• Abu Muqawama Explains the State Department, USAID to You

    August 1, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    Andrew Exum blogs as “Abu Muqawama” at World Politics Review.

    A recent column, State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors, explains the State Department to you. The bold emphasis below is added as Andrew is too polite to have done so himself.

    In the month since Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran published Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, his brutal review of the U.S. and allied war effort in Afghanistan, it has been interesting to observe the reactions from the various tribes of the Beltway.

    No one escapes criticism in Chandrasekaran’s narrative, this columnist included, but the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Marine Corps come under especially heavy fire.

    The reaction from the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. military as a whole has been to add the book and its criticisms to the list of lessons that need to be learned from the disastrous U.S. experience in Afghanistan.

    The State Department and USAID, by contrast, have reacted angrily to Chandrasekaran’s account, blaming the messenger rather than looking into what they might learn from the message.

    On the surface, these disparate reactions illustrate how the U.S. military has evolved into a learning organization since the end of the Vietnam War and how other U.S. departments and agencies have not. But these reactions reveal much more than that.

    First, yes, let us praise the fact that the U.S. military is more willing to learn from its experiences, and errors, than other departments and agencies. Both top-down efforts promoted by the U.S. military’s senior leadership and grass-roots efforts initiated by junior officers have combined over the past 40 years to make the military a better learning organization. The formalized After Action Review process, the Center for Army Lessons Learned and websites like CompanyCommand.com have allowed the military to gather and promulgate operational and tactical lessons.

    But it is easy to criticize yourself and thus learn lessons when you are a confident organization. Since at least the First Gulf War, American society has raised the U.S. military onto a pedestal, constantly praising the military, even when its performance has been, by objective standards, not terribly great. Is it any wonder U.S. military leaders feel they have room for introspection and self-criticism?

    The State Department rarely garners similar praise from the American people or its elected leaders. Republican congressmen on Capitol Hill talk a big game on national security and vow never to cut the military’s budget, while at the same time threatening to slash the International Affairs budget by 20 percent. U.S. military officers and troops are held up as the best of what America has to offer, while diplomats . . . well, few Americans are quite sure of what diplomats even do.

    That’s a pity because, despite bungling the admittedly challenging Afghanistan mission, the State Department has a pretty good story to tell about itself. One of the illicit delights of reading the WikiLeaks cables has been to discover what wonderful diplomats the United States has in its service. The reports written by U.S. ambassadors and their subordinates are knowledgeable, literate, pithy and often amusing. They confirm, in a larger sample size, my anecdotal experiences visiting embassies around the globe. I remember, for example, spending an afternoon with the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh in 2010 and being blown away by the competence and professionalism of the staff. Many foreign service officers were on their third tours in the country, and even the newest officer — charged with running the motor pool, of all things — spoke fluent classical Arabic as well as several dialects.

    Unfortunately, the State Department is not very good at telling its story to either the U.S. Congress or the American people. When people effectively stand up for the budget of the State Department and make the case for a larger International Affairs budget, it is too often either U.S. military officers or conservative, “pro-military” defense intellectuals. The State Department and its foreign service officers deserve some of the blame here. I recently finished John Lewis Gaddis’ biography of George F. Kennan, and Kennan’s life is a reminder that those Americans who are most knowledgeable about other cultures can often be the most contemptuous and ignorant of U.S. domestic political culture. Foreign service officers who do not hesitate to spend endless afternoons drinking chai with Central Asian warlords somehow can’t, by and large, stomach the occasional coffee with a junior congressman from Nebraska.

    The result is that the State Department as an organization constantly feels that it is under pressure and underappreciated by its appropriators. We should not wonder, then, why such an organization fails to be introspective or critical of itself. That shortchanges both America and the State Department, though, because as Chandrasekaran’s book details, much of the civilian effort promised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Afghanistan has been an embarrassment.

    I have thus far excluded USAID from criticism because, in the same way that the U.S. military does not have just one organizational culture but rather a collection of organizational cultures, USAID itself has at least three separate cultures. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) are very different organizations than the rest of USAID. On the whole, OTI has been up to the challenges in Afghanistan, whereas USAID in general has not. Again, the problems and the blame can be divided between appropriators and the agency itself. But as Andrew Wilder and other researchers have suggested, though much of the money spent in Afghanistan may have contributed to the amelioration of certain development indicators, it has also contributed to the destabilization of the country itself by, among other things, creating the mother of all rentier states.

