Tag: nation building

Learning to Leave Bad Enough Alone: Washington’s Clumsy Meddling in Fragile Countries

U.S. officials too often succumb to the temptation to try to impose order and justice in unstable or misgoverned societies around the world. The temptation is understandable. It is hard to learn about—much less watch on the nightly news—brutality, bloodshed, and gross injustice and not want to do something about it. Some foreign policy intellectuals, including the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have become strident lobbyists for the notion of a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations.

But it is a temptation that wise policy makers should avoid. U.S. meddling has frequently caused already bad situations to deteriorate further—especially when Washington has based its humanitarian interventions on the false premise that the subject of our attentions is, or at least ought to be, a coherent nation state. As I point out in an article over at The National Interest, U.S. administrations have made that blunder in Bosnia, Iraq, Libya, and other places.

In many parts of the world, the Western concept of a nation state is quite weak, and the concepts of democracy and individual rights are even less developed. The primary loyalty of an inhabitant is likely to be to a clan, tribe, ethnic group or religion. U.S. officials appear to have difficulty grasping that point, and as a result, the United States barges into fragile societies, disrupting what modest order may exist. Washington’s military interventions flail about, shattering delicate political and social connections and disrupting domestic balances of power.

An especially naive and pernicious U.S. habit has been to try to midwife a strong national government in client states when the real power and cohesion lies at the local or subregional level. Thus, Washington still insists on keeping the chronically dysfunctional pretend country of Bosnia intact and on international life support more than 17 years after imposing the Dayton peace accords that ended the fighting there. Similarly, the United States harbored the illusion that Hamid Karzai could run a strong, pro-Western, democratic Afghan central government from Kabul, and even Karzai’s ineptitude and extensive misdeeds have not entirely dispelled that notion. In both cases, the national cohesion, underlying democratic values, and strong civil societies needed for such a scheme to work are woefully lacking.

One would hope that U.S. officials would be sobered by those bruising experiences, but there is little evidence of that. Even now, the Obama administration continues to flirt with intervening in Syria. That would be a huge mistake. Syria’s ethno-religious divisions make those of Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya look mild by comparison. Bashar al-Assad is undoubtedly a thuggish ruler, and the humanitarian situation in Syria is tragic. But a U.S.-led intervention could cause Syria’s fragile political and ethnic tapestry to unravel entirely, and that might make the current situation far worse. The Obama administration needs to exercise great care and restraint.

Karzai’s Latest Outrageous Comment

Yesterday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai alleged that the United States and the Taliban are “working in concert to convince Afghans that violence will worsen if most foreign troops leave.” His accusation exposes a strange irony. Karzai not only supports U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, but also disparages that presence to evade his own failings. 

Since 2001, senior U.S. officials have tethered our military might to the sick man of Central Asia. In 2004, President George W. Bush pledged America’s “ironclad commitment” to help Karzai’s country succeed. In 2010, President Obama made clear that the U.S. role in Afghanistan “is a long-term partnership.” 

President Karzai codified those pledges last May by concluding the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America. Despite his history of hindering U.S.-backed anti-corruption investigations, denouncing the international community, and claiming the U.S. ferried Taliban to the north in order to spread violence, he eagerly signed an Agreement that commits the U.S. government to Afghanistan’s future. It provided for the possibility of a U.S. troop presence until 2024, and a long-term framework for training Afghan security forces and targeting al Qaeda. 

Washington’s devotion to nation building still holds fast despite Karzai’s inability to fulfill its lofty expectations. As former U.S. ambassador to Kabul Karl W. Eikenberry bluntly warned his superiors in November 2009, Karzai “is not an adequate strategic partner.” 

Certainly, the United States is not blameless for Afghanistan’s downward spiral—it took responsibility back in 2001 to rebuild the war-ravaged country and then shifted its attention and resources in 2003 to invade and occupy Iraq. Yet, the endemically corrupt Karzai regime and its band of thugs and cronies are also culpable. 

