August 15, 2021
by Steve Stofka
This week the Taliban accelerated their months-long takeover of Afghanistan, a country where the American people have spent almost $1 trillion in the past two decades (BBC News, 2021). As the insurgents command large cities there are daily reports of atrocities committed to enforce the Taliban’s extremist interpretation of the Koran, particularly women’s dress codes and smartphones (Gibbons-Neff, Shah, & Huylebroek, 2021). People are asking why is there so little resistance to the Taliban? American taxpayers have helped bolster the Afghan military to 300,000. Couldn’t they fight a Taliban insurgency of less than 100,000? American taxpayers have spent a lot of money to build an Afghan air force, much of which is now in the hands of the Taliban. What happened?
A short answer is corruption. A slightly longer answer is that no amount of money can build strong institutions of trust and fairness among a people in less than two decades. One indication of corruption is the ease of doing business in a country. In 2018, the World Bank ranked Afghanistan 173rd out of 189 countries (FRED, 2021). As a comparison, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, two countries famous for the corruption in government at all levels, rank 140th and 131st in ease of doing business. The U.S. is ranked 6th, a rule of trust, law and order that most Americans take for granted.
The Afghan people are bound together by the chains of bribery. People must pay bribes in addition to the normal fees to get electricity turned on, to get an ID card, or to open up a small shop (Keefe, 2015). Corruption becomes the dominant institution, creating a culture of predator and prey. There is no incentive to improve public service because the waiting list for those services supports the livelihood of public officials dependent on the bribe system. Those able and willing to pay a generous bribe to a utility worker can get their electric service turned on in a week. Less generous customers might wait six months. Those with any public authority prey on everyone else and there is competition for those positions of authority. To keep a position, a public official kicks back part of their monthly take in bribes to their supervisor and the money flows to the top of the government “food” chain (Filkins, 2009). In 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest a similar system in Tunisia in North Africa.
Reporters stationed in Afghanistan report that there may be only 60,000 soldiers actually serving in uniform. The rest are on the payroll because they know someone who knows someone. Those in uniform have little food or ammo, the money for those goods disappearing into someone’s pocket.
American taxpayers have paid for a lot of improvement as well as death in Afghanistan. GDP is five times higher in 2019 than it was in 2000. In 1980, literacy was 18%. In 2010, it was 30%. In fifty years, the fertility rate has declined by almost half and the infant mortality rate plunged to a sixth of what it was in 1962, when 1 out of 4 Afghan infants died. Life expectancy at birth has increased from 32 years in 1960 to 65 years in 2018 (FRED, 2021). Much of the progress has occurred after the U.S. invasion, a testament to the American commitment to the well-being and security of the Afghan people.
There is no magic formula for building strong institutions of trust and law among a people. The British built an extensive bureaucracy to administer India, but the interpersonal culture of India turned that formal institutional structure into the infamous “license raj” system that exists today. Despite decades of effort and political promises, that corruption hinders growth in India, which is ranked 63rd in ease of doing business. Imagine what it is like in Afghanistan with its rank of 173rd. Instead of focusing on the money Americans have spent in Afghanistan, lets be grateful that we enjoy an environment of trust, law and order that is not perfect but better than most countries.
BBC News. (2021, July 06). Afghanistan war: What has the conflict cost the US? Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-47391821.
FRED – Federal Reserve. (2021). Various series on Afghanistan. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://fred.stlouisfed.org. Note: search for Afghanistan
Filkins, D. (2009, January 02). Afghan corruption: Everything for sale. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/02/world/asia/02iht-corrupt.1.19050534.html
Gibbons-Neff, T., Shah, T., & Huylebroek, J. (2021, February 15). The Taliban close in on Afghan Cities, pushing the country to the brink. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/15/world/asia/taliban-afghanistan.html
Keefe, P. R. (2015, January 19). Corruption and Revolt. New Yorker. doi:http://emiguel.econ.berkeley.edu/assets/assets/miguel_media/387/The_New_Yorker_Corruption_and_Revolt___Does_Tolerating_Graft_Undermine_National_Security.pdf