• Did You Know We Won in Afghanistan?

    April 14, 2014 // 10 Comments »

    You’ll be forgiven if you somehow had come to the conclusion that the U.S. has not won the 13 year war in Afghanistan.

    You might have been mislead by the constant “Blue on Green” attacks, where people in “Afghan Army Uniforms” kill their American comrades. Or that the Taliban still controls whole provinces. Or that drug exports are up since the war started. Or that Kabul is regularly attacked. Or that Afghanistan’s leaders, led by Hamid “Da’ Fresh Prince” Karzai have funneled billions of U.S. dollars into their own accounts in Dubai while flipping off ol’ Uncle Sam. Or whatever is on in Pakistan. Or that after 13 years, trillions of dollars and uncountable loss of life Afghanistan is pretty much still a dangerous, awful place unlikely to host a Spring Break parteeeee anytime prior to the Sun imploding into a black hole (namecheck: Neil Freakin’ Degrassee Tyson!)

    Why We Fight

    Anyway, forget all that because the ever-reliable Fiscal Times says we won. OK, that’s sorted. Here are some highlights from their recent victory lap article (emphasis and laugh-track added).

    First, some Fiscal Times background on the war. Forget 9/11, or bin Laden, or bases. The real reason we have been at war in Afghanistan is revealed to be:

    We are fighting an insurgency based in the Pashtuns, a majority ethnic group that has always ruled modern Afghanistan. If the Taliban regained enough support among that base, their overthrow of the Kabul would be very possible.

    Not sure how much of that insurgency was there before we arrived, or how much was born because we arrived, but at least it is not 9/11 again.

    Afghanistan Doesn’t Really Need a Strong Government

    But don’t worry, because we have an ace in the hole:

    The saving grace for us is that Afghanistan doesn’t have to have a strong central government.

    Good. Despite another recent round of “purple fingers” photos that mean Democracy! the State Department has been right all along. Their total failure to build a strong central government has been part of the plan. Crazy yes, but like a fox.

    The Afghan Local Police will Save the Day

    It gets better. Fiscal Times:

    There are recent reasons for optimism, however. One is the growth of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), which began in 2010 as a program that recruited rural Afghans to protect their own villages. The ALP has been so strategically successful that their authorization has expanded from 10,000 to 30,000 fighters (My Note: That authorization takes the form of the U.S. Congress agreeing to pay for more.) The most recent Pentagon report on the war said that the ALP was “one of the most resilient institutions in the ANSF,” or Afghan National Security Forces, with the ANSF’s highest casualty rate.

    I got nothing. If anyone believes a high casualty rate means winning, I can’t top that. Also, here’s a neat argument that the police are just another brand of lawless militia plaguing Afghanistan. Another on when the U.S. suspended training for the ALP because of too many insider attacks. Here’s one about how the ALP engages in human rights abuses such as “rape, arbitrary detentions, forcible land grabs, and other criminal acts” and how the ALP favors warlordism. Anyway, that’s all in the past now.

    Key to Victory: Use U.S. Money to Pay Off Warlords. Or Kill Them

    Moving on:

    The second necessity for victory is a responsible-looking central government with which foreign countries can interact. To be a sustainable recipient of Western aid, Afghanistan simply must have a more sympathetic government than Hamid Karzai or somewhat thuggish local power brokers. Only with a regular supply of Western aid will the Kabul government be able to bribe the regional powerbrokers to tilt towards it, and stay within our commandments. And if they don’t – if they really don’t, and flaunt it – then eventually they may have to die. An American high-end special operations capability in Afghanistan is critical not for Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorists, but also to drop the hammer if local warlords step too far out of line.

    Leaving aside the obvious contradiction that Afghanistan doesn’t need a strong central government and Afghanistan does need a strong central government only a few paragraphs apart, Fiscal Times does get a gold star for turning the use of U.S. money to bribe warlords into paid-for cooperation into a positive thing. In most instances paying protection money to thugs is sort a dead end street (they usually keep demanding more and more money.)

    The kill them all idea is just rich. Hasn’t that sort of been the failed policy for the past 13 years? What kind of unmedicated mind can even write that stuff? I’m sure our elite special forces community is also now proud of their role as Mafia enforcers.

    Time to Declare Victory and Leave

    It is time. Thirteen years of a war that no one can even agree anymore what it is about is enough. If it helps you sleep better, sure, we won. Is that enough? Can we just stick a U.S.-funded knife into this and slink away? Syria is calling.



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    Happy Valentine’s Day: U.S. (Hearts) Karzai

    February 14, 2014 // 25 Comments »

    In an article headlined The U.S. Has Finally Outfoxed Hamid Karzai, the occasionally-respected Fiscal Times explains how for months Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States, causing mounting frustration within the White House and the Pentagon. Now, according to the Times, “it appears as if President Obama and his advisers have finally outfoxed Karzai, marking the end of a long and tumultuous relationship.” The Times:

    The White House and DOD have decided not to make any agreement until after April’s presidential elections in which Karzai is not expected to be a candidate. They’ll only make a deal with Karzai’s successor.


    “If he’s not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him,” a senior U.S. official said of the elected leader. “It’s a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the (deal) and that he doesn’t represent the voice of the Afghan people.”

    By way of perspective, the U.S. has previously outfoxed Karzai by handing him fantastic amounts of unmarked cash and creating a massive, corrupt system in Afghanistan that bleeds the U.S. taxpayer while feeding even more money to Karzai and his family.


    (None of the above is satire. It is true. Here’s the satire part.)

    Karzai, however, is a sly old fox himself and is thus not easily outfoxed. Unbeknownst to U.S. authorities as the NSA was preoccupied with Beyonce’s selfies folder, Karzai has moved to Washington DC. While the Old Grey Fox first was just using the money he stole from the U.S. to buy up real estate (“giving back”), these days Karzai is shipping hundreds of his relatives, friends and his favorite hired gunmen into the DC suburbs.

    “It’s freaking dangerous in Afghanistan, and you crazy Americans want to keep the war going forever,” Karzai exclusively told this blog, “I’ve got ‘graveyard of empires’ printed right on my wallet so its not like the Ambassador doesn’t see it every time we meet, but that dude is crazy. ‘We don’t want another Vietnam, er, Iraq,’ he says. I guess his solution is that as long as the U.S. keeps killing Afghans they can say it’s not over and they haven’t lost. So anyway, who wants to be a part of all that? I’ll just pack up in April and let the next jerk to do this job sort it out. I still can’t figure out why the Taliban want this dump anyway.”

    “Despite all that, I still like the Ambassador personally. Funny guy. He once gave me a stack of Benjamins just to “like” the embassy Facebook page. Sometimes when the Ambo and I are just kicking back with a few 40’s he talks about the U.S. not wanting to lose the gains they’ve made over the last decade in this rat hole. I always end up with beer spraying out my nose when he says that. I mean, look out the window– that goat cost you Americans 75 billion dollars.”

    Karzai did get reflective at the end of the interview, remembering his first cash bribe from a then-junior CIA officer. “That guy is now running their whole op here,” said the president. “Twelve years goes by. They just grow up so fast.”

    “Anyway, I’m out of here. Somebody tell the U.S. Army ‘last man to die for a bad idea, turn off the light when you leave.’ That’s the expression you guys use in English, yes?” By the way, what do you think about BitCoin as an investment? I’m fat with cash right now and how many Rolexes do you really need?”



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    Review: Coyne’s “Doing Bad by Doing Good, Why Humanitarian Action Fails”

    December 14, 2013 // 12 Comments »

    (This review first appeared on the Huffington Post)

    If Christopher Coyne’s new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Failsneeded a subtitle, I’d be willing to offer up “We Meant Well, Too.”

