I had the pleasure of speaking yesterday at George Mason University alongside Christopher Coyne.
Chris is the author of an excellent new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond. I’ll have a full review online soon.
My thanks to the students, faculty and staff at George Mason!
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
My mom always forwards me the worst email crap, multi-megabyte Powerpoints of cats, or babies doing something odd, or homilies to life last century and the like. I usually thus delete most FWD’ed messages, but this one caught my eye. It’s making its way around the world so you might have already deleted it. If not, enjoy a cheap laugh. And be nice to your mother this Sunday, Mothers Day.
How to Be an Afghanistan Expert
1. Cite your most recent trip to the region where you saw – with your own eyes, absent the media’s blinders – irrefutable progress. Add points if you spoke with some cigar store Afghan who confirmed this for you. Add double points if you attended an actual jirga. (Subtract points if you were actually at a shura and mistook it for a jirga).
2. Imply that if only the clearance-less masses were privileged enough to see the same “high side” intelligence that you do, they would know the truth. Add points if you have an actual clearance and didn’t just look it up on Wikileaks.
3. Visit a bazaar. Chat with friendly merchants. Lots of salaams, lots of right-hand-over-your-heart greetings. Buy a (warm) orange Fanta. Note – often and loudly – that this bazaar was closed until ISAF forces arrived. Add points if you can drive to this bazaar, versus flying. Add double points if you can wear armor and helmet without looking like some parody of an obese war tourist.
4. Play down the fact that you are paid roughly $1,000 a day to “advise” the military and deny that there is any subsequent conflict-of-interest when you come home and write flattering things about progress in Afghanistan.
5. Whatever you do, avoid spending too much time in Afghanistan. In addition to acquiring language skills and some measure of cultural understanding, you risk becoming cynical and perhaps even despairing of our odds of success.
6. Adopt a “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” approach to the region. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and amid the protests of others who have spent years on the ground, imply that through sheer force of will and maybe a Jedi mind trick or two, we shall overcome. Add points if you can beat the other experts in latching onto some insignificant scrap of “evidence” supporting “progress.” Add double points if you are the first to tweet about it.
7. If pressed on the deteriorating security situation, offer some babble about “the night being darkest before the dawn” and tie it into a tortured thesis about how escalating violence is actually a sign of counterinsurgency success. Add points of you can maintain a straight face making this point while citing vastly improved “kill ratios.” Subtract points if your “analysis” is eventually compared to an ISAF version of the 5 O’Clock Follies.
8. Write numerous “analytical reports” with phrases such as “The Way Forward” or “How to Win” in the title. No one, not even your colleagues in the think tank world, will actually read these, but they will be cited widely as a substitute for reading something substantive, that might offer actual insight into Afghanistan. Add points if you can deride previous scholarship on Afghanistan as “Orientalist.”
9. ‘The Grand Slam’ – authorship of a COIN pamphlet that gainsays the holy trinity: Petraeus, Nagl and Kilcullen. If pressed on the apparent failure of COIN in Afghanistan, cite some obscure insurgency – The Malayan Emergency is a good choice – and note how long success took to occur.
10. In case you ever write a book and need a jacket photo, make sure to get a photo of yourself rocking a full beard, a pakool, and a dastmaal. Subtract points if you insist on maintaining this appearance once you return to DC.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Gentle readers, allow me a moment of angry self-congratulation. I’ll be back to normal with the next posting. This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.
I was right. When they print the next edition of my book, I’m going to change the title from We Meant Well to I Told You So.
I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. As it became more and more apparent to me over the course of my time in Iraq that we were accomplishing none of those goals (while simultaneously wasting incredible amounts of money), I was compelled to tell the American people what I saw. It would be both a lesson for history and a warning about similar efforts already under way in Afghanistan. I wrote a book and lost my career of 24 years at the State Department as a result.
What if Iraq Turns Around?
When, in 2010, I sent the first draft of We Meant Well, about the waste, fraud, mismanagement, and utter stupidity surrounding the Iraq reconstruction efforts, to my editor, I remember her saying, “You know the book itself won’t come out for close to a year, and if things turn around in Iraq in the meantime, that will make you look wrong.” I told her not to worry.
When the book did come out in September 2011, most of the interviewers I met with threw in skeptical comments: “Well, maybe it will work out like in Japan,” they said, or “It’s too early to tell.” When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, “We’d like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste.” Foreign Policy felt the need to run an angry rebuttal (“The greatest assets in many respects were our ‘clients,’ the Iraqi ministers, provincial officials, and local residents who were active and engaged at every level”) to an excerpt from my book.
