Failing States?

Updated: Sep 8


Credit: Reporters sans Frontieres

Updated September 8, 2021, principally to add a riff on Pakistan and the Afghan economy.



I write this post with the dizzying impression of having stepped into a hall of mirrors.

In international development circles, it’s fashionable to speak of “fragile” or “failing” states. But such states are deceptive. They are in fact run by sophisticated networks. These networks may be failing at governing, but governing is not their objective. Self-enrichment is. And at that they are highly successful.

Now consider the McMansions that have sprung up like growths around Washington in the past twenty years. Consider the properties in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, the pay packages and portfolios, the offshore bank accounts — and the no-bid tenders — enjoyed by executives of defense contracting and financial investment firms, pharmaceutical and fossil fuel giants, and the lawyers and brokers who service them. Under administrations of both parties, many of those executives have cycled in and out of government.


This is the story explored in On Corruption in America — And What Is at Stake.

What is at stake, indeed? Now consider the public policies these executives have influenced or authored. They include two lost wars, a financial meltdown that nearly brought down the world economy, an addiction crisis and a bungled response to a global pandemic, both of which killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. And the destruction of the irreplaceable habitat upon which we depend for our very survival, which has reached runaway speed in the same two decades. As I write, heaven — meaning the earth — is burning. Or flooded out.


This is what I mean by “Afghanistan holds up a mirror to us.” How competently have our own leaders been governing for the past twenty years? Meanwhile, how successful have they been at achieving that other objective: adding zeroes to their bank accounts? Which of those was in fact their primary objective?


Given the consequences, are terrorists really the greater threat to our homeland?

Those are the questions that have been flooding my mind. I’ll return to them below. But let me first take up some of yours.


Warning: many issues were surfaced, none of them simple. This post is long. Italicized headings and underlined sub-headings should help you skip to those that interest you.


  • How to help. Please see updates in my more recent blog, "Resources." One of you wrote questioning the international relief organizations I mention below. They all have marred records, and the caution was well-founded. I double-checked. One of the best groups working on the ground in Afghanistan, at least the north and west, is the Relief Organization for Afghan Women and Children (ROAWC), with offices in Kabul and Mazar-i Sherif. I am trying to find ways of getting money to ROAWC, but for the moment banks in Afghanistan remain closed, so no international money transfers are possible -- and the fate of any money held in accounts remains uncertain.

My trusted friend who has been in development since 2002 -- and has implemented numerous projects through ROAWC -- says this about his earlier recommendation in favor of well-known international organizations. His experience with The International Rescue Committee, OxFam, and Save the Children UK is based on their performance on the ground. In my own experience, the activities of such large humanitarian groups depend on who is implementing them in a specific context. So if you do donate to any of them -- or any others -- I recommend you ensure that your money goes to a fund earmarked exclusively for Afghanistan.


And please, if any of you has connected with organizations in your own area and learned of ways you can assist incoming refugees, inform me via my “contact” form. I will post a separate blog as I gather information on other ways to help.

And now…back to cold-blooded analysis.

  • Revenue streams. More than at any time in a century, money is what we count — and what counts. It means social standing. It means winning. And who controls Afghanistan, controls great sums of money.

-- A number of you have correctly pointed to opium. The Taliban controlled that trade when they were in power. Credited for shutting down production in 2000, they were in fact pulling an OPEC move. The market was glutted and prices were low, and Taliban warehouses were full.


After 2001, the international community’s approach to Afghan opium focused on cultivation, not trafficking, and not on any of the well-known kingpins. I spoke to numerous farmers whose fields were dense with the strangely beautiful, tulip-like poppy blooms. The farmers were ashamed. But there were no banks, no loans. After six years of drought, many of their pomegranate and apricot trees were dead. Fruit trees take a half dozen years to begin producing. Poppy is an annual crop, and a hardy one. Desperate, farmers turned to opium traffickers. The loans they received came at 100% interest, to be repaid not in cash, but in poppy. If you missed your payment, some said, you owed double the next year. In that context, eradicating poppy in the field was counterproductive. It only forced farmers to put more land into production to pay off their ballooning debts.


We have heard that the Taliban return to Afghanistan, which picked up momentum from around 2006, was largely financed by opium. There is truth to that assessment.


