Guest Opinion: Who lost Afghanistan?
The Taliban is moving in, all around Afghanistan. The gains in lifestyle and in freedom that occurred during the years the U.S. was involved are sure to disappear quickly. This has happened before. It did not need to happen this time.
Recent developments in Afghanistan and with US policy have saddened me. I spent much of the time between 2002 and 2012 living and working in Afghanistan. I worked with various U.S. aid programs, in launching a new currency at the end of 2002, in building the financial and banking system in the country and in teaching at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. I met and worked with many Afghans and saw first-hand many improvements in living conditions and in the economy. Even though I did spend years in the country and did learn one of its seven or eight languages, I was always an outsider and only heard about the different power shifts, the roles of the warlords, the corruption that inevitably is associated with very large flows of money.
There were many mistakes made over the years since 2001 in Afghanistan, involving a large number of international donors and Afghans as well. We will undoubtedly hear about these, if we listen, as there are people working hard to understand what happened. But the one outstanding error made in 2002, when countries came together in Bonn, Germany, to plan the new Afghanistan, was the rejection of the Taliban, as participants in the discussion. Our primary target in 2001 was Al Qaeda not the Taliban. The Taliban may have stood for things that the United States did not believe in, but the Taliban was a force in Afghanistan. The U.S., by pulling back from Afghanistan in 2002, by focusing resources on Iraq, and by essentially having Afghanistan policy decided on a military basis, opened a space for the Taliban to regroup, rebuild and come back in force in 2006 and later.
As someone who worked to rebuild Afghan institutions, in the banking and educational sectors, I saw very little serious long term engagement of Americans with Afghans. Rotating service for the military meant that the soldiers never really got to know the country. The same was true for many other U.S. government officials. They lived in bubbles, in compounds only seeing Afghans under controlled conditions.
Even though there were real limits to a real hearts and minds effort, there were many Americans and others who were dedicated, and some stayed long enough to learn the language, to build up national capabilities. The efforts, by the United States and other countries, including European and Asian countries, did make a difference, for people living in cities, for women, for those seeking to develop Afghanistan.
By pulling all of our troops out of Afghanistan, the United States is sending a loud signal to Afghans and to the world that we are no longer really committed to Afghanistan. The U.S. military can win wars, but it has lost this peace. Bombs and drones will never win Afghanistan. A small presence, of four or five thousand, will send and maintain a signal that the U.S. is not running away. Our casualties in the last year or two in Afghanistan have been minimal; this would not change. The endless war will end for the U.S., at least for a while, until China, Pakistan, Iran or Russia move in and reignite the war.
The Taliban is moving in, all around Afghanistan. The gains in lifestyle and in freedom that occurred during the years the U.S. was involved are sure to disappear quickly. This has happened before. It did not need to happen this time. We should not let our desire for a wonderful result cancel our staying power which could maintain the gains and benefits that have been achieved over the last 20 years.
Dr. Andrew Hook is an economist who started his career as a senior international economist in 1977 at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In 1991 he moved to the International Monetary Fund, where he provided technical assistance to the former Soviet Union countries and other developing countries. From the mid 1990s he worked for different international and national organizations doing international consulting work. In his last assignments he was living and working in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2012. Hook is also a member of the Brainerd Dispatch Advisory Board.