Failure Made Official
Well, now it’s official. Although it took 10 years for the report to come out, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), “$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq,” but the positive effects of those funds were too often “lost.”
Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country’s top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not “achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general.”
There “was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B,” said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money. According to the Associated Press, to date the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began. Some funds are still being spent on ongoing projects.
I Told You So
I hate to say I told you so — but I told you so. SIGIR, if you’re out there, perhaps it would have been better to agree to meet with me back in 2009. I could have saved you some time and money. SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.
We all know that we study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, so with the dreadful example of Iraq now clear, we can draw from it to avoid repeating the errors in Afghanistan. In fact, speaking of book titles, my volume on the Iraq failures was originally supposed to be called Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq, before the editor thankfully nudged me toward the snarkier We Meant Well.
What Went Right?
And yet … and yet … only the day before the SIGIR report on Iraq was issued, this magazine ran a long piece by Peter Bergen titled “What Went Right.” The piece talks about al Qaeda on the run from Afghanistan (without mentioning how well the franchises in Iraq and North Africa are doing), cites gains in cell-phone usage (without discussing how much is due to billions of U.S. aid dollars dumped on the local markets), talks about how the Taliban have been vanquished (without understanding an insurgency avoids head-on clashes just before the other guys pack up and go home), and describes aspects of Kabul as “thriving” (based most likely on a conversation with some taxi driver). Incredulously, Bergen writes, “U.S. and other NATO forces have taken care to ensure that their soldiers do not contribute to the civilian death toll. Indeed, some American cities are today more violent than Afghanistan. In New Orleans, residents are now around six times more likely to be murdered than Afghan civilians are to be killed in the war” and concludes, “Maybe, not too long from now, a new generation of guidebooks will again be raving about the joys of springtime in the Hindu Kush.”
Quite sadly, one only need change “Afghanistan” to “Iraq” in the article, and it could have been published in 2010, right down to the last line about tourists: The United States spent millions of dollars building tourist infrastructure around Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites for naught. It idiotically helped sponsor the “Iraq Tourism Week” expo in Baghdad in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been issuing its own reports, saying among other things that “a significant portion” of the U.S. government’s $400 million investment in large infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2011 alone may have been wasted because of poor planning. In an episode that could have come straight out of my book — except that it took place years later in Afghanistan — SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, “yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most of the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability.” There are many, many more examples.
History Repeats Itself
In asking why such mistakes are being repeated, one need only look at the people involved: A large percentage of the State Department personnel on the ground in Afghanistan are veterans of the Iraq reconstruction, as are the soldiers reconstructing alongside them. The same two U.S. Ambassadors (Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker) ran both embassies at different times. Most of the lame and unskilled hirelings who worked with me in Iraq moved over to identical roles in Afghanistan, and even one of my old bosses found work in Afghanistan after retirement from State. On the macro level, the same massive contracting firms and security mercenaries continue to make bank. The fat paychecks help keep everyone looking the other way about “progress” and thus on-message.
Despite SIGAR finding that “delays, cost overruns, and poor construction of infrastructure projects … resulted in lost opportunities and in incalculable waste,” the United States and its allies have already committed to $16 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Costs for maintaining Afghan security forces are expected to come to over $4 billion per year.
There is a pop-psychology definition of mental illness that applies here: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. And there’s something grim about this. So while it feels good today to know I was right — the reconstruction of Iraq I participated in is now unambiguously acknowledged as the failure I said it was years ago — it still feels bad knowing someone else will need to write an article just like this in a few years, when we tally up the losses in Afghanistan.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
LaSalle University in Philadelphia was kind enough to host me last week as part of their continuing series of “Diplomats in Residence.” The CBS affiliate in Philly wrote a nice story on my talk to the students:
La Salle University students heard a scathing account of America’s counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, from a former State Department officer who wrote about his year in the program.
The speaker’s darkly funny account could have been disheartening but the students found it a valuable lesson.
Peter Van Buren can sound like a cynic, with his tales of billions spent in Iraq on projects such as sheep for widows and art shows that provided little more than photo ops for U.S. officials, but the reason he gave at LaSalle for writing and speaking about his experience is decidedly idealistic.
As Van Buren says, “You all have the chance to not do this again.”
