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Shoaib Rahim is a Toronto-based associate professor at the American University of Afghanistan who was the acting and deputy mayor of Kabul from 2016 to 2019. He has also served as senior adviser to Afghanistan’s minister of defence and senior adviser to the state ministry for peace, which oversaw peace negotiations between the government and the Taliban.

In 1979, when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan to crush the local resistance against its brutal Communist government, the entire world was inspired to get involved in the country. Then, more than 20 years later, the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, brought Afghanistan back to global relevance as it became the epicentre of the War on Terror. And at the start of both campaigns, we, the people of Afghanistan, were darlings of the West, celebrated in global capitals as courageous and resilient people who fought for our land and freedom despite the odds – first against the communist bloc and then against global terror.

Yet both times, as soon as political interest shifted elsewhere, we were forgotten, and left to our own ruin. And the people of Afghanistan’s most basic yet most significant failure in the decades after 2001 was that we lost ownership of our own war – of its direction and its priorities.

Today, I am following the war in Ukraine from afar, with great sympathy and respect for its people. But I have also seen international pledging conferences for the Ukrainian military, highly publicized visits by world leaders to Ukrainian cities, and globe-trotting tours by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. I have seen some people throw blind support for the war effort without asking any difficult questions; I have seen the censoring of dissent and any critique rebuked as unpatriotic. And as I see all this, I am unfortunately reminded of what Afghanistan went through, and how things could have been very different. I wish to be very wrong here, but I can’t help but see Kabul in Kyiv. I hope that Ukrainians do not lose control of their war.

The people of Afghanistan didn’t lose theirs overnight. Over the past two decades, the Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) became increasingly dependent on Western funding to pay for training for our volunteer national army and national police, for the supply and maintenance of arms and ammunition, and for modern technology that would allow us to do surveillance and reconnaissance on the battlefield. At first, we engaged with NATO decision-makers and confronted or negotiated with them if we disagreed on an approach, but that eventually gave way to a culture of silence and appeasement, where decisions were rarely challenged. The money kept flowing into the coffers of the small number of military contractors in Afghanistan and their political patronage networks.

Our political class’s fatal mistake was a failure to recognize that the alignment of national and international interests is never meant to be permanent. As a result, the Afghan government was unable to maintain consensus domestically over the course of the last two decades. This was most evident in decisions around the ANDSF, which developed extreme financial dependence on the West’s funding that eventually compromised its ability to independently plan and execute. The world saw the consequences of this as soon as the U.S. signed the Doha deal to exit Afghanistan: A lack of independent preparation, combined with the U.S.’s withholding of intelligence, logistical and air support to the ANDSF, led to operational paralysis on the front lines and swift collapse in the face of the advancing Taliban. Maintaining a minimum level of combat and logistical independence and military capability over the years would have put our security forces in a much stronger position.

Then there’s the matter of international aid. Over the decades, governments from around the world have proudly committed billions of dollars to a wide variety of sectors in Afghanistan – and yet they have little to show for their investment at the end of the day. Despite the aid, our country never managed to recover from the economic devastation of the 1980s from fighting the Soviets and the civil wars of the 1990s; even before the Taliban’s return, Afghanistan remained on the bottom of most development indicators. Even as the international community continues to boast about the ocean of wealth it spent on Afghanistan, it is also quick to lay blame for the exorbitant spends on a lack of technical capacity in the country, or on local corruption.

On a national level, we failed to recognize early on that the global pledges in reconstruction aid were not intended to primarily serve the recipient country – they were meant to support the complex network of organizations in the foreign aid industrial complex. There is supposed to be a trickle-down of funds from the top of this food chain, but in Afghanistan, that flow was limited, and the funding’s effects were unclear. Even as the beneficiaries were left largely in the dark, the polished project appraisals and closeout reports kept being submitted and approved by the various treasuries that unquestioningly doled out these funds in the name of Afghanistan.

Nowhere was this nexus of problems and attitudes more apparent than in Kabul, the beating heart of the country. When I was serving as the acting mayor of Kabul, my team and I worked to reform the city’s governance, investing in its infrastructure and making the city more livable for its nearly 6 million residents. But it was a constant struggle between indifferent and disconnected donors, local power brokers, corrupt parliamentarians, and a population that had grown used to free money, and had difficulty accepting responsibility for its own expenses.

Most of these problems were beyond Afghans’ control. But what was in our control as a people was our ability to hold ourselves accountable.

As a people, we needed to develop and lift up genuinely patriotic leaders – Afghans who would prioritize national interest above their own political goals – but we failed to do so, and had to endure the deception, incompetence and cowardice of those who occupied those positions instead. Our civil society, meanwhile, struggled to rid itself of its short-term, project-oriented mindset. The media and universities did manage to create spaces where difficult questions were asked, but even those institutions could not break free from the dominant mindset of not rocking the boat out of fear that the well would dry up. It made reform attempts increasingly difficult within the government, as there was little incentive for those with their hands in the cookie jar to change their ways.

The public officials who embezzled and looted went largely unpunished, and Afghan society celebrated people who had accrued wealth, regardless of how those gains were gotten. This further shrank the space for dissent and perpetuated the exploitation and corruption of aid funds – in the public sector, to be sure, but also in the not-for-profit sector, which was ironically a very profitable enterprise that has produced some very wealthy individuals over the past two decades.

If we, in Afghanistan, had collectively held ourselves accountable – if we had asked the difficult questions about where and how the funds were being spent, if we had confronted the corrupt in a sustained and meaningful way, if we had supported whistle-blowers, reformers and journalists – we would have prevented the deadly erosion of trust from within. Instead, with the few benefitting at the expense of the many, this sense of distrust and pessimism infested our institutions and society at large and undermined the legitimacy of our fledgling democratic order. This was a moral failure, plain and simple – and one that many Afghans I have spoken to have since come to regret.

On a strategic level, the biggest failure on our part was the lack of consensus on a Plan B in a scenario where NATO would completely withdraw their forces. Our politicians, businessmen, and civil society chose to believe that the gravy train would simply never end, and so were caught off-guard and unable to come together at the most critical time. The writing was on the wall – NATO had even set a date for its withdrawal – and yet we chose to ignore it. Members of our national security forces paid the ultimate price: more than 70,000 lives were lost to the war fighting the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State. They were the first to be abandoned – not just by the world, but also by Afghanistan’s so-called leaders and, to an extent, Afghan society at large.

We did not realize, until it was too late, how quickly everything could change – how terms like “strategic ally,” “shoulder-to-shoulder” and “as long as it takes” all lose their meaning when priorities change in faraway capitals. A so-called peace process was forced upon us and essentially served us into the hands of the enemy.

If we had been bold and charted a different path early on, based on a clear understanding of the limits of international support and the ever-changing flow of geopolitical interests, the country might have been able to avoid today’s scenario: being ruled by a militant group responsible for the death and destruction of tens of thousands over the past two decades. I hope that Ukrainians take the lessons of Afghanistan to heart, so that they do not experience a similar fate.

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