Afghanistan: Bad policy was good politics

Afghanistan: Bad policy was good politics
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The Taliban are once again in control of Afghanistan. The U.S. has little to show for nearly 20 years of military involvement, trillions of dollars spent and over 2000 American lives lost.

The U.S. gave the Afghan government all the resources it needed to defeat the Taliban. The tragedy is that the U.S.’s willingness to give so much incentivized ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, to do so little. For them good politics meant bad policy. Insecurity and dependence on the U.S. gave them ample cash with which to buy political support. For Afghan leaders it was better to wager that no U.S. President would being willing to pull the plug on their watch. That gamble paid handsomely for 20 years and many in Washington argue that the cycle of dependence should have continued. 

The U.S. pumped over $116 billions of aid into Afghanistan since 2002. The $88 billion spent to train and equip the Afghan army that failed to stabilize the security situation. These numbers clearly support President BidenJoe BidenBiden to meet House Dems before Europe trip: report 21 House Democrats call for removing IRS bank reporting proposal from spending bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by Altria — Vulnerable House Dems push drug pricing plan MORE’s recent statement, : “We gave them every tool they could need. … We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.” 


The sad reality is that, in providing the means to make Afghanistan succeed, the U.S. took away all incentive to produce good policy. Rather than security and prosperity, the U.S. wealth allowed corruption to flourish and political elites to grow rich. Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as 165th worst of 180 nations in terms of corruption. With so much money flowing in and the international community providing so many services and so few checks on how our money was spent, the Ghani government could buy political loyalty through graft and corruption.  

Fixing Afghanistan’s security situation would have vastly improved the life of the average Afghan citizen, but it would have been a path to political ruin for its president. If the Ghani government had decisively defeated the Taliban, then the U.S. would have withdrawn its presence — and, with it, the money that made it so easy to buy domestic support at home. 

That’s what the U.S. gradually did in Egypt following the Camp David Agreement and in Pakistan after Osama Bin Laden was killed. Without foreign governments to pay their bills, the Afghan government would have had to breach the gap between tax revenue (8 percent of GDP) and government spending (24 percent of GDP). Balancing the books would mean cutting the bloated spending that bought the support of political cronies.

Ghani made himself dependent on the U.S. and that gave him leverage. If the U.S. tried to get Afghanistan to stand on its own two feet, then the Afghan government could be expected to allow the Taliban to get stronger. The U.S. response would then be more support. The U.S. put itself in a no-win situation where its partner could, but never would, deliver what it sought.

The U.S. went through the same dance with Pakistan in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The U.S. paid billions and Pakistan pretended to search but was careful never to actually find him. Bin Laden was of course eventually found by U.S. forces. He was living in a compound less than a mile from a military academy.

The rapidity with which the Afghan government collapsed should come as no surprise. In addition to military withdrawal the U.S. had sharply reduced aid: from $4.7 billions in 2019 to only $1.1 billion in 2020 and less than $200 million in 2021. With Ghani no longer a reliable source of graft, supporters had no reason to back him. Army commanders were then more interested in looking for their next meal ticket than fighting those likely to be in charge in the near future.

A similar desertion took place a decade ago in Egypt. With U.S. aid on the decline, other revenues dwindling and Mubarak ailing, staying loyal looked like a poor gamble. When protestors took to the streets the army chose to let the Arab Spring succeed. Afghan military commanders are no doubt hoping their futures will turn out as well as those of their compatriots in Egypt.  

Through its willingness to pump vast resources into Afghanistan, the U.S. put itself in an unwinnable situation. The Afghan government had no incentive to reform or defeat the Taliban. Such good policies would have been bad politics. Ghani lasted seven years, significantly longer than most political terms in office, and he left with a vast fortune. Allegedly the helicopter was not large enough to take all the cash!

For nearly 20 years, U.S. leaders maintained the fiction that victory was just around the corner rather than let the collapse occur on their watch. Biden called it correctly, “there is no chance that one year — one more year, five more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.”

Policies such as U.S. support for Afghanistan or paying Pakistan to pretend to look for Bin Laden will continue to fail because U.S. policy is formulated in terms of what is best for a nation in trouble. We need to discard the rose-tinted glasses and recognize that giving assistance provides leaders with an incentive to perpetuate problems, not fix them.

Suppose instead the U.S. escrowed funds to be delivered only upon policy success. Afghan leaders might have focused more on security and less on graft. Likewise, Pakistani leaders might have handed over Bin Laden. Many leaders might still be reluctant to pursue good policies, but at least the U.S. won’t be rewarding them for bad behavior.

Alastair Smith, Ph.D., is the Bernhardt Denmark chair of International Politics are New York University and author of “The Dictator’s Handbook.”