Afghanistan is now how it was always going to turn out to be.
There was an adage floating around Afghanistan in my time there, ‘The Americans have the watches but the Taliban have the time.’
There is another adage of equal import; Rich people don’t go to war.
Australia never really had a dog in the fight with the Taliban. For sure they are an objectionable cultural failure but we let equally objectionable cultures exist all around the world without taking umbrage where we are driven to commit billions of dollars and twenty-one lives. We did that because the only dog is that we were the lapdog to the United States in a period of its second-most failed President.
Australia has failed the Afghan people and the development of Afghanistan. In 2001, Afghans were considered to be the most impoverished people in the world. Today, after almost three trillion dollars has been spent on fighting this two-decade-long war, Afghanistan is now 16 from the bottom, an average income of $517, up from $200 twenty years ago.
So what went wrong? A simple answer, those in charge had not the slightest idea how to effect change.
Things were done for political impression rather than dissolving the country’s ailments. The people are as poor today as they were before all this started while the country had just evolved from thirty years of conflict fomented by the Russians and exacerbated by the Americans.
Where we went wrong was that we promoted wealth for the middle class seeking a trickle-down economy rather than bringing the poorest levels out of poverty in the development of Afghanistan. Everything we did was to satisfy the rich and middle class, We built the infrastructure for them to ride on, fancy buildings for them to practice their ‘democracy’ without any sense that the more we did the more they would take.
The Taliban are Afghans. They come from and live among the people. Not all are fundamentalists although all are Muslim, it is what binds them. They do what they do because there is little else to do that gives them the same power in a system that is both tribal and feudal.
In the first phase of working there, One of my engineers, a mild gentle man, told me about his role in the pre-invasion days, in the five-year period when the Taliban ruled the country. His role was to assemble the loose brick walls that were used to execute women charged with adultery, simply by placing them on one side and backing a truck into the wall from the other.
I saw Ismael during the second period I was there and asked what he was doing working away from his home district. He explained, there was no work there and if he stayed, his only option was to join the Taliban or they would have persecuted him and his family..
What was needed was true economic development that fostered entrepreneurship rather than creating an economic environment that survives on foreign aid.
Afghanistan’s major industry is agriculture yet less than ten percent of the people own land and the rest survive as tenant farmers or labourers. The development of Afghanistan was meant to bring about greater change for the people. The average farm labourer might earn $60 per month working from sunrise to sunup, seven days a week doing backbreaking work when the work is available and like the rest of the world, it is seasonal.
A Taliban operative might earn $100 for two days of work setting a roadside bomb.
The economics of each define why and how the country has progressed.
It is too late now to change the outcome and our departure at this stage is well served. Afghanistan has been enabled to become among the most corrupt nations on earth, ranked 174 out of 180 countries.
We rewarded bad behavior instead of rewarding the good. We are now reaping the return on our investment.
Steve Hutcheson is an engineer who spent three and half years in Afghanistan working largely with the United Nations as a program manager and finally with a US contractor.