Also true is that many of our Afghan government partners had a hand in that same trade. President Karzai’s late half-brother Ahmad Wali, for example, and the governor of Kandahar and then Jalalabad, Gul Agha Shirzai, ran rival trafficking networks. You can read more about that dynamic in The Punishment of Virtue.


Back in power, the Taliban will control the traffic once more, including developments in refining opium into more easily transported heroin and perhaps other derivatives. But I expect the same type of rivalry to emerge among different Taliban trafficking networks as existed between Karzai’s and Shirzai’s.


I have no doubt that some Pakistani officials also now stand to profit from the opium industry.


As for any U.S. involvement in that trade, I have no personal insight. But close ties, especially between the CIA and several key figures (including Ahmed Wali Karzai, Shirzai and Razziq — a brutal border police chief who became Gen. David Petraeus’s spearhead for a surge into the region) lent at least tacit approval to trafficking activities, and protection in the eyes of the population.


-- Afghanistan’s strategic location is a second major financial asset.


Picture the three great basins of civilization: Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Iranian plateau. Picture a massive, craggy rock wall dividing them. Afghanistan owns two doors in that wall. Southern spurs of the ancient Silk Road ran through that land. Part of why Pakistan’s military government spun up the Taliban in the first place was likely to clear the highways for long-distance trade. After 2001, customs dues — or bribes for allowing drivers to dodge them — poured into the coffers of the strongmen who controlled the main crossings (clockwise from the south: Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i Sherif, and Jalalabad). Now the Taliban gain access to that revenue.


Note: anyone who claims to be able to estimate the revenues from any of these sources, or even to place them in relationship to each other, should be asked to provide his or her sources. I defy anyone to arrive at an accurate estimate of the total sums.


-- I include in the above statement the international assistance that has poured into Afghanistan for two decades, with little or no oversight. “No effective measures were taken to abate corruption,” one of you commented to “The Ides of August.” An Indian engineer, the writer was part of the team that rebuilt the main highways linking Kabul to Kandahar and Herat, losing forty-two colleagues out of a hundred, he tallied.


Billions of dollars in international humanitarian and development money has washed through Afghanistan yearly since 2001, not to mention military assistance. (Totals are impossible to calculate. US congressional appropriations add up to approximately $86 b., from 2001-2020, according to Forbes Magazine. Add private philanthropy, and all assistance from other countries.)

Presuming that a Taliban regime hopes to tap into some of that financing, the money spigots may represent the only leverage the international community has left.


  • The role of the Pakistani military establishment, in particular the military intelligence agency, the ISI, in the organization of the final assault on Afghanistan. A partial transcript of a July 2021 phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani corroborates my conclusions. "Mr. President," said Ghani, according to the transcript acquired by Reuters, "We are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban, full Pakistani planning and logistical support, and at least 10-15,000 international terrorists, prominently Pakistanis..."


  • Washington’s stubborn embrace of the Pakistani government. The why of it honestly beats me. Here is some informed speculation about possible factors.


-- Loyalty. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there was almost no expertise within the U.S. government on Afghanistan — a country and people we pivoted away from once they finished helping us bring down the Soviet Union. Whatever U.S. “expertise” there was resided within the agency that had supported the Afghan fighters against the Soviets: the CIA. Its support had been funneled through its Pakistani counterpart, the ISI. That control was Islamabad’s condition for allowing U.S. personnel to operate among the refugees living inside Pakistan. After 9/11, Washington reached for the same formula, relying heavily on the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the ISI. Personal ties between intelligence operatives also count for a lot.

-- Too big to fail. I wonder: Who would have had the job of breaking the news to the American public, if the U.S. government had changed course? Who would have informed us that a billion dollars of our money had been paid every year to the very government that was ginning up the guerrilla forces our fellow-citizens were fighting — as though we had been financing North Vietnam while fighting the Vietcong? How would that person justify contributions to the agency that was harboring our supposed arch-enemy, Usama bin Laden? What about the conversation with a grieving Gold Star family? Who would sit down with the parents and explain that they had helped pay for the IED that killed their daughter?

One of you, a Vietnam vet, wrote in to “The Ides of March" about how his own superior officers were more interested in 'how they looked' to their chain of command than the truth, no matter the consequences for U.S. national security or those whose lives were lost. I think he understands what I’m getting at.

-- A suicide bomber twice the size of California. Pakistan is a nuclear country, as is its neighbor, India. Islamabad’s communications with Washington have always included a subtext: ‘Watch out: get too tough on us and we might just blow ourselves up.

