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Afghanistan: A Poster Child for Foreign-Aid Failure

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Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint outside Bagram prison, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, April 8, 2020. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters) How U.S. aid dollars fueled corruption in Afghanistan.

In an August address to the nation on Afghanistan, President Biden attempted to justify America’s surrender and withdrawal by asserting that, among other things, “our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building.” President Biden then went on to say that our mission “was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.” These assertions are jaw-dropping — literally fantastical. Haven’t the President and his advisers read the Bonn Agreement that was signed in December 2001 after the ouster of the Taliban, or observed anything that has followed? Even though it all might have been a fantasy, no one with any knowledge or experience in the post–Bonn Agreement era would deny that the United States and its allies were engaged in a nation-building exercise, one that was focused on constructing a centralized government.

Despite our dismal record at nation-building, we marched forward in Afghanistan, repeatedly reaching for the foreign-aid checkbook. What makes this so shocking is that professionals of all stripes know that government-to-government foreign-aid schemes typically fail and are often little more than poster children for waste, fraud, and abuse. As a House Foreign Affairs Committee put it back in 1989, U.S. foreign-aid programs “no longer either advance U.S. interests abroad or promote economic development.” A Clinton administration task force rendered a similar conclusion on the efficacy of foreign aid: “Despite decades of foreign assistance, most of Africa, and parts of Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East are economically worse off today than they were 20 years ago.”

In Afghanistan, none of the mountains of evidence pointing to the failures of foreign aid and nation-building were ever allowed to see the light of day. As it turns out, the professional elites who live off the “delivery” of foreign aid are a tightly knit epistemic community that promotes and runs the foreign-aid show. For them, the show must go on. In Afghanistan, it

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