By Salman Rafi Sheikh
Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election was largely projected as a “make or break” point for the future of democracy in Afghanistan. Not only did U.S. officials hail this ‘successful democratic transition’ and ‘peaceful’ transfer of power, they also had us believe that democracy “is actually” gaining ground in Afghanistan. Whether or not democracy was or is gaining ground in Afghanistan is a moot question; however, what is clearly evident is that the U.S. and its allies do repeat this success story quite often to demonstrate their “success” in “civilizing” Afghanistan. In simple words, this success story serves as a perfect excuse for them to justify the need for strengthening Afghanistan’s military. The notorious argument, repeated on quite a few occasions, goes as follows:
Since Afghanistan is politically “stable” now, the need of the hour is to bolster Afghanistan’s defesce apparatuses so that re-emergence of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s sole rulers could be avoided. As is evident, after successful democratic transition, military transition is the next “logical” step.
While it is true that a strong Afghan military can be an effective guard against the Taliban, it is not necessary that it should be developed at the expense of “democracy.” Afghanistan’s democracy, the seeds of which were unfortunately and actually sown under the shadows of B-52 bombers, is plagued with many problems of high magnitude. In September 2014, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, was reportedly claimed that Afghanistan, “remains under assault by insurgents and is short of domestic revenue, plagued by corruption, afflicted by criminal elements involved in opium and smuggling, and struggling to execute basic functions of government.” Although he was critical of the then prevailing situation, his criticism went largely unheeded. Notwithstanding the “defects” he mentioned, a high magnitude problem — the problem of over-developing military at the expense of civil institutions and social sector developments — has not only largely been ignored but actually presented as a partly successful effort on the part of the U.S. to strengthen Afghanistan.
Given the extent of what’s being spent on these two separate aspects of the Afghan polity, it appears that the U.S. and its allies are more interested in strengthening Afghan militarily than in helping democracy and civil institutions flourish — hence, numerous local and national defense institutions including the Afghan National Army, Police, and Afghan Local Police have benefited.
According to figures issued in February 2015 by the office of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which has closely audited the U.S.’s successes and failings in Afghanistan, the U.S. Congress has so far appropriated more than $65 billion for the establishment of and continuous support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Its reports also reveal that a further $104 billion has so far been spent on reconstruction and infrastructure projects. However, it is also quite evident, the report says, that the money spent on many (so-called) reconstruction and development projects has been wasted, used on ineffective and useless projects, or even stolen through fraudulent schemes. Many in Afghanistan believe that a lot of money has not been spent on reconstruction projects at all; rather it was and continues to be spent on supporting private militias managed by many members of the previous and current Afghan Parliament. The U.S. government has classified information about the amount of money so far spent on this particular aspect of “development.”
In this behalf, John Sopko was also reported to have said that, “for the first time ever, (the SIGAR was) unable to publicly report to the American taxpayer on the status of a large portion of their over $60 billion investment.” In addition, a quarterly report issued by SIGAR in January 2013 revealed that the U.S. has actually spent more than half of the nearly $100 billion in Afghan reconstruction funds on developing the country’s police and security forces. This diversion of resources from reconstruction and development to establishing security apparatuses is a clear indication of the objective the U.S. aims to achieve in Afghanistan: a militarized Afghan polity rather than a democratic Afghan republic.
This also become evident when we take into consideration SIGAR’s other report which also clearly exposes the “effectiveness” of and the “efficiency” with which development and reconstructions projects were undertaken. According to it, the “U.S. assistance has been provided for reconstruction without the benefit of a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy.” The result being that most of the money ends up benefiting the erstwhile commanders of the Northern Alliance and other privately managed militias. As a matter of fact, some even go to the extent of claiming that a lot of money provided by the U.S. actually ends up supporting the Taliban. As it stands, the U.S. seems to be more willing to prepare a private army along with the Afghan national army to fight the Taliban and sustain its own dominance in Afghanistan than to physically develop Afghanistan, create job opportunities etc.
That the “classified” money has been most probably spent on establishing private as well as public militias also becomes evident when we take into account the fact that in many parts of Afghanistan, governors or members of parliament run their own militias under the banner of ALP (Afghan Local Police), using the pretext of fighting insurgents. But they actually use this force to terrorize the local population. For instance, the ALP, a local security force established in 2010, has been a particularly destructive force, says a study conducted by Human Rights Watch, as far as the security of life and property of common people is concerned. Such groups are not just a source of power for local politicians. They also work as a hedge against any popular opposition, and are further used to guard poppy cultivation, grab land, murder political opponents, run torture houses, and accompany U.S. forces in raids and patrols. According to some credible reports, many of the previously militant (anti-Taliban) commanders were, on purpose, hired by the U.S. forces to expand their human intelligence sources. For instance, Abdul Hakim Shujoyi, a militia leader in central Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, became an ALP commander in 2011 at the insistence of U.S. forces. He is reported to have personally murdered civilians, including a rampage in July 2011 when he shot dead 7 villagers and set fire to their crops. He is still at large and continues to operate as freely as ever, and is being protected by the Afghan government.
The Afghan government itself is also focusing increasingly on developing its state security apparatus. For instance, in its bid to outfight and outgun the Taliban, the Afghan government — mostly using U.S. funds — spends over $2.44 billion per year equipping its overall military force. These expenses alone — which go toward purchasing aircraft, vehicles, weapons, body armor and other equipment — are much more than what is actually spent on other so-called development projects. In addition, the Afghan government devotes $844 million to training its army, or $4,965 per soldier. Furthermore, soldiers are paid an average of just $1,872 a year, but the overall cost of training and fielding a police officer is roughly $30,000 per year, while the cost of each soldier is nearly $46,000 per year.
This money is much more than what is being spent on, for example, education. According to a report by Jeaniene Spink of Oxford University, “there is proportionately little or no support for pre-primary, secondary or tertiary education. Frustrated in their educational ambitions, many children are forced to leave school after primary completion. Lack of opportunities to train as doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers or engineers means that many Afghans are now choosing to return to Pakistan where there are better educational prospects.” Similarly, summarizing the “effectiveness” of the so-called reconstruction projects, a report of the International Crisis Group says, “despite billions of dollars in aid, state institutions (in Afghanistan) remain fragile and unable to provide good governance, deliver basic services to the majority of the population or guarantee human security.”
Notwithstanding this marked discrepancy, the most astonishing fact is that the Afghan security apparatus, including Afghan National Army, is still not only incapable of solely countering the Taliban but also continues to suffer from many operational and tactical deficiencies. No wonder, the U.S. training mission had to acknowledge in 2014 that none of the Afghan forces, both civil armed forces and the army, were able to fight the war on their own. Ironically, one of the most important reasons cited for this lack of capability is illiteracy in Afghanistan in general and among Afghan police and military specifically. And, as indicated earlier, the state of education in Afghanistan is itself too dismal to make a meaningful impact on this issue.
Instead of focusing on rebuilding Afghanistan, the U.S. and Afghanistan’s successive governments have been and still are focusing on one simple issue: developing and strengthening the Afghan security forces. For the U.S., Afghan forces stand to replace the U.S. and NATO forces; for the Afghan government, these forces are their only hope against the Taliban. Their focus is, under these circumstances, warranted but by no means justified — hence, the question: Where will the Afghan polity stand when so much is being spent on developing security forces? Will it have the same kind of militarized polity Pakistan has today? Note that Pakistan’s military, too, was developed, aided and trained by the U.S. during the Cold War to contain communism. Today, Afghan security forces are being developed on similar lines. Afghanistan, just like Pakistan, continues to suffer from lack of governance, while security forces, in both countries, continue to flourish.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.
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