He has suffered for his candor. It cost him his job after the State Department conducted a campaign to discredit him. But Van Buren got his message across to the students.
“Hopefully, looking at what happened in the past, we can do things right and figure out how to connect with the people better.” He adds, “We won’t make the same mistakes. We see what we do wrong and we make sure not to do it again. We need to make sure that history does not repeat itself.”
As the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) shuts down in what can only be thought of as a mercy killing, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) continues its dreary work. They send out regular press releases that all look like this most recent one:
Today, SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability.
Photo of Facility (shown above)
Should you have any questions or need any additional information please do not hesitate to contact our Director of Public Affairs, Phil LaVelle at (703) 545-5974 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friends, do a little search and replace exercise and that SIGAR report could have been right out of Iraq circa 2006. It strongly suggests we have learned nothing, that the reconstruction of Afghanistan is simply another foreign policy feel-good farce. It means no… one… cares.
After all I went through personally to bring the abuses, waste and fraud of Iraq reconstruction to light, well, that makes me sad.
John Stanton‘s reputation as a truth-teller/trouble-maker (depending on your politics) is solid.
His new book, The Raptor’s Eye, JIEDDO, MISO, General P and The Prophet Smith: Reports from Washington, DC 2012, Capitol of the American Empire, with contributions from Dr. Emma L. Briant, University of Glasgow, is a collection of essays on the state of Amerika.
Stanton made his name in part through his dissection of General Petraeus’ vaunted Human Terrain System (HTS), a failed component of Petraeus’ failed counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. HTS employed anthropologists to work alongside the US Army, analyzing the Iraqis scientifically so the US could more effectively manipulate and/or kill them.
But that’s for another time. Here are a couple of quotes from Stanton’s new book to set the tone for you:
“The biggest reason why stuff like the General Petraeus scandal happens is because the Inspector General’s Office (IG) continues to discount or ignore complaints from subordinates, until they explode in their faces. There is no way Paula Broadwell could have jumped on a plane and appeared in Afghanistan, without someone asking questions, somewhere. Instead of going after General David Petraeus, or Paula Broadwell, the military would save a lot of time and trouble taking a look at the people who allegedly approved Paula’s access to classified information, and the people responsible for safeguarding that access. I guarantee you that you will find someone who raised questions, who was harassed, intimidated, or removed from their position. The IG complaint process is supposed to provide a safety net for people who come forward with allegations of misconduct. This system appears to have fallen apart, and IG offices appear to be either complicit or disinterested in pursuing allegations of suspicious conduct by senior officers and NCO’s”.
“It was not to New York City, Boston or Baltimore that Wall Street financiers and banking houses ran to in 2008 when they screwed up. It was a sprint to Washington, DC that they made in search of cash to salvage their bank accounts first, and then the American economy, second. This provided a fine lesson for those who deride the citizens and institutions of the National Capitol Region: the action is here DC, not outside the Beltway.”
The New York Times reports on an isolated incident in Afghanistan where, fed up with the Taliban closing their schools and committing other acts of oppression, men in a village about 100 miles south of Kabul took up arms late last spring and chased out the insurgents with no help from the Afghan government or U.S. military.
American officials nonetheless are quietly nurturing the trend, hoping it might become a game changer, or at least a new roadblock for the Taliban.
Yeah, right. The Times then drops what Americans still cling to, the myth of Anbar:
Some have compared the apparently spontaneous uprisings to the Iraq war’s Anbar Awakening of 2007, in which Sunni Arab tribes in the western province of Anbar turned on al-Qaida in their midst, joined forces with the Americans and dealt a blow that many credit with turning the tide of that conflict. The U.S. armed and paid the tribal fighters and sought to integrate them into Iraqi government forces.
The myth of Anbar is one of the Iraq War’s nastier leftovers. Many Iraqis did push back against al Qaeda, but typically for personal gain and local control. The US carried out an awful lot of night raids against “al Qaeda” that instead eliminated local rivals of Sunnis more skilled at manipulating the desperate-for-success Americans. The limited initial successes were quickly subsumed by the need to pay “Sons of Iraq” essentially protection money to stay on our side (I watched their enthusiasm fade as the money dried up in my own year in Iraq). And of course al Qaeda still maintains an active franchise in Iraq even to this day, and Anbar is still a shithole.