-- Conducting operations. Once they swing into action, organizations — and not just the military — often let day-to-day operations overshadow their ultimate objectives. Consider places where you’ve worked. Does this description fit? To win the war in Afghanistan, it was necessary to confront Pakistan. But to continue conducting operations in Afghanistan, it was necessary to mollify Pakistan, so our supply convoys could keep driving its roads, and our drones could keep picking off targets inside that country. Note: that meant that only ISI-approved targets were struck.

  • Pakistan’s objective? For an informed view of the Pakistani government’s motivations and practices, read The Wrong Enemy, by Carlotta Gall. Bear in mind that my thoughts are less well-grounded than her work, but here are a few:

-- The term “strategic depth,” which often comes up in this context, is wonky and vague. The sense of it may be that the Pakistani government, in its preoccupation with India, wants to control the territory at its rear. Or, short of controlling it, wants it too chaotic to matter. Note: Pakistanis’ assertions that India represents a genuine existential threat to their country are unfounded. It is Pakistan, not India that has mounted most of the cross-border violence in the past two decades, usually via extremist proxies analogous to the Taliban. (Remember the Mumbai Bombing?)


Why is that? Why, if you’re afraid of someone, would you punch them in the eye? Why does Islamabad want to keep India riled up?


Perhaps because those making the decisions in Islamabad are the leaders of a military dictatorship. A good pretext for asking your citizens to allow unelected military officers to rule them is the fear of an existential military threat.

-- Pashtuns, also called “Pathans” in Pakistan, comprise very roughly 15% of that country’s population. It was not in the interest of its military rulers for a largely Pashtun nation next door to develop into a prosperous, happy, democratic country. Pakistani Pashtuns might start agitating for a similar democracy at home.

-- U.S. and Afghan officials engaged in provocation, unwittingly in some cases, willfully in others. Think back on our friend the Indian engineer, whom I quoted above. What was he even doing working on the Kandahar to Kabul road? He and his team of 100 Indians deployed on a highway that close to the border were guaranteed to arouse Pakistani suspicions. USAID should not have contracted their company.


Why did the Afghan government permit India to set up three consulates, including one in Kandahar? What was that consulate, other than a listening post? Did the Indian government spare many thoughts for the likely impact on Afghanistan and its people?


And why did Afghan government and security officials provide vocal support and safe haven inside Afghanistan for separatist Pakistani Baluchis? Nose-thumbing, if you’re the little guy, can cost you more than your nose. These Afghan officials were handing Islamabad a pretext.

-- Roads. As per the “revenue streams” section above, long-distance ground transport, especially for heavy agricultural goods, is important to Pakistan. As are the associated smuggling and trafficking opportunities to certain Pakistanis.


-- A subjugated Afghan economy. Afghans are largely poor, and Afghanistan is not now known for fossil fuels or mineral resources, other than a few emeralds and rubies. It is largely a rural country.


But Afghans are not subsistence farmers. They cultivate incomparable -- and valuable -- nuts, fruits, and spices, for export. It's not just the famous pomegranates, sometimes as big as a baby's head, each ruby-filled fruit with its distinctive flavor. It's also apricots, which come in so many varieties that there is no word "apricot;" you have to name the specific type. Or the long green grapes that farmers dry into long green raisins, inside mud-brick long-houses with slits for windows to let the breeze blow through but not the withering sun. There are sweet, juicy melons and almonds and pistachios and spices prized in India: anise and cumin and licorice, and vegetable dyes for Afghanistan's fabled rugs. The rugs, too, are a luxury export commodity.


What Pakistan has done in the past, and will certainly try to do now, is treat Afghanistan like a sort of economic colony. That is, Pakistani merchants, with priority access because of their proximity, will buy up huge quantities of such products, in a raw state, at low wholesale prices. They'll do the washing and sorting and quality-testing. Then they'll jack up the price, and reap the lucrative international export prices.


The Pakistani government colludes in this scheme. These goods are heavy; they are transported overland. And Pakistan controls Afghanistan's borders to the south and east. I have seen trucks full of fresh grapes lined up for more than a mile, when Pakistani authorities closed the customs gate for several days on a whim. Whole cargoes rotted, and prices on the domestic market plummeted.


Coercion like that or just the threat of it makes it hard not to sell your goods at whatever price you are offered. With Pakistan in charge by proxy, farmers will have fewer choices, and even more of the export mark-up will enrich Pakistanis.