Ample reporting on Afghan corruption need not be repeated here. More to the point, Karzai fails to appreciate the way in which his poor governance vindicates insurgent propaganda and drives many Afghans to fight. A widespread perception of the central government’s massive corruption delegitimizes the state and inspires the sense of injustice that makes the Taliban appear as an effective alternative. Apart from Karzai himself, Afghan police are notorious for perpetrating crimes they are supposed to be stopping, such as corruption, theft, kidnapping, murder, and child abuse. Meanwhile, the Afghan army, long hailed as the mission’s shining success story, is rife with factionalism and patronage networks that could splinter the institution along political and ethnic lines. Foreign policy planners in Washington overlooked the second- and third-order consequences of their attempts to build a strong central government that wields a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. 

As the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admitted two years ago, “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.” (Emphasis mine.] 

Perversely, the corruption of the Afghan central government and the failures of the foreign-led nation-building project feed off one another in disturbing symbiosis. The Washington Post hasreported that foreign military and development spending provide roughly 97 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, fomenting fears that withdrawal will push the Afghan economy into depression. The alternative to popping that foreign aid bubble, some argue, would be to commit several hundred thousand troops and decades of attention, resources, and patience to transform Afghanistan’s deeply divided society into a stable, non-corrupt, electoral democracy. Of course, such success would hardly be guaranteed and assumes we possess the local knowledge as well as the cultural and religious legitimacy to operate indefinitely in a country notoriously suspicious of outsiders and largely devoid of central authority. 

Over twelve years of nation-building has had little success in creating an economically viable Afghan state, much less a self-sustaining Afghan security force. Indeed, nation building has propped up an erratic and unreliable regime whose behavior feeds the insurgency’s momentum. 

Policymakers must reject the flawed premise on which their policies rest. They must overcome their tendency to overestimate the strategic importance of a small, underdeveloped country to the narrower and more achievable goals of disrupting terrorist networks and preserving U.S. national security.

Fred Kaplan on David Petraeus and Counterinsurgency

I have a new blog post up at US News and World Report discussing Fred Kaplan’s latest book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, a terrific book about a very important subject. 

I’m thrilled to be hosting Fred at Cato in a few weeks. I’ve been a Kaplan fan for nearly two decades, since I first read his classic, The Wizards of Armageddon. I also thoroughly enjoyed Daydream Believers, about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. It is an honor to be able to personally welcome him to Cato.

I’m particularly interested in the subject of his latest book: counterinsurgency (COIN). The discussion at Cato, which will also feature comments by Janine Davidson and Spencer Ackerman, hearkens back to several others that I’ve hosted or participated in. 

One in particular sticks out. Back in 2006, Cato published a paper on the American way of war by Jeffrey Record of the Air War College. I thought the paper was outstanding at the time, and, upon rereading it this week, I was struck by how much of what Jeff observed overlaps with a discussion about COIN that Petraeus hosted at Fort Leavenworth in February 2006 (the focus of my blog post at US News). He couldn’t know this at the time he was writing, of course, but it just so happens that many of Jeff’s questions and concerns about COIN were shared by many others within the national security establishment, including those who Gen. Petraeus invited to vet the COIN manual. (Those interested in the subject might also want to watch or listen to the event that we hosted with Jeff, Tom Ricks, and Conrad Crane, one of the principle authors of the COIN manual, FM 3-24.) 

Here are a few excerpts from the paper: 

Barring profound change in America’s political and military cultures, the United States runs a significant risk of failure in entering small wars of choice, and great power intervention in small wars is almost always a matter of choice. Most such wars…do not engage core U.S. security interests other than placing the limits of American military power on embarrassing display. Indeed, the very act of intervention in small wars risks gratuitous damage to America’s military reputation…. 

If this analysis is correct, the policy choice is obvious: avoidance of direct military involvement in foreign internal wars unless vital national security interests are at stake…. 

Avoidance of such conflicts means abandonment of regime-change wars that saddle the United States with responsibility for establishing political stability and state building, tasks that have rarely commanded public or congressional enthusiasm. 

Other elements of the discussion re: COIN were echoed in a paper that I coauthored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky in 2008: 

The problem with counterinsurgency warfare is not that its theory of victory is illogical. If you understand the culture, if you avoid counterproductive violence, if you integrate civilians and make reconstruction operations a reward for cooperation, if you train the local forces well, if you pick your allies wisely, if you protect enough civilians and win their loyalty and more, you might succeed. But even avoiding a few of these ifs is too much competence to expect of foreign powers. That is why insurgencies in the last century generally lasted for decades and why the track record of democratic powers pacifying uprisings in foreign lands is abysmal…. 

