposes.
Over the past decade, the Government Accountability Office has published numerous reports questioning the wisdom of spending development money in Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent at least $72 billion there thus far. The latest report, published Sept. 20, evidenced deep frustration. “GAO has on numerous occasions raised doubts about” the Afghan government’s “ability to fund its public expenditures.” Nonetheless, it noted, the Obama administration wants to spend $18 billion more in the coming year. The problem, the GAO said, is serious donor dependence.
Right now, fully 90 percent of the government’s revenues come from foreign aid. How will Afghanistan replace that money? The country produces very little of any real value — not surprising, given its 15th-century existence, as Sageman put it.
The largest export product is opium poppies, used to make heroin. But the criminal profits from that generally are made abroad. Otherwise, the country produces wheat, fruits, nuts, wool, mutton, sheepskins and lambskins, and it’s clear that most Afghans don’t make enough from selling that produce even to feed their families. As it is, 35 percent of the population is unemployed.
When Eikenberry and other American military officers arrived in Afghanistan in 2002 — shortly after Sept. 11 and before the Iraq War — spirits were high, ambitions boundless. This was the “good war.” The American people fully supported it — and so, it seemed, did most Afghans. When Eikenberry fielded his first Afghan troops, the people were delighted, he said, but asked: “‘Are these Turkish troops?’ They looked sharp; they weren’t thieving.” They couldn’t be Afghans.
Looking back now, he grimaced slightly as he said, “This is one of the poorest countries in the world. We underestimated the challenges of helping Afghanistan build a state.”
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University. He came to Stanford after a 23-year career with The New York Times, where he served as a reporter, editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent.
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.