On July 21 the World Affairs Council of Oregon invited former Lewis and Clark College professor Zaher Wahab to share his perspective on the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. After retiring from a four-decade career as a professor of education, Wahab decided to return to Afghanistan and help rebuild the country where he was born.
Sixteen years and $2.4 trillion after the U.S. invaded the same country where it had previously undertaken one of longest and most expensive covert CIA operations in history to exacerbate “Russia’s Vietnam,” Wahab assessed, “The situation is hellish, to say the least.”
Since 2002 Wahab has made annual trips to Afghanistan, most recently returning for good to work at the American University of Afghanistan, the country’s first private, nonprofit institution of higher education.
Despite having met with both former and current Afghan presidents on multiple occasions and cooperating with initiatives with the Ministry of Education, Wahab said he would never work for the government.
“Nothing gets done,” Wahab said. “In fact, if you’re in Afghanistan, you have no sense that there really is a functioning government, providing the goods and services that you would expect from a government.”
The current government, was effectively stitched together by former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014 when an election dispute between the country’s two presidential frontrunners threatened to instigate civil war.
The U.S. currently spends over $28 billion annually on military operations in Afghanistan. The country currently relies on foreign assistance for approximately 75 percent of its government budget.
According to Afghan Security and Defense departments, over 20 different terrorist groups are fighting the central government.
“There is no place in Afghanistan where you can feel safe or secure,” Wahab said. “You don’t feel safe in the classroom, in the lecture halls, in restaurants, on the road, or in places of worship…anywhere.”
Wahab described the school where he works, which has “embassy-level” security and includes 18 foot blast walls reminiscent of the West Bank, watch towers with snipers on duty 24/7, guards with police dogs, and a campus-wide system of alarms and cameras.
“I can’t leave the campus now,” Wahab explained. “I can’t go places, period. The barber comes to campus. The dry cleaner comes to the campus.”
Massive trade deficits, 50 percent unemployment, and a lack of safe drinking water and electricity for half the population haven’t prevented the appearance of advertisements for cosmetic surgery in Kabul, the country’s capital city.
“What really bothers me is sort of the complete criminalization and gangsterization of the culture,” Wahab said.
Afghanistan ranks as one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International.
In response to a question about the recent announcement of nearly 4,000 new U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan and the international community’s responsibility to stabilize the conflict, Wahab questioned the logic of continuing to pursue military solutions.
“Maybe from 2009 to 2013 there were 100,000 American/NATO troops, plus 100,000 3rd country contractors, then about a quarter million Afghans,” Wahab said. “Around 2013 there were half a million foreign and domestic security forces, but they couldn’t stabilize the country.”
According to Wahab, many Afghans question whether stabilization has ever actually been the goal.
But despite concerns over the logic of national and global military-industrial-intelligence complexes perpetuating endless war, Wahab insists a continued foreign presence is necessary to stabilize the country.
Instead of spending $2 million per soldier per year, Wahab suggests altering the terms of foreign involvement and investing that money in schools, hospitals, literacy centers, and other infrastructure that would promote the growth of civil society and good governance.
To Wahab’s mind, China’s increased economic and military involvement in the country seems the most likely catalyst for stability. Afghanistan’s geographic position makes it an important part of China’s One Belt One Road global economic plan, which seeks to develop infrastructure connecting China to the rest of the world.
“They really want stability in that part of the world for economic reasons,” Wahab said. “It’s not about ideology.”