America Spent $2.2 Trillion in Afghanistan. What Did That Buy for the Afghan People?

The Newsletter of Newsletters, Volume 9.

Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.

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1. Chartbook

Adam Tooze looks at interesting questions through the lens of economics. Last week he delved into what’s happened to Afghanistan’s economy over the last 20 years:

What do you do if you can see the end of your world approaching? Do you flee? Do you resign yourself? These questions were jarred into focus the other day by reports of desperate professional-class Afghans bracing for the likely return to power of the Taliban. . . . According to a widely cited shock statistics, the twenty year intervention in Afghanistan has cost the USA over $2.2 trillion dollars. . . .

Given Afghanistan’s huge development challenges, one might think that economic development would have top priority. In fact, the ratio of military to civilian development spending was in the order of ten to one. But, the scale of Western involvement is staggering, nevertheless. In many years Western aid spending exceeded the measured size of Afghan GDP. The figures have a surreal, Alice in Wonderland quality. How could you fit so much aid money into such a small economy? Where did the money go?

One obvious answer is that tens of billions were swallowed up by corruption and the grey economy. Wealthy Afghans became large property owners in the Gulf states. So crass are these divides that they call into question the very notion of an Afghan national economy as we normally understand it. . . .

And in the case of Afghanistan it obscures the fact that a national economy as we conventionally understand it, barely exists. On the ground there are “economies” of urban merchants and handicrafts and communities of hard scrabble farmers, but they did not constitute the kind of integrated circular flow as which we imagine a modern economy. Achieving a circular flow was actually a strategic issue in Afghanistan. A huge amount of effort went into the project of completing the ring road that notionally enables the circulation of goods and people around Afghanistan. The ring never closed. . . .

Afghanistan’s most valuable crop is illegal opium. It does its best to show up nowhere in anyone’s accounts. But there can be little doubt that since the early 2000s, cultivation has progressively increased. . . .

Life expectancy has increased. This is driven by a rapid fall in infant mortality and striking life expectancy gains for women, presumably, through much better maternal care. Whereas in 2000 Afghan men lived longer than women, now Afghanistan has the more normal pattern of women outliving their menfolk.

From 30,000 in 2003, the number of students enrolled in Universities in Afghanistan has risen to more than 180,000. In 2018, there were 49,000 female students. . . .

There are enough cell phone subscriptions for more than half the population. Cell phone providers are one of the few parts of Afghanistan’s modern economy that have truly flourished. To run phones, people need power. Electricity consumption per capita has gone up approximately seven times since the 2000. To feed that growing demand, Afghanistan has expanded its own generating capacity. But, increasingly, Afghanistan has come to rely on power imports - from Uzbekistan, Iran and Turkmenistan - which account for almost 80 percent of its power needs. The inflow of aid covers Afghanistan’s yawning trade deficit. . . .

But for all the recorded signs of economic growth and modernization, there has been no success in poverty eradication. In fact, as per capita income increased, so did the rate of poverty. And in recent years, as growth has ground to a halt, the poverty rate has surged. Today, over half of Afghanistan’s population are officially counted as poor. . . .

With Afghanistan in crisis, the Taliban seem poised to sweep back to power. Once again they are exploiting a mood of crisis. But in the 1990s they took charge of a country eviscerated by the war with the Soviet Union. Afghanistan today is still poor, but it is not in the condition it was twenty five years ago. Kabul in the 1990s was a ruined city with a population of barely over a million. Today, it is a sprawling low-income metropolis, studded with high-rise offices and apartment blocks, with an official population of over 4 million. What kind of regime could be established by the Taliban over such a city? What kind of future can they deliver for Afghanistan and for their constituency in the countryside? Little wonder that the Taliban have been assiduously courting Beijing. Afghanistan needs all the friends it can get.

This is tremendously good stuff—the kind of deep-dive research that adds value and makes you smarter.

It is absolutely worth subscribing to.

2. The Liberal Patriot

I’ve been reading Ruy Teixeira for as long as I’ve been in Washington and I’m thrilled that he’s started a newsletter. He’s not always right. But he’s always worth thinking about. And he has a warning for Democrats on what he calls the Fox News Fallacy:

This is the idea that if Fox News (substitute here the conservative bête noire of your choice if you prefer) criticizes the Democrats for X then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often. The problem is that an issue is not necessarily completely invalid just because Fox News mentions it. . . .

