Reparations for Afghanistan: Redefining US “Engagement”

By Trevor Hayes

As America’s 20 year long mission in Afghanistan comes to a close, conversations around the long awaited withdrawal of US forces have centered almost entirely around the binary question of maintaining a US troop presence in the country. This binary conversation – one that reduces “engagement” to military presence – demonstrates the tunnel vision of policymakers and commentators over the past 2 decades. 

To acknowledge the consequences of militaristic adventurism and failed state-building, the United States needs to take reparative action to provide justice for the people of Afghanistan. One of the most direct ways it can do so is by expediting visa processing for Afghans who worked with the US occupation and expanding refugee intake for all those affected by the present and coming conflict. This approach, at least when limited to the first group, appears to already be a focus of the Biden administration. But the people of Afghanistan deserve more.

Failures of Governance

Years of halfhearted state-building by the US have left behind an Afghan government racked with corruption and an Afghan military unprepared for the coming conflict with the Taliban. For the over $2 trillion spent, the country now more closely resembles conditions before the invasion than at any point before: fragmented regional warlords control large swaths of the country, the Taliban inexorably taking back territory lost over decades past.The 2021 High Risk Report from the Special Inspector General to Afghanistan Reconstruction bluntly confirms the lack of progress after decades of America’s longest-running war: endemic corruption at all levels of the Afghan government, poorly coordinated efforts to combat that corruption, and military unpreparedness remain significant threats to security and stability.

How did 4 administrations and many more generals get things so wrong? The Afghanistan papers, a set of internal US government documents, revealed by the Washington Post in December 2019, demonstrated conclusively that the US mission was doomed from the start, mired in conflicting goals and strategies that couldn’t work in the local context. US officials attempted to create a centrally controlled, democratic government in Kabul, one that mirrored an idealized Washington, despite the fact that the country has no history of strong central control or a federal government. A combination of over-confidence in US state-building efforts to create brand new institutions, a lack of contextual understanding, and a lack of accountability for failed strategies created a recipe for instability.

This key lack of contextual understanding led to cascading failures throughout the country, which US officials attempted to fix by flooding the country with more development money than it could ever hope to absorb. A series of US government “lessons learned” reports on Afghan reconstruction revealed that USAID officials thought the funding extended far beyond what was needed, while elements of the local government plundered money thought to have been spent on essential infrastructure and capacity building efforts. An unnamed USAID executive blames Capitol Hill and a culture around simply throwing money at problems, with the expectation that the funding would be spent. At one point, he claims they were expected to spend $400 million per month on development efforts, despite funding requests and data indicating that 1/10th of that would be more appropriate.

The papers then go on to describe the resultant growth of “kleptocracy” in Afghanistan, where senior political positions were bought, with the expectation that the buyer would later be allowed to skim from the massive troughs of US development money and resources for their own gain.

Ryan Crocker, the top US diplomat to Afghanistan in 2002, and later from 2011 to 2012, stated in a government interview regarding Afghan government corruption that, “Once it gets to the level I saw, when I was out there, it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it.”

Beyond sending US taxpayer dollars into dozens of private bank accounts, endemic corruption within the Afghan government diminished and continues to diminish the confidence of the people they are meant to serve. Corruption of this degree not only impacts the faith of the people in their new democratic institutions, but also has implications for military preparedness. Released reports talk of substantial numbers of “ghost soldiers”, fictitious soldiers and fraudulent payroll records sent to the US mission so salaries could be collected, and later pocketed by top officials. The consequences of failed efforts to explicitly build the security apparatus are already apparent in the initial weeks of the US troop withdrawal, as thousands of troops trained by the US fled into eastern Turkey in the face of the advancing Taliban forces. 

Given this context, it is unsurprising that US intelligence reports anticipate a collapse of the Afghan government Taliban forces as soon as 6 months after the US withdraws all remaining troops. Opposing a US military presence in Afghanistan should not distract from the dire impact of Taliban governance on the Afghan people, and especially Afghan women.

Women and girls that the US has been happy to hold up as public figureheads for gender equality now all but have a target on their back, as we’ve seen in attacks in recent weeks and months. While critics of continued intervention might say the US is not responsible for defending all Afghan women in perpetuity, that should not prevent us from thinking through principled means of mitigating the harms to come.

There is a clear need to address these harms even if the country remains in a state of protracted civil war, as the government of Ashraf Ghani is completely unprepared to mitigate the ongoing and worsening humanitarian crisis. As the Taliban continues to gain territory, people will immediately be internally displaced as they flee the new regime, and refugees will flee the country if they can. Over 2.7 million Afghans are already refugees, a number only eclipsed by the over 4 million Afghans that are internally displaced, and facing a lack of resources, lack of infrastructure and poor conditions living in camps across the country.

What is to be done?

For much of this year, discourse among Washington analysts, politicians and journalists has centered around whether the US should be withdrawing troops, as well as the immediate implications of their departure Yet this binary thinking – military engagement or isolationism – mirrors 20 years of failed statebuilding policy. It’s time to consider what “engagement” means beyond troop deployments, and what actions and policies might offer a measure of reparations for the populations that US policy has failed time and time again. One clear – and pressing – route to do so involved dramatically increasing the refugee cap for people fleeing their now destabilized country. The current Biden administration target for refugee acceptance of 62,500 falls drastically short of the targets of previous administrations and exhibits a lack of culpability for the situation faced by current and future refugees.

Rather than leaving the rest of the world, and particularly other countries in the region, to deal with the fallout of the advancing Taliban, the US should immediately, and at a minimum, double the global refugee cap from 62,500, to 125,000. This number would not be unprecedented. In fact, it would bring the Biden Administration closer in line with prior administrations, but still falls dramatically short of the previous all time high of 231,700 refugees set in 1980. Increasing the cap in this way would send a signal to international allies that refugee resettlement is a growing priority of the US, and could potentially increase their willingness to resettle more refugees themselves.

Raising the cap is essential, but if the US falls dramatically short of the increased cap, the policy might as well have not changed. An increased cap comes with new challenges and new administrative burdens that the US is ill prepared to combat. It is admirable that the Biden administration has fast tracked interpreters, drivers, and other Afghan people, and their families, who have worked with US forces for the last 20 years and begun the process of evacuating these people temporarily to foreign US military bases while they are screened is a creative solution. 

However, for those who did not work for the US military, average citizens, this lack of administrative urgency on behalf of the US government could mean death. Expanding the list of those eligible for visa fast tracking is yet another opportunity for US culpability. Those who worked with journalists, foreign media, and private NGOs attempting to do good work will all end up in the crosshairs. Considering that the US has one of the strictest refugee vetting processes in the entire world, and the time sensitive nature of the coming crisis, it might be high time to consider fast tracking the entire process for all applicants rather than simply for those who worked with US forces. Surely one or two of these 20 steps can be sped up or safely removed.

After building infrastructure around refugee processes and admittance, the US should further raise the refugee cap well beyond 125,000 and include a special dispensation for Afghan refugees who apply. Given the international refugee resettlement policies of our closest allies like Germany, who accepted over 800,000 Syrian refugees, it is only appropriate for the US to take a leading position in the international community on this front.


Trevor Hayes is a Washington DC based research and policy analyst working in international development, typically focusing on education, labor, and building strong institutions. Follow him on Twitter @trevor_hayes12.

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