Buying a Stalemate: U.S. aid may still save Afghanistan

In an article on War on the Rocks, Dominic Tierney argues that an American troop withdrawal does not have to spell the end of the Afghan government. Tierney argues that continued U.S. financial aid may be enough for the Afghan government to hold off the advance of the Taliban, as happened when the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Following their withdrawal, the Soviets continued to provide substantial aid in cash, arms and other equipment. The result was that the government of President Mohammad Najibullah and his People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) held off the Mujahideen for several years. It was only the fall of the Soviet Union and the resulting end of Soviet aid that led to Najibullah’s defeat.

A U.S. aid program to Afghanistan of around $4–5 billion per year is affordable — even indefinitely so. The figure equates to less than one percent of the U.S. defense budget. Indeed, to put the number in perspective, Washington spends over $300 million every year just on military bands. The aid program is also much cheaper than deploying U.S. troops. Washington can pay for around 50 to 100 Afghan soldiers for the same cost as stationing a single American soldier there (about $1 million per year). The aid program is only a tiny fraction of the expenditure in Afghanistan a decade ago.

Continuing aid to Afghanistan does not guarantee success, but curtailing aid guarantees failure. $4 billion is a lot of money. But it buys Washington a reasonable chance at creating military deadlock in Afghanistan, forcing the Taliban to make peace, and avoiding a repeat of Saigon 1975, with all the associated trauma and recrimination.

One major oversight in Tierney’s argument is the distinct difference between the fractious Mujahideen that Najibullah fended off, and relatively cohesive Taliban facing the current Afghan government. This time there is much less hope of peeling off local commanders and driving wedges between rival factions.

That said, the continued provision of aid and other “over the horizon” aid does appear at this time to be the best option that is politically salable to the American people. And as Tierney argues committing to that assistance for the long term will maximize the odds of ultimate success.

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