Crime is a great example of this. Initially dismissed as simply an artifact of the Covid shutdown that was being vastly exaggerated by Fox News and the like for their nefarious purposes, it is now apparent that the spike in violent crime is quite real and that voters are very, very concerned about it. According to recent data from the Democratic-oriented Navigator Research, more Americans overall, including among independents and Hispanics, now believe violent crime is a “major crisis” than believe that about the coronavirus pandemic or any other area of concern. Moreover, majorities of even Democrats now believe violent crime is a major crisis and concerns are sky-high among black voters (70 percent say it’s a major crisis). . . .

The public response leans heavily in the direction of more policing, not less, countering the defund the police approach that was promulgated by many on the Democratic left and still holds considerable sway in those quarters. The same USA Today poll found 77 percent support for deploying more police to street patrols and 70 percent support for increasing police department budgets. In contrast, defund the police clocks in at just 22 percent support and is even opposed by black respondents 60-38. . . .

The former UK prime minister, Tony Blair, had a very successful slogan: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Democrats would be well-advised to adopt a similar approach. Fox News may exaggerate, Fox News may have highly partisan political purposes. But they are not making the crime problem up.

From there, Teixeira goes on to talk about immigration, which is also a real problem for Democrats.

In a just-released Morning Consult poll, Biden’s approval rating on immigration stands at 37 percent approval/52 percent disapproval (30/54 among independents), consistent with other recent polls. Democrats would do well to remember that public opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security. Here is another issue that is being exploited by Fox News but is still a real problem Democrats need to address.

Overall, Teixeira is trying to raise the alarm. He’s right.

On every policy question, I would suggest that Democrats ask themselves:

What Would James Clyburn Do?

There’s a reason Clyburn-endorsed Democrats keep winning and it isn’t because the guy has some magic endorsement wand. It’s because Clyburn sits in the exact center of the Democratic party.

Which means that he is, more or less, positioned in at the center of a majority coalition.

There may come a time—very soon—where the fate of the republic hinges upon the willingness of Democratic politicians to simply go where their own voters are, and not where their elites are.

Subscribe to Ruy Teixeira’s Liberal Patriot.

3. Forever Wars

Back in the day there was a clique of smarty-pants progressive blogger/journolists [sic] who were callow and nowhere near as smart as they thought and—if I may be candid—highly annoying.

What is even more annoying, though, is that some of these guys grew out of their callowness and turned into good reporters and writers. Spencer Ackerman is one of those guys. And now he’s launched an independent newsletter, He explains what it means to have left the newsroom:

There was a time when I saw journalism romantically. Sometimes it is romantic, as it was when The Guardian, after getting the Edward Snowden leaks, pressed forward with challenging the world's most powerful surveillance entities in the face of unrelenting government hostility. Of my own reporting, perhaps that was the work closest to what I considered journalism’s ideal. But more often I saw that no outlet will ever be loyal to you, that they will still expect total loyalty from you, and they will always explain this expectation by telling you the newsroom is like a family. Some of your best friends will come from your newsrooms. But your newsroom is not your crew. It will not come to your rescue when they come for you. People will. To those people, give everything, but to outlets, give only what they prove they are willing to give you back. And they will prove it every day, if you pay attention. Working in this business has been a process of learning how the thing you love doesn’t exist, and that you have to kill that love before the longing becomes too much for you. This was the only good lesson I learned from getting fired. 

Usually, being romantic about this business will get you exploited, and the solution to exploitation is organizing. The explosion in labor organization over the past eight-ish years, which I’ve been privileged to take part in at two outlets, is the single most hopeful experience I’ve had in newsrooms – in my twenties I truly thought it could never happen. The hardest part of leaving is no longer being able to contribute to something so necessary. If you’re not willing to stand with the deputy social media editor or the night editor or the copy desk or anyone else whose labor makes your journalism professional, get no external accolades and whom management considers particularly disposable, the people underpaid the worst and the most vulnerable within a collapsing industry, fuck you.

Read it and subscribe.

Ackerman isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But when it comes to reporting, he does good work.

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