    Coyne’s book puts into formal terms what I wrote about more snarkily in my own book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People: large-scale attempts at reconstruction, long-term humanitarian aid, nation building, counterinsurgency or whatever buzz word is in favor (I’ll use them interchangeably in this review), not only are destined to fail, they often create more suffering through unintended consequences and corruption than would have occurred simply by leaving the problem alone. Coyne makes it clear that continued U.S. efforts at nation building in Afghanistan (Haiti, Libya, Syria…) will not accomplish America’s national goals and will actually make the lives of the locals worse in the process. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond.

    The Man

    Coyne’s book is a careful, detailed, academic answer to the real-world question surrounding U.S. reconstruction efforts: How is it possible that well-funded, expertly staffed and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned humanitarian actions fail, often serially, as in Afghanistan?

    Central to Coyne’s explanation of why such efforts fail so spectacularly (and they do; I saw it first hand in Iraq, and Coyne provides numerous examples from Kosovo to Katrina) centers on the problem of “the man of the humanitarian system.” An economist, Coyne riffs off of Adam Smith’s “man of the system,” the bureaucrat who thinks he can coordinate a complex economy. In humanitarian terms, The Man thinks he can influence events from above, ignorant (or just not caring) about the complex social and small-scale political factors at work below. Having no idea of what is really going on, while at the same time imaging he has complete power to influence events by applying humanitarian cash, The Man can’t help but fail. There is thus no way large-scale humanitarian projects can large-scale change a society. The connection between Coyne’s theoretical and the reality of the U.S. State Department staff sequestered in Iraq’s Green Zone or holed up on military bases in Afghanistan, hoping to create Jeffersonian democracies outside the wire, is wickedly, sadly perfect.

    The Man takes additional body blows in Coyne’s book. One of the most significant is in how internal political rewards drive spending decisions, not on-the-ground needs. A bureaucrat, removed from the standard profit-loss equation that governs businesses, allocates aid in ways that make Himself look good, in ways that please his boss and in ways that produce what look like short-term gains, neat photo-ops and the like. The Man is not incentivized by a Washington tied to a 24 hour news cycle to take the long, slow view that real development requires. The institutions The Man serves (State, Defense, USAID) are also slow to decide, very slow to change, nearly immune from boots-on-the-ground feedback and notoriously bad at information sharing both internally and with each other. They rarely seek local input. Failure is inevitable.


    Subtractive Harm

    With the fundamental base of ignorance and arrogance laid to explain failure, Coyne moves on to address how harm is done. One begins with subtractive harm, how most aid money is siphoned off into the pockets of the contractors and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), plus bureaucratic and security overheard, such that very little reaches the country in need. For example, of the nearly two billion dollars disbursed by the U.S. Government to Haiti, less than two percent went to Haitian businesses. In Iraq, I watched as USAID hired an American NGO based in Jordan specifically to receive such money, who then hired an Iraqi subcontractor owned by a Dubai-consortium, to get a local Iraqi to dig a simple well. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of the money “spent” actually went toward digging the well; the rest disappeared like water into the desert sand.

    Some more bad news: in today’s development world, The Man monopolizes the show. Humanitarian aid and reconstruction have been militarized, primarily by the U.S., as a tool of war; indeed, the U.S. Army in Iraq constantly referred to money as a “weapons system,” and planning sessions for aid allotments were called non-lethal targeting. They followed the same rubric as artillery missions or special forces raids in laying out goals, resources, intel and desired outcomes. USAID, State and other parts of the U.S. Government exert significant control over more indigenous NGOs simply by flinging money around; do your own thing under the radar with little money, or buy-in to the U.S. corporate vision of humanitarian aid. Many chances at smaller, more nimble and responsive organizations doing good are thus negated.


    Real Harm

    In addition to such subtractive harm, the flow of aid money into often poor and disorganized countries breeds corruption. Coyne reckons some 97 percent of the Afghan GNP is made up of foreign spending, with healthy chunks skimmed off by corrupt politicians. I saw the same in Iraq, as the U.S.’ need for friendly partners and compliant politicians added massive overhead (corruption, price inflation) to our efforts. A thousand Tony Sopranos emerged alongside our efforts, demanding protection money so that supply trucks weren’t ambushed and requiring the U.S. to use “their” local contractors to ensure no accidents would cripple a project. In Afghanistan, such corruption is casually documented at the highest levels of government, where even President Karzai boasts of receiving shopping bags of cash from the CIA each month.

    (One Afghan, perhaps humorously, commented online “I would like the CIA. to know they can start delivering money to the carpet shop my family owns any day this week. But, please, no plastic bags. Kabul is choked with them. The goats eat as many as they can, but still the Kabul River is filled with them, waiting to be washed down to Pakistan, where they have enough problems of their own.”)

    And of course those nasty unexpected consequences. The effect of billions of dollars in “helpful” foreign money accompanied by thousands of helpful foreign experts also dooms efforts. If the U.S. is willing to pay for trash pickup (as in Iraq, for example) or build schools and roads, why should the local government spend its time and money on the tasks? The problem of course is that when foreign money drifts away on the newest political breeze, there are no local systems in place to pick up the work. The same problem occurs on a macro scale. Huge piles of free money air-dropping in-country create their own form of shadow economy, one far-removed from both local entrepreneurship and market forces. Again, when the free money stops, there is no viable market economy in place to take up the slack. Chaos at worst, corruption and haphazard progress at best, are inevitable.

    Not-such-a bonus: Foreign workers, Coyne documents, often act with impunity, if not formal immunity, from local laws. From UN workers fueling the child sex trade in Africa, to State Department hired Blackwater mercenaries gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, harm is often done under the guise of good.



    The End?

    Coyne tries hard to come up with some sort of solution to all this. Though he bypasses the question of whether countries like the U.S. should make reconstruction and large-scale aid national policy, he accepts that they will. What to do? Coyne posits that the only chance for success is economic freedom. Encouraging discovery via entrepreneurship and access to the free market while rolling back the state in humanitarian interventions will allow the space for genuine economic and societal progress. Coyne concludes this process is messy and will often appear misguided to outsiders, but that it is the only way to achieve society-wide development.

    And good luck to those who try and press such change on the U.S. efforts. In the end, Coyne’s book is extremely valuable as a way of understanding why current efforts have failed, and why future ones likely will fail, rather than as a prescription for fixing things. That’s a bit of an unfair criticism; changing U.S. policy on such a fundamental level is no simple task and Coyne, to his credit, gives it a try. I may have meant well personally, but failed in my own efforts at reconstruction and then writing about it to do much more than lay out the details. Coyne deserves much credit for formalizing what many of us experienced, and for at least laying out the theoretical construct of a more successful approach.

    Author’s site: http://www.ccoyne.com/





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    Killing Children is Essential

    June 1, 2011 // Comments Off on Killing Children is Essential

    Secretary of State Clinton rightly reacted with horror at the murder of a 13 year old boy at the hands of Syrian government forces, his wounds displayed in a shocking video. The boy, identified as Hamza al-Khateeb, was shot, burned, and had his penis cut off when his body was returned to his family.




    Please note that there is no connection between the horrific death of this boy and the following accidents:

    Afghan children killed in NATO bombing‎

    Airstrike Kills 12 Afghan Children‎

    NATO apologizes for Afghan airstrike that it says killed Nine

    Gen. David Petraeus apologizes for deaths of Afghan children

    Afghan children killed in US-led strike

    …As many more as you’d like to read about…


    According to the Huffington Post:

    Angered by civilian casualties, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday he will no longer allow NATO airstrikes on houses, issuing his strongest statement yet against attacks that the military alliance says are vital to its war on Taliban insurgents.

    NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu insisted NATO airstrikes are still essential and will continue.




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