    Social scientists have more trouble proving why things did not happen than why things did happen. A military can defend — or learn from — its performance during a war, but diplomats and aid workers can rarely demonstrate how their efforts toward conflict-prevention preclude a need for the military to get involved in the first place. And the efforts of diplomats and aid workers rarely benefit the economies of congressional districts in the same way military bases or the arms industry does.

    Nonetheless, if the State Department and USAID are ever going to have the confidence to be as self-critical as the U.S. military, they have to better sell their efforts to the American people and its representatives in Washington. Otherwise, to paraphrase Robert Komer, bureaucracy will “do its thing” in the next conflict as well.


    The State Department shooting the messenger, cited above in the case of Chandrasekaran’s book, is all too familiar to me, being thrown out of my job of some 24 years at the State Department for my own book critical of the Iraq reconstruction. A theme I return to again and again in that book, echoed on this blog and written of by Exum, is that the State Department is simply incapable of self-reflection and self-criticism.

    Exum is right in saying that the lack of introspection is due to a crisis in confidence. Lacking a clear mission in general as America militarizes its foreign policy, and lacking a seat at the grownups’ table in the first years of the Iraq fiasco in the particular, the State Department could not consider failure as an option. It wanted to prove itself worthy alongside the military. When its own fears and damning bureaucracy defeated State more soundly than al Qaeda ever could have hoped to do, State simply told itself (over and over, internally) that it succeeded in Iraq. Easy. Such internal self-inflation only works in the void of outside information (see North Korea) and bursts painfully when someone from the inside (like me, who saw it all happen) or outside (Chandrasekaran, a cool reporter not easily deflected) lays out the failure.

    Most people at State will never understand the choice of conscience over career, the root of most of State’s problems. There are higher goals than obedience.

    There is simply no other explanation. People in the State Department are smart, many are very smart. They know good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure. What happens institutionally is that they are taught to thrive organizationally they need to be on guard against public disclosure, Congressional oversight and journalistic insight. They are taught that what the Department tells them– they are performing superbly under difficult conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan– cannot be questioned openly except at risk of your job. Books like Chandrasekaran’s and mine, which create cognitive dissonance, are viruses that need to be expelled.

    Fearing the daylight, State seeks to shut the blinds. State, in my case, edited any commentary I wrote online out of its internal news summaries, still blocks contrarian sites such as TomDispatch.com on its internal intranet (because of “Wikileaks”), maintains far more restrictive social media policies than the military and inculcates into its new diplomats a fear of journalists and Congress. Both groups, the newcomers are told, seek to destroy the Department. It is closer to Scientology than diplomatic training, though the results are about the same.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    More State Department Fun in Afghanistan

    July 24, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    The Washington Post’s Al Kamen, reviewing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistanon the failure of reconstruction (and everything else) in Afghanistan, pulls out some State Department-specific highlights:

    Two-thirds of the supposed nation-building civilians are camped out in Kabul and not out in the field;

    Eleven Bolivian engineers were brought in to show how a U.S.-backed program there to build cobblestone roads could be repeated in Afghanistan. A short demonstration stretch was built. But the Afghans objected. They wanted gravel and asphalt. The cobblestones, they claimed, hurt their camels’ hooves.

    Huge amounts of money were dumped into one district to employ lots of day laborers at good wages. Then the schools “suddenly closed.” The “teachers had become day laborers because the pay was better.”

    There was the State Department official who had worked anti-narcotics in Bogota. He brought in two Colombian women for a 12-day visit to talk about their country’s reintegration of FARC rebels. “But they spoke no English,” Chandrasekaran writes, “and no Marine battalion wanted to host them.” So they were dispatched to meet with Afghan officials. A senior official listened to them talk through an interpreter for an hour. “’Our problems are very different,’ he said as he got up to leave. ’But I love to hear the sound of Spanish.’”

    Kamen writes that in predictable State Department style, these disclosures have sparked a scramble in the Kabul embassy compound to compile “success stories” to counter the book’s analysis.

    The same thing happened in Iraq. If you want to read now the old claims of success in Iraq, they are still, without apparent irony, online on the Baghdad Embassy web site.

    (Pictured is then-ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who oversaw the State Department reconstruction follies. Crocker had previously overseen State Department reconstruction in Iraq as ambassador there. He was also recycled to be ambassador in Pakistan, where things are also going swimmingly in anticipation of someone else’s disclosure book-to-come.)

    If the definition of mental illness is doing the same thing repeatedly hoping for different results, the Department of State is clearly and simply insane as an organization.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

    July 10, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,a new book about the war and reconstruction in Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, makes me sad.

    Sad because it chronicles the mistakes, now in Afghanistan, that crushed reconstruction in Iraq. Sad because it shows America’s worst enemy is itself, not the Taliban. Sad also because it shows the book I wrote about Iraq, and all the garbage that came long with it, including losing my career at State, didn’t matter. The same errors in Iraq are present in Afghanistan– hell, based on Little America, it even seems like many of the same people are present– and that assures that once again money and lives will be wasted and nothing good accomplished. Like Iraq, we will lose this war too.

    Though I have read only the brief excerpts online and have had a limited personal conversation with Chandrasekaran about his book, once you hear familiar sounds you come to recognize the place, and the author writes of an Afghan process all too similar. Again, here are the contractors only in it for the money (many it seems holdouts from the Iraq project who just packed up and shifted locales, dragging their irrelevancy along with them), the well-meaning development professionals smothered in bureaucracy and, omnipresent in its nanny state, my own State Department.

    For even in this brief excerpt State comes off more than poorly. We learn of security rules that essentially prohibit local contact on a meaningful basis, the heavy weight of State’s own incestuous need for emails, updates and talking points to justify bureaucratic “engagement” with the field and of course pompous and ignorant FSOs that allow neither characteristic to slow them down. Foreign Service personnel stumble through meetings with important Afghans and smash relations with the powerful US military by dumbass moves like refusing to share gate lock combinations.

    I saw all of this in Iraq, even wrote a book about it, in hopes that maybe a tiny, tiny breath of change might blow into the mission in Afghanistan. Based on Little America, I failed, and that makes me sad. It appears that the US will again fail in reconstruction, at the waste of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and that makes me even more sad. You probably should be sad, too.

    Neil Sheehan, who wrote one of the seminal texts of the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie, reviews Little America in the Washington Post, focusing on the inevitability of failure in Afghanistan due to the almost total corruption of the puppet Karzai government.

    Want more? Here’s a blurb from the Amazon review:

    From the award-winning author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a riveting, intimate account of America’s troubled war in Afghanistan.

    When President Barack Obama ordered the surge of troops and aid to Afghanistan, Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran followed. He found the effort sabotaged not only by Afghan and Pakistani malfeasance but by infighting and incompetence within the American government: a war cabinet arrested by vicious bickering among top national security aides; diplomats and aid workers who failed to deliver on their grand promises; generals who dispatched troops to the wrong places; and headstrong military leaders who sought a far more expansive campaign than the White House wanted. Through their bungling and quarreling, they wound up squandering the first year of the surge.

    Chandrasekaran explains how the United States has never understood Afghanistan—and probably never will. During the Cold War, American engineers undertook a massive development project across southern Afghanistan in an attempt to woo the country from Soviet influence. They built dams and irrigation canals, and they established a comfortable residential community known as Little America, with a Western-style school, a coed community pool, and a plush clubhouse—all of which embodied American and Afghan hopes for a bright future and a close relationship. But in the late 1970s—after growing Afghan resistance and a Communist coup—the Americans abandoned the region to warlords and poppy farmers.

    In one revelatory scene after another, Chandrasekaran follows American efforts to reclaim the very same territory from the Taliban. Along the way, we meet an Army general whose experience as the top military officer in charge of Iraq’s Green Zone couldn’t prepare him for the bureaucratic knots of Afghanistan, a Marine commander whose desire to charge into remote hamlets conflicted with civilian priorities, and a war-seasoned diplomat frustrated in his push for a scaled-down but long-term American commitment. Their struggles show how Obama’s hope of a good war, and the Pentagon’s desire for a resounding victory, shriveled on the arid plains of southern Afghanistan.

    Meticulously reported, hugely revealing, Little America is an unprecedented examination of a failing war—and an eye-opening look at the complex relationship between America and Afghanistan.

    Be sure to read the excerpt from Little America, now at Foreign Policy. I will do a full review once I finish the book and after dealing with the PTSD it will no doubt trigger in me.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq