The chaos unleashed in Kabul has transformed the popular decision to withdraw United States troops from Afghanistan into a debacle. But what has happened is neither a surprise nor an inevitability, nor the unfathomable curse of a country where invading empires have repeatedly foundered and retreated.
Afghanistan has collapsed like a house of cards despite repeated warnings from diplomats, military officials and observers on the ground. Eleven separate reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a position created by US Congress in 2008, have reported systemic failures in the Central Asian country. A lack of long-term political perspective was papered over by ever-increasing injections of funds, and was aggravated by insufficient information sharing between the different US agencies involved in Afghanistan. But the real black hole is the country’s endemic corruption, which in 2010 was already swallowing 25% of the national GDP, and into which billions more dollars have vanished.
The free-flowing dollars of international aid have further undermined the country’s weak foundations, according to many analysts. The high levels of spending have created so-called “donor fatigue,” where international agencies tire of opening their wallets without seeing results, but have more worryingly served to fatten the Dubai bank accounts of Afghan officials. “Donors simply spent too much, too fast, in too small an economy, with far too little oversight,” said John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General appointed by Barack Obama, back in 2019. “We turned a blind eye or simply were ignorant of how regularly some portion was going to payoffs, bribes, and bank accounts in Dubai.” Now former president Ashraf Ghani has had to deny that he fled Afghanistan with $160 million in his suitcase.
Sopko presented his last assessment in August of this year. “After spending 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, the US government has many lessons it needs to learn … [to] save lives and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in Afghanistan, and in future reconstruction missions elsewhere around the world,” his report stressed. The world has spent $2.2 trillion on the Central Asian country, not to mention the cost of the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and foreigners. The Costs of War project at Brown University puts the death toll from the conflict at 241,000.
Sopko is not the only one at top levels of the US government who has long identified the problem. Twenty declassified documents published on August 19 by the National Security Archive, which is linked to George Washington University, reveal how sources on the ground continually contradicted the Pentagon’s official optimism. Pakistan offered shelter to the Taliban while maintaining a close relationship with Washington, while corruption in the Afghan leadership fed the Taliban insurgency. A statement from the archive upon the documents’ release said White House policy since 2001 was not a miscalculation but deliberately misleading. “The US government under four presidents misled the American people for nearly two decades about progress in Afghanistan, while hiding the inconvenient facts about ongoing failures inside confidential channels,” the statement said.
Biden himself ignored warnings from senior military commanders in the spring when they urged him to avoid a total withdrawal and to leave some form of troop presence to avoid a power vacuum. Sopko’s report recalls the repeated assurances given by US military high command, including Generals David Petraeus in 2011, John Campbell in 2015 and John Nicholson in 2017, of the “growing operational capability” of the Afghan security forces. “More than $88 billion has been appropriated to support Afghanistan’s security sector. The question of whether that money was well spent will ultimately be answered by the outcome of the fighting on the ground,” Sopko said prophetically, just two weeks before the country’s collapse.
The National Security Archive details the problems that plagued the mission from its inception, with particular emphasis on “endemic corruption driven in large part by American billions and secret intelligence payments to warlords.” But everyday activities also required bribes: preferential treatment at a hospital, transporting fuel around the country, or ownership of property.
“Everyone was well aware of the widespread corruption at the highest levels of power. For years the international community has been trying to fight it. When Ghani became president, donors imposed 20 conditions on him, the first of which was to reduce corruption in the administration by 80%,” explained Brookings Institution researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown, citing corruption in the security forces and the judiciary as key examples.
Unlike the authorities propped up by the international community, she added, “the Taliban have not been corrupt, the drug profits [from opium trafficking] were enough for them, and they were not the only ones involved in that; there were also people from the government.”
“In the 1990s they built up a reputation for integrity, with very sporadic cases of diverting money into private pockets, for the benefit of their families, but not systematically like the country’s authorities,” Felbab-Brown added. Although their legitimacy is questionable, she concedes, the Taliban could not be accused of being corrupt given that bribing judges was eradicated in the Islamic courts as a practice during their first term [1996-2001]. This argument may partly explain the popular support for the Taliban in large parts of the country.
In other cases that fell short of corruption, there was a huge amount of waste spent on unrealistic funding targets. Between 2003 and 2015, one 140-page Sopko report argues, the US spent more than $1 billion on institution-building programs, and 90% of those funds went toward developing a standardized judicial system. It was another misjudgment because of the impossibility of imposing formal institutions in an informal environment. “For the first year after Marjah [Helmand] was cleared [in 2010], formal judiciary officials only heard five cases because no one was used to it. Locals would tell us, ‘We’ve never seen this and need to see if it works’,” Sopko reports being told, noting that the vast majority of civil disputes were settled through traditional community channels.
The report’s conclusion is clear: “The US government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly,” it states. Meanwhile, “the US government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan, and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.” A lack of evaluation and monitoring by the government agencies and the weight of endemic corruption were greater enemies than the insurgency, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker has said.