As in Iraq, the U.S., ever-so-desperate for something close enough to call a “victory” before we just get the hell out of Afghanistan, so wants to believe any anti-Taliban action is somehow even remotely related to a pro-Afghan government or maybe– maybe– a pro-U.S. stance. That was the meme in Anbar.
It is not true. Just because local people do not want one group of outsiders (al Qaeda, Taliban, Mormons) messing with their lives, that does not imply acceptance of another group of outsiders (Shiite Iraqi government, Afghan kleptocrats or U.S. occupiers). The more somewhat authoritative sources like the Times keep this myth alive, the longer it will take for any chance of learning any lessons from these failed counter-insurgency farces.
It’s time to really wake up America, and bring the troops home.
We all know the feeling. You have a great time on vacation and then come home to see the Visa card bill. What were we thinking? Did we really spend that much on dinner? Who did we think we were buying drinks for the whole bar the last night?
Well, the US Department of State just had the same experience, only with the filed reconstruction of Iraq and a bill of some $55 billion.
In what it called its final audit report, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) on Friday spelled out a range of accounting weaknesses that put “billions of American taxpayer dollars at risk of waste and misappropriation” in the largest reconstruction project of its kind in US history. “The precise amount lost to fraud and waste can never be known,” the report said.
Here’s where I can help. I do know the precise amount lost to fraud and waste: all of it. Every freaking penny. Every dollar spent on Iraq that was not spent on Scranton, Detroit, Cleveland or New Orleans.
To be fair, the inspector general said that while he couldn’t pinpoint the amount wasted, it “could be substantial.”
A key weakness found by the inspectors was inadequate reviewing of contractors’ invoices. In some cases invoices were checked months after they had been paid because there were too few government contracting officers. They found a case in which the State Department had only one contracting officer in Iraq to validate more than $2.5 billion in spending on a DynCorp contract for Iraqi police training. “We found this lack of control to be especially disturbing since earlier reviews of the DynCorp contract had found similar weaknesses.”
In that case, the State Department eventually reconciled all of the old invoices and as of July 2009 had recovered more than $60 million.
$60 million out of $55 billion dollars. It’s s start right, just like jumping up brings you theoretically closer to the sun. Luckily, the over $66 billion and counting already spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan isn’t being wasted as it was in Iraq, going instead to buying chocolate unicorns and fluffy rainbows.
If you can handle it (my PTSD gets in the way), the full report is online)
The problem in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is not that COIN can’t work. The problem is that one can only counter an insurgency if a legitimate government, supported by the majority of the people but opposed by an insurgency, exists.
The governments in each of these three cases were illegitimate, created and supported by force from the United States, after which the United States had it’s creation adopt the superficial trappings of democracy in order to have some claim on legitimacy. There was not in any case a legitimate government, and thus no insurgency–legitimate government is a necessary condition for an insurgency to exist.
What existed in these cases was a legitimate government not to our liking (Vietnam), a power vacuum caused by the total destruction of the existing government (Iraq), and an illegitimate government which we toppled and replaced with another illegitimate government (Afghanistan). In none of these cases could COIN be properly executed. The conditions demanded by COIN theory simply did not exist.
Our support of Colombia’s battle with the FARC is the closest we have come to actually putting COIN theory into practice, and we and the Colombians have had some success there. This is largely due to the fact that most Colombians support the government established by the Constitution the Colombian people approved in 1991. The sad part about this success story is that there would be no insurgency and no FARC if the United States would do away with its failed policy to ban drugs.
I met another one yesterday, on the subway. He was with his family visiting DC as tourists and they all stood swaying like happy but confused cows in front of Washington’s impossibly confusing subway fare map. I helped them figure it out, and learned they were from Montana, were in a “big city” for the first time in a long time and were a bit overwhelmed. The son was 26, in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, lost his leg near a city in Iraq whose name he awkwardly mispronounced. I doubt if an Iraqi would have recognized the name given how he said it, but it was where he got shot in a war that made no more sense than the subway map. The charts say he has sixty more years in that chair, three more lives. Almost 12 stops on the subway, too.
Somewhere along the way the US killed off over 100,000 Iraqis while 4480 American soldiers died alongside of them. No one can really count how many were wounded, like the guy on the subway. It was a war purely of choice, a war of desire, launched with an invasion into a country that did not attack or threaten the US. That was 2003, when “men” like Colin Powell, Condi Rice and the Bush clan lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is important to go over those things once in awhile, because government fibbers are always poking around– Syria, Iran, Pakistan– with more false or exaggerated claims. Let’s agree to ask a few questions next time.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite whatever reasons they started, morphed into nation building, where the US sought/seeks to create neat little democratic allies. That is a fool’s errand, and an expensive one in terms of lives and dollars, so it is important to check in to see where these things are going once in a while.
In the same week that we learn of Iraq’s plan to shut down the majority of major media outlets, Musings on Iraq, one of the most dispassionate and apolitical sites on the topic, offers this pocket assessment of today’s Iraq:
Recently, the United Nations and the State Department issued reports on human rights within Iraq. Both said that the country had a poor record. Freedom of the press, assembly, and expression, along with women and minority rights were all threatened, and the country lacked a functioning justice and prison systems. This was due to not only the on going violence within the country, but corruption and government dysfunction. Both organizations believed that the situation would continue. Not only has the government’s promises of improving its human rights situation proved hollow, but no official has ever been punished for their actions, while insurgents still carry out their daily terrorist attacks.
Of course one must ask if that’s the best we could do with 4480 American lives and several trillion dollars, what hope do we have in America’s other endless wars of choice and desire?
If you have the stomach for it, read a more detailed look at the state of modern Iraq on Musings.
One definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over, but somehow expecting different results. Such as it is in our never-ending gobsmacker reconstruction work in
Vietnam Iraq Afghanistan.
From another well-meaning but naive contractor in Afghanistan comes yet another well-meaning but naive tale of how US reconstruction money is being spent to buy chickens for widows. The US buys the chickens, the widows raise the chickens as a source of food and income, and hearts and minds are won. Photos of kids with our brave troops are included.
We’ve seen this before of course, in Iraq, where our failed reconstruction efforts featured at various times cows for widows, goats for widows, bees for widows and in my book, sheep for widows. Noah himself couldn’t have brought more animals to more widows.
Civic action is not the construction of privies or the distribution of antimalaria sprays. One can’t fight an ideology; one can’t fight a militant doctrine with better privies. Yet this is done constantly. One side says, “land reform,” and the other side says, “better culverts.” One side says, “We are going to kill all those nasty village chiefs and landlords.” The other side says, “Yes, but look, we want to give you prize pigs to improve your strain.” These arguments just do not match. Simple but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.
The question in my mind is this: Can we in Viet-Nam, or anywhere else, save (or improve) the administrative or governmental structure? The answer is obvious, and there is no other effort really worth doing. There are no easy shortcuts to solving the problems of revolutionary war. In fact, I would like to close with one last thought, which applies, of course, to everything that is done in the armed forces, but particularly to revolutionary war: If it works, it is obsolete. In Viet-Nam and in many other similar situations we have worked too often with well-working but routine procedures and ideas. It is about time that new approaches and–above all–ideas be tried; obviously, the other ones have been unequal to the task.
Take the stock photos from Afghanistan and recolor the ground the gray tan of Iraq’s sand, or the red brown of Vietnam’s clay and it is the same picture.
Counterinsurgency wars are not fought successfully by handing out livestock, or winning merit badges. One fights an idea with a better idea, and by protecting the people (and not obliterating their wedding parties) and by creating and protecting a local government.
One SEAL living real counterinsurgency in virtual Quang Tri province, Afghanistan, gets it:
Let’s rewrite our metrics of success to reflect our effect on the population, with measures such as: economic activity at bazaars, unsolicited enemy reporting from villagers, and longevity of local officials; as opposed to the input metrics of enemy killed, dollars spent, and Afghan troops trained.
Another COIN warrior wrote in the comments below:
All our coin efforts fail because we never do a soil compaction test (i.e., check for a stable, supported local government) before we attempt to build a structure (nation).
But oh, say the $200k a year contractors as they round up more goats or dig better privies, what we are doing must help a little. Yes, yes, it must, in the same way that jumping up brings you closer to the sun. True, but it does not matter. After eleven years of animal giveaways in Afghanistan, you’d think someone would be coming to that same conclusion.
Remember the Vietnam War? You know, the one from Rambo, the war that was supposed to stop Communism from rolling Asia like dominoes? Fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here? Kennedy? Johnson? Nixon? Bueller? The US fought in Vietnam in one form or another from the late 1950′s until we gave up in 1975 and lost. Helicopters on the roof of the Embassy, hippies taking over the country, some history stuff went down, babies.
