The Future of Afghanistan Hinges on American Dollars, Not Troops
In April, President Joe Biden announced he would withdraw America’s 2,500 combat troops from Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2021. Supporters praised the move for finally closing the book on America’s longest war and allowing Washington, in the words of Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, to “refocus American national security on the most pressing challenges we face.” Meanwhile, critics denounced the decision as “reckless and dangerous.” Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned it could have “huge consequences,” including a surge in global terrorism and a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Writing in War on the Rocks, Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware argued that withdrawal “will be universally seen as defeat,” thereby making America less safe.
Both sides of this debate, however, tend to exaggerate the importance of the U.S. troop departure. The key to the war in Afghanistan is not American soldiers but American dollars. The Biden administration should couple the withdrawal of soldiers with a long-term commitment to monetary aid which prioritizes sustainability, avoids unrealistic conditions, and shares the burden with foreign donors.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan are doing valuable work — mainly, training and advising Afghan troops. The American departure also means the withdrawal of the roughly 7,000-strong NATO-led contingent in the country. But the fixation on the number of U.S. soldiers reflects a certain strategic narcissism — the American belief that the presence (or absence) of Americans is the decisive factor in any conflict combined with the media’s disinterest in wars where Americans are not directly involved in the fighting.
In truth, there are stark limits on what a small U.S. and allied force can achieve in a country of nearly 40 million people that faces a nationwide rebellion. The current number of U.S. soldiers is the same as the enrollment in a large American high school — and pales in comparison to the 300,000-strong Afghan security forces or the Taliban’s estimated 60,000 core fighters.
Furthermore, the departure of U.S. soldiers does not mean the end of America’s physical presence in Afghanistan. The CIA has reportedly deployed hundreds of covert operatives in Afghanistan to target al-Qaeda and ISIL. A smaller detachment of U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond September 2021 to protect diplomatic facilities like the U.S. embassy. There are even creative ways to boost troop numbers beyond the official headcount. The true U.S. deployment was recently reported to be 3,500 rather than 2,500. In other words, the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan is already small and will get smaller but is not about to disappear entirely.
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
The vital factor in shaping the fate of Afghanistan is not foreign troops but foreign aid. In recent years, Washington has given Afghanistan around $4 billion in security assistance and $500 million in civilian aid. Of this, $3 billion is used to bankroll the Afghan military, covering everything from salaries to helicopters. Since the war began, the United States has spent around $140 billion on aid to Afghanistan. Other countries also contribute, for example, through the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, but the United States is by far the biggest donor.
U.S. aid to Afghanistan may be the most inefficient assistance program in the world. Stories of shocking mismanagement are rife, such as the industrial-scale theft of U.S.-provided fuel, the construction of a dining facility that didn’t include a kitchen, or the $6.7 million compound for Afghan women police that was never used. One review found that 30 percent of American aid was lost to “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Foreign assistance can backfire by creating patronage opportunities for corrupt officials, dividing Afghan communities, and boosting the Taliban. American officials struggle to even know whether aid works or not, and they sometimes evaluate the effectiveness of assistance programs using dubious metrics like the amount of money spent.
Unsurprisingly, given these problems, foreign aid to Afghanistan has gradually declined, both in terms of the dollar amount and the length of commitments. In 2020, donors at the Afghanistan Conference in Geneva pledged $12–13 billion for the period 2021 to 2024, a decrease of around 20 percent from the $15.2 billion that was promised for 2017 to 2020. Whereas the norm had previously been to make four-year pledges, Washington has now made any payments beyond 2021 conditional on “consistent progress on transparency and accountability, as well as on the peace process, on the part of the Afghan government.”
Political pressures in Washington cast even greater doubt over the future of U.S. assistance to Afghanistan. American aid faces a potential pincer attack from both the right and left. Conservatives are often skeptical of foreign aid as big government handouts: a kind of diplomatic Obamacare. Meanwhile, some on the left see foreign aid — especially military aid — as a form of imperialism that fuels the violence, lines the pockets of the military-industrial complex, and extends America’s forever wars. Given competing budget pressures, from tackling a rising China to domestic priorities, the idea of sending billions of taxpayer dollars indefinitely to Afghanistan may be tough to swallow. It’s hard enough to agree on infrastructure spending in America, never mind in Afghanistan.
It’s the Economic Aid, Stupid!
Yet despite its problems and unpopularity, foreign aid is indispensable to the future of Afghanistan. In the ninth most fragile state in the world, unfortunately, inefficiency goes with the terrain. In the end, what matters is not whether the aid machine runs smoothly. What matters is its net effect. The assistance program in Afghanistan may be the most wasteful around the globe, but it could also be the most valuable. After all, foreign aid is the main barrier preventing a Taliban victory. Kabul raises just $2.5 billion in revenue every year and spends $11 billion — the other three-quarters of the budget comes from foreign donations. In 2018, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani said the Afghan army could not survive six months without assistance: “[W]e don’t have the money.”
Turning off the spigot of assistance would likely trigger the collapse of the regime and allow the Taliban to capture much of the country, including Kabul. In turn, a Taliban triumph would have devastating humanitarian consequences in Afghanistan and could spur a blame game in the United States that would further inflame American politics and divide the United States from its allies.