Felbab-Brown tries to stay optimistic. “One can only hope that the gains in areas such as health – especially maternal and child health – and education are not squandered. The Taliban will not be able to sustain those gains if their funding is cut off, if they are not able to pay salaries, and one can only hope that the generation of technocrats educated abroad will be able to carry out their work if they are allowed to do so,” she said.
El Salvador ‘responsible for death of woman jailed after miscarriage’ | Global development
The Inter-American court of human rights has ruled that El Salvador was responsible for the death of Manuela, a woman who was jailed in 2008 for killing her baby when she suffered a miscarriage.
The court has ordered the Central American country to reform its draconian policies on reproductive health.
The decision on Tuesday marked the first time an international court has ruled on El Salvador’s extreme abortion laws and was celebrated by women’s rights activists, who believe it could open doors for change across the region.
Since 1998, abortion in El Salvador has been banned without exception, even in cases of rape and incest. Over the past two decades, more than 180 women have been jailed for murder for having an abortion after suffering obstetric emergencies, according to rights groups.
The case of Manuela v El Salvador was brought after the 33-year-old mother of two from the countryside died from cancer after receiving inadequate medical diagnosis and treatment, leaving her two children orphaned. She had been serving a 30-year prison sentence for aggravated homicide after a miscarriage.
When Manuela – whose full name has never been made public in El Salvador – went to the hospital after miscarrying, staff failed to provide her with timely treatment and instead subjected her to verbal abuse and accused her of having an abortion, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Manuela was handcuffed to her bed and denied access to a lawyer while police interrogated her.
“There is no doubt that Manuela suffered an obstetric emergency,” the landmark court ruling stated. “Such situations, as they are medical conditions, cannot lead to a criminal sanction.”
The court also ruled that the state must pay reparations to Manuela’s family, and should develop comprehensive sexual education policies and guarantee doctor-patient confidentiality.
“The Inter-American court has done justice by recognising Manuela was another victim of an unjust legal context that originates in the absolute prohibition of abortion,” said Morena Herrera, at the Feminist Collective for Local Development, one of the parties in the case supporting Manuela’s family.
“Manuela’s story is a sad one, but it represents a change and becomes a path of justice and hope for all women in Latin America and the Caribbean who are criminalised for obstetric events.”
Most countries in the region respect the Inter-American court’s jurisdiction, opening the door for sweeping change, activists said.
“This is a huge advance for reproductive rights, not only in El Salvador but across Latin America,” said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, another party in the case. “This is a standard we can apply to the constitutions and states across the region.”
Martínez Coral added that while the ruling was to be celebrated, the issue of poverty affecting access to reproductive rights remained a challenge.
“There are over 180 cases of women in jail, or that have been jailed, over these issues,” said Martínez Coral, who also worked as a litigator on the case against the Salvadorean state.
“What that means is we’re dealing with a state that criminalises women and, above all, criminalises poor women in the most rural and impoverished areas,” she said.
EU commission unveils proposal to digitalise justice systems
The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday a proposal to digitalise EU cross-border justice systems, aiming at making them more accessible and effective. Under the new draft law, the EU executive wants to tackle inefficiencies affecting cross-border judicial cooperation and barriers to access to justice in cross-border cases. Shifting paper-based communications to electronic formats would save up to €25m per year across the EU in postage and paper costs.
Covid limits migration despite more people displaced by war and disasters | Global development
The coronavirus pandemic had a radical effect on migration, limiting movement despite increasing levels of internal displacement from conflict and climate disasters, the UN’s International Organization for Migration said in a report on Wednesday.
Though the number of people who migrated internationally increased to 281 million in 2020 – 9 million more than before Covid-19 – the number was 2 million lower than expected without a pandemic, according to the report.
“We are witnessing a paradox not seen before in human history,” said IOM director general, António Vitorino. “While billions of people have been effectively grounded by Covid-19, tens of millions of others have been displaced within their own countries.”
Internal displacement caused by violence, conflict and disasters increased to 40.5 million from 31.5 million. Globally, the IOM said governments implemented a total of 108,000 restrictions on international travel, alongside internal restrictions on movement, disrupting migration during the pandemic.
Prior to the report’s release, Vitorino told IOM member states on Monday that international cooperation was needed to ensure people were not stripped of the option of migrating when they needed to.
He also pointed out that people from countries with low levels of vaccination could be excluded from emigrating. “We must acknowledge the deep impacts the Covid-19 pandemic has had for people on the move: people stranded in transit, families separated across borders, migrants left unemployed but unable to afford the return home,” said Vitorino.
“The resulting complex patchwork of measures, frequently changing in scope and application, has placed a chilling effect on cross-border mobility, particularly for those unvaccinated.”
The report said conditions were particularly harsh for people from developing countries working in the Middle East and south-east Asia, with the pandemic affecting their incomes and housing, while they were also often excluded from access to healthcare and welfare.
However, the feared 20% drop in remittances – which can be a key lifeline to poor families during crises – that was predicted by the World Bank in April 2020 did not materialise and had been much lower, at 2.4%. This might be partly related to people being forced to send money to their families through formal routes, the report suggested, because options such as carrying cash were blocked off, as well as many working in jobs on the frontline of the pandemic that continued despite lockdowns.
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