  • Other countries. Pakistan is not the sole villain here, as a number of you noted.

-- That other purported U.S. ally, the Saudi Arabian regime, has for decades been exporting a virulent distortion of Islam, and funding fundamentalist madrassas — religious schools-cum-training camps — across the region, including in Pakistan.


One member of our little community adds the depth of lived experience to this sketch of Saudi activities. She is an Afghan-American who, in the late 1980s, lived with her family in Saudi Arabia, near the border with Yemen. Usama bin Laden and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, she tells me, were already comrades at the time. Gulbuddin had a network of fellow-tribesmen who owned shops in Mecca, and he collected donations through them. More chillingly: there was, she says, a well-known pipeline of Afghan women the two were supplying to their followers in the region. Bin Laden and Gulbuddin would then pocket the brideprice.


Gulbuddin, always close to the ISI, is remembered for his troops' wanton shelling of Kabul, in a battle for control of the city after the Soviet-backed government eventually fell, in 1992. They reduced as much as a third of the city to rubble, and assassinated numerous journalists, women, and university professors during those years. Hikmatyar has boasted of helping Bin Laden escape pursuing U.S. and Afghan troops in 2001 and 2002.


-- China, a diplomatic and financial backer of the Pakistani government, also stands to gain from its client’s proxy control of Afghanistan. Not that there was likely to be much resistance from Kabul under any Afghan government to Beijing’s brand of development investment. A Chinese company, for example, holds the contracts to exploit an enormous untapped copper deposit a few dozen miles outside Kabul. And then there’s the Belt and Road initiative.


-- The Russian embassy remains open. Evidence for years has indicated covert Russian support for the resurgent Taliban. Meanwhile, the Embassy wined and dined some U.S. officials, including, to my knowledge, ISAF intelligence chief Mike Flynn, in 2009 and 2010.

  • Asymmetric warfare. Though U.S. officials have been calling the conflict in Afghanistan an “insurgency” for years, they have not been fighting the war that way. This is the principle criticism I reserve for the officers I’ve worked for. They are supposed to know something about warfare.

Afghans are competent fighters — they drove out the Soviets, after all. So why was it so important that we spend so much effort teaching them to fight? Why do we keep hearing about the air support we were supplying, supposedly so critical to the Afghan war effort? Has any reporter asked why the Afghan military needed air cover when the Taliban didn’t?

The problem is, we built a conventional army in Afghanistan, rather than the type of clever, nimble unit that we ourselves depended on in the field — special forces. An agile, deceptive, mobile team that can easily melt away into rough terrain will almost always defeat a lumbering conventional army, dependent on its cinderblock headquarters and long supply chains. Read Freedom by my lifelong friend Sebastian Junger.


So why did we spend two decades and billions of dollars to try to build the Afghan army into one of those? Who was banking the bulk of those dollars? Did Afghans themselves intuit that such a flat-footed army would never beat hardened guerrillas? Did that realization add to their sense of doom once we were gone?

Our own military, descended from the Minutemen of the American Revolution, has come to resemble the Redcoats those 18th century insurgents fought. What an irony. As special advisor to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, I found myself — a rank civilian — begging him not to send a Stryker brigade into the densely cultivated orchards of Arghandab District, north of Kandahar. The lanes between those walled orchards are just too narrow for oversized, high-tech Stryker vehicles. That’s OK, McChrystal assured me, the troops could always be dismounted.


What an absurd proposition: You’d strip a brigade of the very asset it was built and trained and conditioned to use? How physically fit are soldiers accustomed to sitting in vehicles all day? Are they even in shape to patrol difficult terrain on foot?


The result was catastrophic. More than a dozen frustrated and out-of-control officers were court-martialed or otherwise disciplined for their behavior in the field, including the notorious homicide of several villagers, "for sport." The brigade's casualty rate was disturbingly high. After an investigation, the commander was barred from future combat deployments.


Becoming the Redcoats also meant we forgot how asymmetric warfare works.


In such contests, the poorer, “weaker” insurgents aren’t trying to rack up the bodies of opposing soldiers. That’s conventional warfare. Insurgents aim to achieve the maximum psychological impact for as little human and material investment as possible. They target emblematic people and kill them in demonstrative ways. They hang the body to a sacred tree, like some gruesome offering. They pin a note to the dead man’s tunic: “If you do what he did, this will happen to you.” They disfigure a young woman’s face with acid.