By contrast, if the foreign aid keeps flowing, the Afghan government has a reasonable shot at survival. When Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989 after a decade of brutal warfare, many observers believed that Moscow’s client regime in Kabul would quickly fall to the insurgents. But the rebels were a disparate coalition that was bonded together by the shared Soviet enemy. When the Red Army departed, the insurgency splintered, and Kabul cut deals with local rebel commanders. Crucially, Moscow continued to supply aid to Kabul, including a weekly convoy of hundreds of trucks of weapons, fuel, and food. In the end, the Afghan regime survived longer than the Soviet Union itself and only disintegrated in 1992 when Moscow finally cut off support. Today, the withdrawal of foreign forces may also cause the glue bonding the Taliban together to come unstuck and create opportunities to drive a wedge into rebel ranks.
For all its flaws, foreign aid has helped spur impressive gains in Afghanistan, including a dramatic fall in infant and maternal mortality, huge advances in childhood education (especially for girls), and the construction of infrastructure like roads. In the last 20 years, Afghan life expectancy has jumped almost a decade, from 56 to 65 years.
The Price of Peace
What should Washington do? The United States has real, if moderate, interests in Afghanistan — stabilizing the region, countering extremist groups, fulfilling a moral obligation to the Afghan people, and averting a Taliban triumph. These interests do not justify anything close to the peak U.S. commitment during the 2009–2012 Afghan “surge,” when Washington deployed 100,000 U.S. soldiers and spent over $100 billion per year. But they do justify a sustained program of American financial assistance. As a result, the Biden administration should build domestic support, among both Democrats and Republicans, for a withdrawal of U.S. troops combined with a long-term program of aid.
First, Washington should commit to a four-year plan of military and civilian assistance to signal that America intends to back Afghanistan for the long haul. The most effective way to encourage the Taliban to embrace peace talks is to alter their expectations about the future and diminish their confidence in an easy victory. Guaranteeing the flow of aid means that the Taliban may face a painful stalemate, boosting the attraction of a negotiated deal.
Second, Washington should focus on building sustainable military and civilian capabilities. There is little point in constructing a high-tech Afghan air force that cannot operate without American know-how. Rather, the key is to shore up the Afghan army’s basic functionality — for example, paying soldiers’ salaries in a timely manner to reduce attrition rates. Civilian aid should also be targeted toward areas of greatest need or projects with a track record of success — for example, strengthening the Afghan Ministry of Finance so the country can eventually pay its own way or boosting the World Bank’s Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project, which delivers social services to local communities through elected community development councils.
Third, it’s important to establish conditions on aid without treating these requirements as a silver bullet. Monitoring projects effectively is necessary to convince taxpayers their dollars are being put to good use. After all, nearly one-third of U.S.-funded capital assets in Afghanistan were misused, unused, or abandoned — sometimes because the asset was destroyed by natural forces or war but often because the beneficiary was unable to maintain the asset or because U.S. officials failed to ensure the asset was constructed according to guidelines. But conditionality on aid should not be prioritized so much that it undermines the aid’s effectiveness. For instance, one study found that “[s]ome benchmarks are largely irrelevant to achieving real progress.” Furthermore, conditionality is essentially a threat to withhold aid — which may serve to embolden the Taliban and increase Afghanistan’s need for support. In addition, conditionality can create perverse incentives. In 2020, Washington announced that future civilian assistance to Afghanistan would depend on “progress in the peace process.” But tying aid to advances in peace talks may encourage the Taliban to play spoiler and keep fighting. Similarly, the Afghanistan Partnership Framework, agreed to by Kabul and outside donors in 2020, made future foreign aid conditional on a peace settlement that lives up to highly idealistic principles, including democracy, human rights, and gender equality. Some compromise on these values is probably necessary to forge a deal with the ultra-conservative Taliban — and donor righteousness is the ticket to forever war.
Fourth, at a time of budget pressure, it’s important to keep international donors on board. Fortunately, key partners like the European Union, Japan, and Norway remain committed to Afghan aid and, in 2020, largely stuck to previous funding levels and the traditional four-year program, albeit with a greater emphasis on conditionality. What about China? Wider strategic competition between Washington and Beijing undeniably complicates cooperation in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, this could be a case where the great powers can act in cautious partnership. The United States and China share an interest in tackling extremism, while Beijing has the capacity to invest in Afghanistan through the Belt and Road Initiative. Afghanistan is far from an existential threat to either great power, and Washington can tolerate a modest growth of Chinese influence in the country.
A U.S. aid program to Afghanistan of around $4–5 billion per year is affordable — even indefinitely so. The figure equates to less than one percent of the U.S. defense budget. Indeed, to put the number in perspective, Washington spends over $300 million every year just on military bands. The aid program is also much cheaper than deploying U.S. troops. Washington can pay for around 50 to 100 Afghan soldiers for the same cost as stationing a single American soldier there (about $1 million per year). The aid program is only a tiny fraction of the expenditure in Afghanistan a decade ago.
Continuing aid to Afghanistan does not guarantee success, but curtailing aid guarantees failure. $4 billion is a lot of money. But it buys Washington a reasonable chance at creating military deadlock in Afghanistan, forcing the Taliban to make peace, and avoiding a repeat of Saigon 1975, with all the associated trauma and recrimination.
Dominic Tierney is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He has published four books — most recently, The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts (Little, Brown, & Co., 2015). His work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, and various academic journals.