Vietnam was America’s first modern counter-insurgency war. There are a lot of definitions of counter-insurgency (COIN), but it boils down to a war that can’t be won and isn’t fought in the traditional Red Guys clash with Blue Guys and the winner seizes territory way, like Private Ryan and Tom Hanks did in World War II. A COIN struggle is characterized primarily by a “hearts and minds” struggle, a multi-spectrum approach to winning the loyalty of the people by protecting them, helping them, establishing a local government, that kind of thing. The failure to do this in Iraq is the subject of my book, and the ongoing failure to do this in Afghanistan will be the subject of some other person’s book to come.
If you check Wikipedia or ask the Vietnam Vet next door, you’ll find out that we did not succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. If you want to read the best book written about how COIN and Vietnam, it is Street Without Joyby Bernard Fall.
One of the crucial elements of the failure to win the real war in Vietnam was the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program, run by the same State Department that flopped in Iraq. Formed in 1967, CORDS was headed by a State civilian, Ambassador Robert W. Komer. CORDS pulled together all the various U.S. military and civilian agencies involved in the hearts and minds effort, including State, USAID, USIA and the CIA (who tagged on the remnants of the Phoenix Program, just because). CORDS civilian/military advisory teams were dispatched throughout South Vietnam.
So how’d that CORDS thing work out for ya’all? It failed in conjunction with the whole war effort. We lost the war. Nothing four Presidents said about Vietnam was true and tens of thousands of people died for no purpose. We did not win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Looking Glass, according to the State Department’s slick self-congratulatory monthly magazine (thanks taxpayers!), CORDS “was a success” and in fact somehow contributed to the defeat of the Viet Cong in the Delta by 1972, where per the State Department, the wiley Commies couldn’t even muster a squad-sized action. It is true– read it all here in the State Magazine (p. 16) you’re paying for anyway.
The article is just spiffy, using words like “swashbuckling” non-ironically to describe State’s men in Vietnam, and claiming in 1967 State’s Vietnam Training Center was “the center of things” (1967 was the freaking “Summer of Love” so State thinking their Training Center was the center of anything is beyond nerd land.) We learn that many FS men “enjoyed their tours.” In fact, US military officers “watched in awe” as the first State Department troopers deplaned, just like in that movie Platoon no doubt.
Here’s a keen description of precisely how State won the Vietnam War (those in Afghanistan now, pay attention):
[We] would pick a house at random, politely ask if we could come in and chat, and enquire about the perspective of the resident on everything from the state of the rice crop to the price of cooking oil to the honesty of local officials.
Dammit! Why didn’t we know that before spending $44 billion and nine years trying to solve Iraq and win that war! All we had to do was “politely ask.”
OK, fun’s over. Here’s the problem. If State is still clinging to the bizarre idea that it succeeded in Vietnam, and propagandizing its own employees with the same, what hope is there that they will ever make any progress about the failures visited upon Iraq, and the failures now ongoing in Afghanistan?
Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it we’re told. But those who make up their own versions of history to fit present political needs are simply doomed in advance.
Since we said we’re sorry, this is OK, right?
The New York Times tells us the American military expressed regret for an airstrike that mistakenly killed six members of a family in southwestern Afghanistan, Afghan and American military officials confirmed Monday. The victims included the family’s mother and five of her children, three girls and two boys, according to Afghan officials. The American regional commander, Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus of the Marines apologized.
It really should not be necessary to go over this again, but apparently some of you did not do the reading. So, when you are engaged in a counter insurgency struggle (COIN), the goal is to win the support of the people, in large part by protecting them from the other side, the Taliban in this case. If in fact you end up killing the people, they will not turn against the Taliban and will instead see you– US– as the problem, not the solution.
Sure, in war, people make mistakes. That is true. It is also true that the side that keeps making the same mistakes over and over again loses.
For those Marines who slept through their counterinsurgency lessons, let’s try again. Using Nazi symbology is bad:
Peeing on Taliban, also bad.
It all reminds people of this:
Any questions, please see your chain of command for more information! Otherwise, continue to follow the plan of the day.
The world is awash in urine-soaked statements by various idiots defending the Marines who peed on the bodies of dead Taliban. The defense is either a) the Taliban deserved it because they are our enemies or b) well, the Taliban have done worse things to us.
The Taliban aren’t fighting a counterinsurgency war.
We are the invading foreigners trying to win the support of the people. Pissing on them is not a good way to do that.