Or they put a half dozen guys up in an unfinished building in downtown Kabul with a couple of rusty mortar-launchers. This is 2011. The guys shoot at the U.S. embassy and ISAF headquarters across the street. They shut down the whole strategic complex for more than nineteen hours.


If those fighters had wanted to kill people, they would have. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to demonstrate to the whole of Afghanistan that they could. It was to demonstrate U.S. vulnerability — to Afghans and to Americans.

In other words, the Taliban communicate with actions, not words. They communicate to the side of our brains that understands body language. If you want to get a sense of their intentions, watch what they do.


But we Westerners have been neglecting that side of our brains for a long time. We like meanings spelled out in words. The Taliban are delighted that we cling to their words this way, endlessly parsing them in media and intelligence analyses. That focus allows them to send double messages: words to us, contrary gestures to those who know how to read them.


  • Why am I only hearing this now? I can almost feel the dismay in many of your comments.

The bulk of the information in my “Ides of August” post is developed in my first book, The Punishment of Virtue. It came out in 2006. I was afraid of the explosive nature of the revelations about Karzai. But in the end, the only reviewer or interviewer who noticed them was an inner-city talkshow host in Pittsburg.


The Kabul press corps did a remarkable job. Re-read Dexter Filkins’ 2011 New Yorker article “The Afghan Bank Heist” Earlier, he reported on these issues for the New York Times. Matt Rosenberg was probing Afghan government corruption for the Wall Street Journal. Or look up work by some of the best Canadian reporters, including Declan Walsh and Graeme Smith.


But television coverage was sparse. Afghanistan is rough terrain. And these stories are hard to get with quick, top-heavy in-and-outs. It took me two years living in Kandahar to realize that what I had reported to NPR listeners back in December 2001 about Afghan ground forces fighting the Taliban was false. I had been handed a cover-story.


And there was Iraq. And there was the 2008 financial meltdown...


But perhaps most important is this: We hadn’t lost yet. So there was no way to prove the validity of what I was saying.


When you haven’t lost -- when calamity somehow hasn’t yet struck -- it’s easy to assume you’ll “muddle through.” That’s how many officials put it at the time: The Afghan government will muddle through. We'll muddle through.


Now, Afghanistan is waving a mirror in our faces. Calamity hasn’t struck -- not real calamity. Not yet. But let’s not assume our democracy will “muddle through.”


  • What I would have done differently. That is a long-answer question. A taste is available in the “Afghanistan Action Plan” I distributed to top U.S. civilian and military officials in January 2009. I continued to provide equally detailed, though sometimes more tailored, planning documents to my superiors through 2011. A truly inclusive peace process would have involved bringing together people whom ordinary Afghans recognized as representing them, not just the officials of the two entities most held in equal contempt: their own government and the Taliban.

  • “Democracy” and “freedom.” I have read a number of thoughtful comments on these interwoven themes, and a few not so thoughtful ones. ‘We should never have tried to bring democracy to Afghanistan,’ goes one of the tropes I’ve heard repeated over the years. ‘Why did we get sucked into nation-building?’ ‘It should have just been a counter-terror mission.’ ‘Every other great power has failed in Afghanistan, what were we thinking?’

What would have happened if we had just toppled the Taliban regime and left? Minus the cost, would the result have been better? If that was the way to go, why didn't we do that in Germany and Japan after World War II. Seems we still have troops there? Does a country like Afghanistan need more help or less help than a Germany in birthing a representative democracy?


And were we really trying to bring democracy to Afghanistan, anyway? Were we nation-building? That’s what some of you have been poignantly wondering.


If we were, why were there so few mentors for Afghan government officials, and so many for Afghan army officers? Is it easier to run a city than to command an infantry company?


Decisions aren’t on-off switches. It doesn’t just matter what you decide to do — stay or go, for example. At least as important is how you do it.


And if it was democracy we were peddling, what kind of democracy?


What is the condition of our democracy?


That is the question this fiasco poses.

A word, in closing, for “essential workers.” Entry- and mid-level civil servants have been going without sleep for days, trying to salvage at least something from the wreckage. Trying to incarnate a scrap of human decency, while their higher-ups defend their decisions. Like medical personnel and garbage collectors around the world, these are the truly essential workers.

My heart goes out to them in thanks.