• Apocalypses Now, Afghan Redux Edition

    February 17, 2023 // 4 Comments »

    It is altogether fitting and proper the final images for most Americans of their war in Afghanistan were chaotic airport scenes, all too familiar to many (Vietnam!) and all too alien to others (We lost? Nobody told me.) It is important two decades of smoldering ruin of American foreign policy — four presidents, six administrations, untold Afghan dead, 2,456 American dead, 20,752 American wounded, and some trillions of dollars spent, the money as uncountable as the Afghan dead and just as meaningless except as an aggregate. There will be deniers emerge in the decades to come, so a final set of pedestrian images of failure are necessary to rebuke them in advance. History has no intent on being being kind here, nor should it considering the scale and cope of the folly.

    The final judgement on paper at least rests with the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the body set up by Congress to monitor the progress over twenty-some years of the national building project America set out to do in 2001. SIGAR just wrote a report entitled Why the Afghan Government Collapsed summing up its work. Here’s the bottom line up front, as the military likes to say: the SIGAR report mentioned Iraq, where a similar nation building effort failing for similar reasons, only three times in 60 pages, one a footnote. Nobody learned any lessons there and it is doubtful as the Blob salivates over rebuilding Ukraine even as this is written that any lessons will be carried forward from Afghanistan. Vietnam begat Iraq which begat Afghanistan which will all be forgotten for the next one. Vietnam was mentioned in the report once only, “U.S. efforts to build and sustain Afghanistan’s governing institutions were a total, epic, predestined failure on par with the same efforts and outcome in the Vietnam war, and for the same reasons.” You’d think a statement like that might be worth a bit of expansion.

    SIGAR tells us the U.S. failed in Afghanistan in large part because “The Afghan government failed to recognize that the United States would actually leave.” There was thus never a push to solve problems or drive peace talks, simply a well-founded belief the American money which fueled abject corruption would continue indefinitely. Standing in the Tim Horton’s/Burger King at Bagram Air Base, thinking through lunch options before a trip to the air conditioned gym with its 75 treadmills in 2009, it all seemed a reasonable assumption. Left unspoken by SIGAR was that the Taliban saw just the opposite, that eventually, someday, maybe in a long time but not indefinitely, the Americans would have to leave. Same as the Alexander the Great, same as the British, same as the Soviets. That is one of the wonderful things about the SIGAR report, its historical portability. Change the dates and some adjacent facts and it reads well to describe the British ouster, or the Russian. The failure to win hearts and minds, the great costs to create the appearance of conquering great swathes of territory, the ability of the Afghan plains to absorb the blood of the conquerors, the endemic corruption of the puppet governments, it was all similar enough.

    SIGAR ignores much of what was happening in the field to focus on intra-USG/Afghan government problems, as one might comment effusively on a particularly pretty hat and fail to notice the woman wearing it was naked. Before the collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, the primary U.S. goal in Afghanistan we’re told was “to achieve a sustainable political settlement that would bring lasting peace and stability.” But the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Afghan government without first negotiating with the United States was an obstacle to that goal. A similar occurrence happened in 2018, when the United States began direct talks with the Taliban. The U.S. direct negotiations with the Taliban excluded the Afghan government, weakening the negotiating position of the Ghani government and strengthening the Taliban. As Hugo Llorens, former U.S. special chargé d’affaires for Afghanistan, summarized, “Just talking to the Taliban alone and excluding our allies proved the Taliban’s point: The Afghan government were our puppets, you didn’t need to talk to them. You only need to talk to the Americans.”

    SIGAR then notes with the obviousness of a car wreck “The U.S.-Taliban agreement appeared to have emboldened the Taliban. All the Taliban really did was agree not to attack U.S. forces on their way out.” As a result, the agreement likely led Taliban leaders to seek a resolution to its conflict with the Afghan government on the battlefield rather than through peace talks. If this wasn’t a family report, you’d expect a “no sh*t” to follow. All sides were befuddled.  Former Ambassador Michael McKinley told SIGAR that the Afghan president consistently suggested development goals that were “completely off the charts,” and that his apparent “separation from Afghan reality” was concerning. He was “living in fantasyland.”

    The key elements of the fantasy was the reconstruction effort, the idea that rebuilding Afghanistan via $141 billion in roads and schools and bridges and hardware stores would gut the Taliban’s own more brutal hearts and minds efforts. That was the same plan as in Iraq only minutes earlier, where between 2003 and 2014, more than $220 billion was spent on rebuilding the country (full disclosure: I was part of the Iraqi effort and wrote a book critical of the program, We Meant Well, for which was I was punished into involuntary retirement by the U.S. State Department.) Nonetheless, the Iraqi failure on full display, the United States believed that economic and social development programming would increase support for the Afghan government and reduce support for the Taliban insurgency (the log line for the war script.)

