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Blood in the sand

Jeffrey Sachs
Jeffrey Sachs • 6 min read
Blood in the sand
The US should never have intervened militarily in Afghanistan — not in 1979, nor in 2001, and not for the 20 years since.
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The magnitude of the US’ failure in Afghanistan is breathtaking.

It is not a failure of Democrats or Republicans, but an abiding failure of American political culture, reflected in US policymakers’ lack of interest in understanding different societies. And it is all too typical.

Almost every modern US military intervention in the developing world has come to rot. It is hard to think of an exception since the Korean War.

In the 1960s and first half of the 1970s, the US fought in Indochina — Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — eventually withdrawing in defeat after a decade of grotesque carnage. President Lyndon B Johnson, a Democrat, and his successor, the Republican Richard Nixon, share the blame.

In roughly the same years, the US installed dictators throughout Latin America and parts of Africa, with disastrous consequences that lasted for decades. Think of the Mobutu dictatorship in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)- backed assassination of Patrice Lumumba in early 1961, or of General Augusto Pinochet’s murderous military junta in Chile after the USbacked overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973.

In the 1980s, the US under Ronald Reagan ravaged Central America in proxy wars to forestall or topple leftist governments. The region still has not healed.

Since 1979, the Middle East and Western Asia have felt the brunt of US foreign policy’s foolishness and cruelty. The Afghanistan war started 42 years ago, in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter’s administration covertly supported Islamic jihadists to fight a Soviet-backed regime.

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Soon, the CIA-backed mujahedeen helped to provoke a Soviet invasion, trapping the Soviet Union in a debilitating conflict, while pushing Afghanistan into what became a 40-year-long downward spiral of violence and bloodshed.

Across the region, US foreign policy produced growing mayhem. In response to the 1979 toppling of the Shah of Iran (another US-installed dictator), the Reagan administration armed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in his war on Iran’s fledgling Islamic Republic. Mass bloodshed and US-backed chemical warfare ensued. This bloody episode was followed by Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and then two US-led Gulf Wars, in 1990 and 2003.

The latest round of the Afghan tragedy began in 2001. Barely a month after the terror attacks of Sept 11, President George W Bush ordered a US-led invasion to overthrow the Islamic jihadists that the US had backed previously.

His Democratic successor, President Barack Obama, not only continued the war and added more troops, but also ordered the CIA to work with Saudi Arabia to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading to a vicious Syrian civil war that continues to this day.

As if that was not enough, Obama ordered Nato to oust Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, inciting a decade of instability in that country and its neighbours (including Mali, which has been destabilised by inflows of fighters and weapons from Libya).

What these cases have in common is not just policy failure. Underlying all of them is the US foreign-policy establishment’s belief that the solution to every political challenge is military intervention or CIA-backed destabilisation. That belief speaks to the US foreign-policy elite’s utter disregard of other countries’ desire to escape grinding poverty.

Most US military and CIA interventions have occurred in countries that are struggling to overcome severe economic deprivation.

Yet instead of alleviating suffering and winning public support, the US typically blows up the small amount of infrastructure the country possesses, while causing the educated professionals to flee for their lives.

Even a cursory look at America’s spending in Afghanistan reveals the stupidity of its policy there. According to a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US invested roughly US$946 billion between 2001 and 2021.

Yet almost US$1 trillion in outlays won the US few hearts and minds.

Here’s why.

Of that US$946 billion, fully US$816 billion, or 86%, went to military outlays for US troops. And the Afghan people saw little of the remaining US$130 billion, with US$83 billion going to the Afghan Security Forces. Another US$10 billion or so was spent on drug interdiction operations, while US$15 billion was for US agencies operating in Afghanistan.

That left a meagre US$21 billion in “economic support” funding. Yet even much of this spending left little if any development on the ground, because the programmes actually “support counterterrorism; bolster national economies; and assist in the development of effective, accessible, and independent legal systems”.

In short, less than 2% of the US spending on Afghanistan, and probably far less than 2%, reached the Afghan people in the form of basic infrastructure or poverty-reducing services.

The US could have invested in clean water and sanitation, school buildings, clinics, digital connectivity, agricultural equipment and extension, nutrition programmes, and many other programmes to lift the country from economic deprivation.

Instead, it leaves behind a country with a life expectancy of 63 years, a maternal mortality rate of 638 per 100,000 births, and a child stunting rate of 38%.

The US should never have intervened militarily in Afghanistan — not in 1979, nor in 2001, and not for the 20 years since.

But once there, the US could and should have fostered a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan by investing in maternal health, schools, safe water, nutrition, and the like. Such humane investments — especially financed together with other countries through institutions such as the Asian Development Bank — would have helped to end the bloodshed in Afghanistan, and in other impoverished regions, forestalling future wars.

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Yet American leaders go out of their way to emphasise to the American public that we will not waste money on such trivialities. The sad truth is that the American political class and mass media hold the people of poorer nations in contempt, even as they intervene relentlessly and recklessly in those countries.

Of course, much of America’s elite holds America’s own poor in similar contempt. In the aftermath of the fall of Kabul, the US mass media is, predictably, blaming the US failure on Afghanistan’s incorrigible corruption.

The lack of American self-awareness is startling. It is no surprise that after trillions of dollars spent on wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and beyond, the US has nothing to show for its efforts but blood in the sand. — © Project Syndicate, 2021

Jeffrey D Sachs, University Professor at Columbia University, is director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network

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