Tag: afghan government

Senate Report Slams Nation-Building Efforts in Afghanistan

As confirmed by yet another U.S. government report, this one prepared by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan has had little success in creating an economically viable and politically independent Afghan state.

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung writes:

The report also warns that the Afghan economy could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. [Emphasis added]

U.S. leaders could look at that statistic and justify prolonging the mission. In fact, the report suggests, “Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now.” Ironically, “proper planning” is the problem. The belief that outside planning can promote stability and growth has the potential to leave behind exactly the opposite.

While no one would deny that Afghanistan looks a lot better than it did in 2001, there’s a reason why American leaders might be sorely disappointed with the outcome when the coalition begins handing off responsibility to Afghans. As the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan warned last week in a separate report, “the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Without adequate planning to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance, U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in both countries will likely fall into disrepair.

The core problem is that top-down development strategies often deepen, rather than strengthen, a foreign country’s dependence on the international donor community. My colleague, development expert Ian Vasquez, once wrote, “Providing development assistance to such countries may improve the apparent performance of foreign aid, but it may also help to create dependence and delay further reform, problems that have long plagued official development assistance.” [Emphasis added]

Indeed, complaints about America’s presence in Afghanistan typically focus on troop levels; rarely discussed is the way in which foreign-led development schemes can deprive locals of the experience of planning projects, managing funds, and procuring goods: what they call in the industry, “building local capacity.” As my friend Joe Storm and I wrote a while back, “US-government contractors are mired in mismanagement and failure, perpetuating dependence at best. Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admits, “Donor practices of hiring Afghans at inflated salaries have drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan Government and created a culture of aid dependency.”

Dependence, of course, is only one of many problems. According to the report:

Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.

Because development is plagued with inadequate oversight, many development contracts are dispersed independently of the quality of services provided. During a trip to Afghanistan some time ago, I heard story after story about development projects being abandoned before completion, American-built schools without teachers to staff them, and billions of dollars charged to American taxpayers for unfinished work that leave Afghans disillusioned. Naturally, turning our mission in Afghanistan into one of limitless scope and open-ended duration perpetuates this massive fraud and waste.

So, who’s at fault? Ourselves. Recall the December 5, 2001 Bonn Agreement, which proclaimed the international community’s determination to “end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country.” We’ve set the bar so incredibly high for a country that lacks the fundamental criteria intrinsic to the Westphalia model: (a) a legitimate host nation government (b) that possesses secure and internationally recognized borders, and (c) wields a monopoly on the use of force. None of these criteria exist. So far, we are 0-3: 0 wins, 3 losses.

With this latest report from members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are reminded yet again not only of the importance of scaling down lofty expectations, but also recognizing the unintended consequences produced by the noblest of aims. Sadly, given the corruption and dependency we’ll leave in our wake, without an introspective self-critique of our policies, America could turn Afghanistan into Central Asia’s Haiti.

Are Our Goals in Afghanistan ‘Fairly Modest’?

In an interview that aired yesterday on CBS’s Early Show, President Obama said his objective for Afghanistan is “fairly modest.”

On its face, the mission seems modest enough: “don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region; don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the US homeland with impunity.” In reality, such a policy is not modest in the least. A commitment to never allow terrorists to resurface not only serves as a convenient rationale to prolong the mission but also as an open-ended justification to intervene anywhere in the world without hesitation.

Moreover, the president claims that strengthening the capacity of a sovereign Afghan government will enhance America’s security, but the basis of this correlation is never explicitly clarified. It’s also unclear how promoting “a more capable, accountable and effective” Afghan government; cracking down on the cultivation of illegal narcotics; providing economic assistance to a Pakistani government that supports the very insurgents our soldiers are fighting; and enforcing Western rule of law is “fairly modest.” To imagine that we can create a functioning economy and bring major improvements to state institutions through some “government in a box,” social-engineering laboratory underscores the ignorance and arrogance of our government planners.

If indeed our goal is to monitor terrorists and prevent the creation of big training camps, rather than propping up a failed state, U.S. leaders should scale-down to a narrower counterterrorism mission that can assemble quickly and strike effectively and cheaply at “real” enemies.