Another reason Americans will struggle to master counterinsurgency doctrine is that it requires a foreign policy at odds with our national character… 

Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense. 

In The Insurgents, Fred Kaplan, summarizing a set of questions and comments from those who reviewed the COIN manual before it was published, asks “whether counterinsurgency was even possible? The question,” Kaplan writes, “had two parts. Was the U.S. Army up to the task? And, at least as uncertain, were the American people?” 

I think we know the answer now, and we could have known it in 2006, before the Iraq surge, or in 2008, well before the Afghan surge. Instead, we chose to believe the opposite of what history and logic taught us. 

What do we have to show for it?

Karzai’s Decree: Get Out!

Just yesterday, after accusing unnamed “armed individuals” of harassing, torturing, and murdering innocent villagers, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai ordered all U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak province, a defensive buffer against insurgents southwest of the capital. Reports on Karzai’s decision have focused on the implications of America’s withdrawal from the “strategically important” province. But U.S. policymakers should leverage the opportunity by rescinding their open-ended commitment to the country and transferring responsibility to the Afghans. 

To be sure, U.S. and coalition forces will face challenges as U.S. combat troops scale back to advisory roles and U.S. Special Forces assert ever greater authority. But as someone close to Karzai commented sourly, Afghan officials are tired of Americans “running roughshod all around our country.” 

For years, there have been reports that CIA-trained Afghan militias operating beyond the control of the Karzai administration have conducted so-called night raids and captured and killed a number of alleged Taliban commanders—“alleged” because information about those operations remains classified. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, Taliban-perpetrated violence in and around the province continues. 

Amid increasing Afghan public anger over foreign misconduct and civilian casualties, the mere suspicion that American commandos condoned such lawless activities (an allegation U.S. officials deny) proved enough to encourage Karzai to expel from Wardak the very foreigners he relies on for his country’s security. As Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said of Karzai’s decision, “local people are blaming the U.S. Special Forces for every incident that is taking place there.” 

That blame-shifting, however warranted, is particularly troublesome, given the reckless behavior of Afghan security forces under U.S. training. BBC reporter Ben Anderson recently documented that Afghan police are also rife with criminality, and show little compunction about firing at enemies when civilians are in the line of fire. Upending the fundamental premise of Washington’s “hearts and minds” strategy, one deputy police commander told Anderson he saw no difference between civilians and the Taliban. 

For these and other reasons far too numerous to mention here, the Afghan government, its police, and armed forces must take full responsibility for the security of their country. Rather than respond with indignation, Washington should take Kabul’s ruling as a blessing. 

Update: A previous version of this post did not include a source for the following passage: “But as someone close to Karzai commented sourly, Afghan officials are tired of Americans ‘running roughshod all around our country.’” The source is the New York Times and the link has been inserted above. 

Obama Floats a Zero Option in Afghanistan

As President Hamid Karzai visits Washington this week, a flood of recent news reports suggest that the White House is considering a zero option that would leave no U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Such news is bittersweet.

It appears that top officials have come to realize that America can protect its vital interests without an indefinite residual troop presence. That said, these officials implicitly acknowledge that conflating the fight against terror groups with the creation of viable central governments has failed. America can and should destroy, incapacitate, and punish those that do it harm; but the American military and civilian establishments have had repeated difficulty repairing failed states emerging from civil conflict.

After 10 years and counting, the fragile Afghan government still lacks a central pillar of nation-state sovereignty: monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Reports suggest that outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta favors leaving 9,000 U.S. troops behind to combat militants and to train the 350,000-large Afghan Army and police. But according to Washington’s own metric, indigenous security forces, which the U.S. has spent $39 billion to train and equip, have to be effective enough to operate independent of foreign assistance. But reports have found that some coalition forces largely see the Afghan National Army (ANA) as unmotivated, highly dependent, and making little to no progress.

Leaving trainers also assumes that Afghan government forces are effective in gaining the Afghan population’s support. But a Pentagon report from last year found little evidence of that. Afghan government corruption remains rampant and continues to bolster insurgent messaging. Sadly, more resources are unlikely to change the fact that the coalition has no overarching or coherent geopolitical framework to connect military gains with a broader political process that would resolve what drives the insurgency. Absent that, rural Afghans in insular pockets of the country will continue to turn to the Taliban alternative.

A plan to end America’s limited presence is a debate we must have. Committing manpower with no decisive end attaches no conditionality on the performance of either Afghan elites or security forces while leaving U.S. troops exposed to insurgent attack. The lesson to draw from the Afghan mission is not to plunge into a country and dwell for ten years, but to avoid similar futile missions in the future. 

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, I discuss the future of Afghanistan and why it is time once again to rethink our mission:

For Afghan Reconstruction, Millions of Dollars Up in Smoke

Unconscionable levels of waste, fraud, and abuse continue to plague America’s 11 year nation-building mission in Afghanistan. According to an investigation by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), officers with the NATO training mission shredded the financial records of fuel purchased for the Afghan National Army. As a result, “the U.S. government still cannot account for $201 million in fuel purchased to support the Afghan National Army.”

On the document destruction, SIGAR investigators determined among its many findings that:

  • The two fuel ordering officers cited efficiency, saving physical storage space, and the ability to share document [sic], as factors in the decision to scan and shred the documents. They added that they believed that the scanned documents had been stored electronically on a [Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A)] SharePoint portal or shared drive, but they could not recall the exact locations.
  • […]
  • … CSTC-A was unable to locate any of the missing documents.

A number of other projects underscore the problems U.S. agencies confront in carrying out large-scale development initiatives. For instance, the U.S. military plans to provide electricity via diesel generators to about 2,500 Afghan homes and businesses around Kandahar, according to a report over the summer by the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran. U.S. government planners expect the program, called the “Kandahar Bridging Solution,” to cost American taxpayers about $220 million through 2013, that is, until the United States Agency for International Development and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers build a new hydropower turbine at a dam in neighboring Helmand.

Washington planners, in keeping with their population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine, assume that many Afghans will be pleased to have power, and thus, will throw their support behind the Afghan central government. Instead, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Kandahar last year, found no evidence that the added electricity was yielding greater support for the government, a conclusion far from surprising. Moreover, Dahl also discovered that the turbine at the dam will provide residents with less power than what they currently get from the generators. As SIGAR noted, “the U.S. government may be building an expectations gap.”

Yet another in a laundry list of dashed expectations may soon be the new $23 million road in Helmand, dashed because the Afghan government has yet to compensate landowners for buildings and property demolished during construction.

The United States continues to expend money and lives for stabilization efforts and infrastructure projects that may still fail to leverage Afghan support for the government. At its heart, that failure lies not only with the mission’s overlapping, redundant, and expensive development strategies, but also with the underlying assumption that when armed with “performance-based contracts” and “metrics to measure achievement,” government bureaucracies can successfully plan such projects.

Defense Lobby’s Scare Campaign Falls Flat

The defense contractors and their allies and advocates in Washington have been beating the drum against sequestration for over a year. They’ve commissioned studies purporting to show that sequestration will throw hundreds of thousands of people out of work. They’ve embarked on a “stop sequestration” road show, and boosted spending on advertising and gimmicks, including the Countdown to Sequestration clock.

And they’ve held press conferences, including one today at the National Press Club that I attended.

The contractors’ full-court press isn’t working. Polls show that the American people are more interested in cutting defense spending than domestic spending to reduce the deficit. (See, for example, The Economist/YouGov poll, .pdf, Q15) And they, and especially Republicans and independents, are opposed to paying higher taxes to fund a bloated Pentagon (.pdf, Q56).

The public isn’t falling for the lobby’s scare campaign for a few reasons. First, U.S. military spending remains near an all-time high in real, inflation-adjusted dollars. Second, sequestration would reduce the budget to 2007 levels, and reductions along those lines are consistent with other post-war drawdowns. Third, while Americans overwhelmingly support the troops, they appreciate that not every dollar spent on the military is spent wisely.

The United States will retain a state-of-the-art military even if total Pentagon spending declines by 10 to 15 percent. Such reductions might actually induce policymakers to be more responsible when it comes to military intervention abroad. The leading opponents of sequestration are big fans of open-ended, nation-building missions, but they are a small and shrinking minority. Most Americas have learned the painful lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are determined to avoid those sorts of expensive and counterproductive wars in the future.

A smaller U.S. military that costs less money cannot be expected to be everywhere all the time. U.S. troops should not be the first responders to every 911 call. Other countries will have to step forward to take responsibility for their own defense, and contribute their fair share to address common security challenges.

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