By Arnaud Mafille, the Education and Training Director for CAGE.

The US has empowered kleptocracies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, leading locals to seek justice from the very groups western powers seek to defeat. Trump’s stance in Afghanistan provides a clear and proven pathway to peace-building.

Over six months after the Doha agreement between the United States and the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, the peace process has yet to come to completion. The successful prisoners exchange, and the beginning of intra-Afghan talks in Doha, however, offer promising perspectives in stark contrast with the failure of the previous U.S. approach: a mixture of brute military force and failed “state building”.

For many years, American officials sang the praises of the disastrous escapade in Afghanistan publicly. But behind closed doors, their critiques were scathing. 

There is much to learn from the “Afghanistan Papers”, a treasure trove of candid, and confidential, interviews with the most senior U.S. officials reflecting on the war in Afghanistan.

The United States has spent more to ‘rebuild’ Afghanistan than the Marshall plan, the plan announced by secretary of state George Marshall in 1947 and credited with rebuilding Europe following the devastation of World War II. Despite that, the Afghan government doesn’t have much to show for it. There is a simple explanation for this: corruption.

Much of the billions of dollars assigned to the country’s development went straight into the pockets of Afghan officials.

In the words of Christopher Kolenda, an Army colonel who was deployed to Afghanistan several times, and who advised three US generals in charge of the war, by 2006 the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai had “self-organized into a kleptocracy”.

Corruption grew to such an extent that the military man likened it to a fatal “brain cancer”. Ryan Crocker, who served as the top US diplomat in Kabul, shared the same scathing observations, and described the inadvertent development of mass corruption as the US’s “biggest single project”.

Unfortunately, this experience is not restricted to Afghanistan. Rather, it has been a constant trend in most Muslim-majority countries in which the US has engaged militarily since 2001.

Let’s take Iraq and Somalia as examples.

The post-war pillaging of public money in Iraq is well-known and commented upon.

The words of Mishan al-Jabouri, a senior member of a parliamentary committee investigating official corruption in Iraq, are probably the most explicit summary of the situation:

“Everybody is corrupt, from the top of society to the bottom. Everyone. Including me (…). I was offered $5m by someone to stop investigating him. I took it, and continued prosecuting him anyway.”

In Somalia, a report by the United Nations Monitoring Group found that out of every $10 received by the US-backed transitional government between 2009 and 2010, $7 “never made it into state coffers”.’

A separate report by the World Bank also found that 68% of government revenues in Somalia from 2009 to 2010 simply went missing.

When misappropriation, embezzlement and theft of public resources reach such levels, the priority of the government is not governance; it is simply sustaining the kleptocracy.

With no trust in government’s officials and hardly any institutions to turn to, what do the ordinary people do? How do they access basic services? How do they seek justice for their everyday matters?

Well, they turn to the very groups the US is spending billions fighting.

It is estimated that half of the 37million Afghans in the country have turned to jirgas and the Taliban’s courts to solve these issues, rather than those provided by the Afghan government, since it is so corrupt.

There is no difference in Somalia, where the U.S has been involved in fighting Al Shabaab for the past 13 years.

In 2018, then Somalia’s chief Justice, Bashe Yusuf Ahmed even had to issue an ultimatum to locals who travel to Al Shabaab-controlled territory to seek justice for their every affairs, even going as far as arresting and detaining them.

The Minister of Justice of the Federal Government of Somalia, Hassan Hussein Hajji implored the population to show their confidence in the government’s courts and urged judges to earn public trust, in an attempt to turn Somalis away from Al-Shabaab courts.

In other words, the U.S has not only spent billions building failed states with virtually no functioning institutions, it has also strengthened the position, and perhaps even the legitimacy, of the groups it seeks to defeat.

As diverse as they might be, those armed insurgents often share a common message: the United States supports corrupt governments in the Muslim world to secure its interests at the expense of ordinary people.

Yet, for the past 18 years, the US has constantly reused the same failed “nation-building” strategy: find often unsavory characters, preferably ex-warlords or exiled politicians disconnected from the people’s aspirations, prop them up as the legitimate government, and fund them, regardless of their corruption or even their crimes.

Dan McNeill, a retired Army general and two-time military commander in Afghanistan, described war lord and American partner Akhundzada as “a simple-minded tyrant”. He “was dirty but he kept stability because people were afraid of him,”(…) “It’s not good and I’m not advocating dancing with the devil, but maybe one of his disciples,”’ he said.

Such a short-sighted and immoral approach can only lead to resentment and rejection of both US presence and any government it backs.

And unless the politics of “unintended consequences” is abandoned, the same causes will produce the same effects.

There is hope however. By opening up a dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US is treading a tried and tested path of conflict resolution and reconstruction.

All political violence is, at root, political, and removing the fundamental grievances can lead to an end to, or at least a significant reduction in, the use of violence.

This, of course, necessitates that governments drop the fanatic Blairesque narrative that these groups “have no reasonable demands upon which we can negotiate”, and accept the concept of governance in an Islamic framework.

This path might be long and require bravery, but history tells us that armed conflicts can be ended through meaningful engagement.

As the US has reproduced its pattern of failures across the Muslim world since 2001, it might be worth considering initiating dialogue and withdrawal as a proven model to end wars in other countries where military actions have hit a dead end.




Image courtesy of the Obama White House on Flikr.

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