This is part of the whole losing proposition of such war– we have to get it right (almost) all the time to have a shot at winning.
They can pee on us all that they want, because their task is to make us give up and go home.
A terrific new review, this time from the milblog Red Bull Rising, of the U.S. 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division:
Despite his not-so-diplomatic detractors, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” covers ground familiar to soldiers. It describes how nation-builders can fall into traps of their own making. How well-intended efforts can spiral into spending big money on crack-hits of short-term good feelings and publicity, without developing local and long-term ownership, consensus, or even understanding. As a bonus, the book also accurately captures Army life downrange: The boredom, the sex, the loneliness, the almost total lack of privacy. And how death makes appearances as unexpected as they are unwelcome.
In fact, one might argue that Van Buren has succeeded in writing a most accessible and plain-spoken book about America’s efforts in Afghanistan. It just happens to be about Iraq.
Bottom line up front: If you’ve ever served in or alongside a PRT in Iraq or Afghanistan, or wanted to know more about the “build” part of “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency (“COIN”) strategy, Van Buren’s your scribe. He’s something of a jester, too. Particularly in the Speaking Truth to Power Department.
Best line of all from the review: characterizing my book as a diplomatic “piss and tell.”
For those who have been in a coma or tied up Occupying somewhere, we have been defeating the Taliban for the past ten+ years in Afghanistan, and reconstructing that same place for pretty much the last ten+ years. But for reconstruction, it is perhaps best to think in dollar terms, not time: we have spent over $70 billion (borrowed) on rebuilding.
By most accounts, the reconstruction has not been successful, and lots of people are unsure why not.
Now we have an idea, from a new Congressional Research Service report released November 14. Here are a couple of the money quotes:
One USAID official estimated that on some projects, up to 30% of contracted project costs can be attributed to corruption. A number of government and industry officials stated that corruption is the ‘price of doing business’ in Afghanistan.
Corruption takes many forms, including government officials charging bribes for transporting goods across the border and extorting protection payments. Many analysts view large swaths of the judicial sector and the attorney general’s office as corrupt, as evidenced by the lack of prosecutions against high-ranking government officials or warlords accused of being involved in criminal activity or rampant corruption. In other instances, members of the Afghan security forces use their position to demand bribes and extort shipping companies at Afghan borders and airports.
The billions of contracting dollars spent to support military operations and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan raise a number of potential questions for Congress that may have significant policy implications for current and future overseas operations. These questions include to what extent U.S. government development and CERP contracts contributing to the overall mission in Afghanistan.
That last paragraph of course is a hoot; people, it has been over ten years of doing the same stuff in Afghanistan and only now are you asking if it supports the overall mission? Did someone just forget to think of that question earlier? Isn’t it sort of late in the “game” to wonder if our reconstruction efforts were supporting the overall mission?
Anyway, if you have the stomach for it, the whole report is online.
Along with the semi-regular threats (why are they ALWAYS IN ALL CAPS!?!?!??!), people do ask about the title of the book.
Here is what one faithful reader wrote as a comment in Salon:
We meant well?
Why not be honest and title it ” I’m a brick in the road to Hell”?
Everybody wants a pass on their part in the last decades madness. Fuck That. You willingly took part. The day of the sin eater is long past, nobody on this planet can absolve your sins.
Now go make few bucks in false piety.
We had a lot of discussion about the title, We Meant Well. The idea is that many reluctant participants in the war, like me, started off with good intentions. We never intended to be complicit in fraud, sign off on waste and encourage corruption, but that is what happened. We came to see that is what had to happen, given how messed up the entire effort was from the start. Let’s destroy a country and then rebuild it begs the question of why destroy it in the first place.
So, over the course of the war/book, what starts out as good intent– We Meant Well and we’ll try to fix things– ends up as irony– We Meant Well but we fucked up. Like living it, after reading the book I hope you will come to the conclusion that what was called reconstruction (or nation building, or promoting democracy, etc.) was doomed by the lack of thought and planning needed to backstop good intentions. These were peoples lives we were playing with, and people in need of water, medical care and basic services could not have their thirst slaked simply by good intentions.
It would have been an easier war to understand, and an easier book to write, if I had found our efforts populated by Americans out to steal money, or mean-spirited State Department people set on messing up Iraqi lives. But that wasn’t the case. What happened was a sad but intensely American thing, the destruction of a civil society simply through misguided good intentions we were too clueless to even see as we committed our sins.
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