Lately, it has become popular to endorse peace talks with the Taliban. After nearly a decade at war, any face-saving way out sounds intuitively appealing. But this policy prescription is not the panacea that it is made out be. Indeed, such a power-sharing deal may open a Pandora’s box.

For the U.S. and NATO, the red line to their nation-building endeavor is the Afghan constitution. Not only is this document the foundation of Afghanistan’s democratic political institutions (wobbly and imperfect as they may be), but it also enshrines the legal and political rights of the Afghan people we ostensibly seek to protect. For the U.S. and NATO to scale down its presence in Afghanistan–and because there is no assurance that the Taliban will adhere to these new political and social conditions–peace talks implicitly demand a third-party with the wherewithal to enforce the terms of any power-sharing agreement. Enter: a prolonged U.S.-NATO occupation of Afghanistan.

Unless the Taliban acquiesce to the norms introduced since the 2001 invasion, there is little to stop them from committing actions in flagrant violation of any shared agreement. In this respect, peace talks with the senior Taliban leadership must commit the residual presence of U.S. troops long after our official date of withdrawal.

In short, no agreement, law, treaty, or contract is self-reinforcing. And unless the United States is prepared to enforce the conditions of a power-sharing agreement, it should  renounce its commitment to spread the legal rights articulated in the Afghan constitution.

Comparing Vietnam and Afghanistan

Reports have leaked out over the past week that President Obama will announce that he is sending additional troops into Afghanistan. The only question seems to be whether he will send 30,000, 40,000 or some number in between. That is, frankly, not a very important issue.

And for all of his talk about “off ramps” for the United States if the Afghan government does not meet certain policy targets or “benchmarks,” the reality is that he is escalating our commitment. Since Obama has repeatedly asserted that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity, not a war of choice, his talk of off ramps is largely a bluff—and the Afghans probably know it.

There are obvious hazards in equating one historical event with a development in a different setting and time period, but there are a couple of very disturbing similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. In both cases, U.S. leaders opted to try to rescue a failing war by sending in more troops. And in both cases, Washington found itself desperately searching for a “credible” leader who could serve as an effective partner in the war effort.

The United States never found such a leader in Vietnam, and was frustrated by a parade of repressive, corrupt, and ineffectual political figures. That experience sounds more than a little like the problem the Bush and Obama administrations have encountered with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government. That fact alone suggests that our Afghanistan mission is not likely to turn out well.

1,000 Troops = $1 Billion/Year

There is a useful math lesson buried near the end of Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung’s widely discussed story on an Afghan war game that the Obama administration is using to weigh the costs and risks of competing strategies.

One question being debated is whether more U.S. troops would improve the performance of the Afghan government by providing an important check on corruption and the drug trade, or would they stunt the growth of the Afghan government as U.S. troops and civilians take on more tasks that Afghans might better perform themselves. Another factor is cost. The Pentagon has budgeted about $65 billion to maintain a force of about 68,000 troops, meaning that each additional 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan would cost about $1 billion a year.

I haven’t seen this figure before, and it is based upon a back-of-the-envelope calculation that might be undone by economies of scale. It is not obvious, for example, that the first 1,000 troops would cost the same as the last 1,000. Still, it is a reasonable estimate that is apparently being used inside of the Obama administration.

Accepting the number as basically accurate, the question then turns to “Is it worth it?” That can only be answered by weighing the opportunity costs.

If the Obama administration goes along with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops, and therefore chooses to spend additional money on this mission, the administration is saying, in effect, that an expanded troop presence will do more to prevent a repeat of 9/11 than if the money had been spent on countless other missions and programs ostensibly directed to the same purpose.

Count me a skeptic. There is considerable evidence that a large-scale and open-ended troop presence is counterproductive to fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, there have been a number of highly effective counterterrorism programs that cost far, far less than even $1 billion a year. The proponents of a huge troop increase in Afghanistan obviously disagree, and thus implicitly claim that $40 billion is money well spent (for reference, the entire Dept. of Homeland Security budget for FY 2010 will total $42.8 billion).

Let the advocates for a larger troop presence attempt to make that case. At least now we have a tangible measure for weighing competing options. Thanks to Jaffe and DeYoung for shedding some light on a previously under-reported statistic.