    However, SIGAR writes, “the theory that economic and social development programing could produce such outcomes had weak empirical foundations.” Former Ambassador McKinley noted, “It wasn’t that everyone, including conservative rural populations, didn’t appreciate services… But that didn’t seem to change their views.” As the Army War College told us, “This idea that if you build a road or a hospital or a school, people will then come on board and support the government — there’s no evidence of that occurring anywhere since 1945, in any internal conflict. It doesn’t work.” As Scott Guggenheim, former senior advisor to President Ghani, told SIGAR, “Building latrines does not make you love Ashraf Ghani.” But that was indeed the plan and it failed spectacularly, slow over twenty years then all at once.

    There is not justification to blame SIGAR for anything, though the temptation to mock their prose is great given the importance of the mess they sought to document. But no fair. The blame lies with six administrations’ worth of president’s and the men and women who created the Afghan policy. The great news is now, having laid this all out in black and white, we can set the SIGAR report on the shelf alongside a similar one for Iraq (where the watchdog was creatively called SIGIR, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction) knowing it will never, ever ever happen this way again, promise.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure (in the Middle East)

    November 16, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    Storms that knock out power for days, stripping away the veil that America’s infrastructure matches its first-world ambitions, are now common-place. Equally common, at least while there was an election on, were statements by candidates about “nation building at home” and “rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”

    Candidate Obama repeatedly assured Americans that it was time to reap a peace dividend as America’s wars wind down. Nation-building here at home should, he insisted, be put on the agenda: “What we can now do is free up some resources, to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges.”

    The news is that the spending process is already well underway, albeit by the Pentagon, in the Middle East. TomDispatch, in an excellent piece America Begins Nation-Building at Home (Provided Your Home is the Middle East) by Nick Turse, lays out the extent of taxpayer money being spent: The Pentagon awarded $667.2 million in contracts in 2012, and more than $1 billion during Barack Obama’s first term in office for construction projects in largely autocratic Middle Eastern nations, according to figures provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District (USACE-MED). More than $178 million in similar funding is already anticipated for 2013. These contracts represent a mix of projects, including expanding and upgrading military bases used by U.S. troops in the region, building facilities for indigenous security forces, and launching infrastructure projects meant to improve the lives of local populations.

    The figures are telling, but far from complete. They do not, for example, cover any of the billions spent on work at the more than 1,000 U.S. and coalition bases, outposts, and other facilities in Afghanistan or the thousands more manned by local forces. They also leave out construction projects undertaken in the region by other military services like the U.S. Air Force, as well as money spent at an unspecified number of bases in the Middle East that the Corps of Engineers “has no involvement with,” according to Joan Kibler, chief of the Middle East District’s public affairs office.

    But what is a picture if not worth a few million bucks? The photo above is of the $1 billion U.S. embassy in Baghdad, bad enough but at least still in partial use. Here’s a photo of just part of the U.S.-built facility at the Baghdad Airport. Everything you see was carted to Iraq with your tax dollars, put up and maintained with your tax dollars, and then simply abandoned along with your tax dollars when the Iraq War got boring for the U.S. Have a look:

    Read more at TomDispatch.com

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    From the PRT Diaspora: Nation-Building in One Sentence

    January 7, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    From a development professional looking at State’s work in the reconstruction of Iraq:

    To do it right takes some time and expertise. Blow in, blow off and blow out doesn’t work.

    That about sums it up.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    Why “We Meant Well”

    July 22, 2011 // Comments Off on Why “We Meant Well”

    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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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    “If there is any nation that needs nation-building right now, it is the United States.”

    June 9, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Senator Jim Webb of Virginia had me at “hello” when he faced down George Bush a few years ago. The Senator hit it square on the head again yesterday when speaking about the money pit we are feeding in Afghanistan. Webb said:

    “You can pretty well fight international terrorism without remaking an entire societal structure. The real question is: what is the ultimate objective with all of these ground forces and all of these infrastructure programs in terms of the long-term advantage?”

    “If there is any nation in the world that really needs nation-building right now, it is the United States. When we are putting hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure in another country, it should only be done if we can articulate a vital national interest because we quite frankly need to be doing a lot more of that here.”

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq