Enough is enough

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has produced his latest ‘lessons learnt’ report, detailing his findings on the outcome of US ‘stabilization’ operations in Afghanistan. Calling these findings ‘lessons learnt’ is something of a misnomer, as what they really consist of is things which SIGAR and others have been pointing out for ages but which the Americans (and their allies) carry on doing anyway. ‘Lessons not learnt’ might be a better title.

I have pasted in a summary of SIGAR’s main conclusions below. Reading this, I defy anybody to believe that Western-led stabilization operations designed to defeat insurgencies in foreign countries through a combination of military force, money, development, ‘capacity building’, and the like, have any real prospect of success. What is clear is that:

  • Stabilization operations have failed dismally.
  • Throwing vast sums of money into poor countries doesn’t promote economic development, merely produces immense corruption.
  • Westerners’ knowledge of how the foreign societies being stabilized work is extremely poor. Basically, we don’t understand the places we’re trying to subdue.
  • Those being ‘stabilized’ don’t appreciate what we’re doing for them; actually, our efforts to ‘help’ them generally seem to make them like us even less.

None of this is rocket science. The failings of foreign aid have been known for years. And colonial occupiers who imagine that they can buy off opposition by dispensing truck loads of cash have often come up a cropper. But it has suited the modern liberal outlook to imagine that it can fight a sort of ‘clean’ counterinsurgency, in which we are nice to the people we are trying to control, help them with development and win over their hearts and minds. In this way, we justify our colonial ambitions. The problem is that it simply doesn’t work.

In my opinion, enough is enough. It’s time to put a stop to all this, and admit that we really don’t know what we’re doing.

Alas, I fear that this is most unlikely to happen, and SIGAR will be repeating the same ‘lessons not learnt’ in many future reports as well.

Here is the summary of SIGAR’s latest. (You can read the entire report here)

— Between 2001 and 2017, U.S. government efforts to stabilize insecure and contested areas in Afghanistan mostly failed.

— The U.S. government overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions as part of the stabilization strategy. They focused on troop numbers and their geographic priorities and mostly omitted concerns about the Afghan government’s capacity and performance.

— Under immense pressure to quickly stabilize insecure districts, U.S. government agencies spent far too much money, far too quickly, in a country woefully unprepared to absorb it. Opportunities for corruption and elite capture abounded, making many of those projects far more harmful than helpful.

— On the ground in Afghanistan, DOD, State, and USAID implemented programs without sufficient knowledge of the local institutions, sociopolitical dynamics, and government structures.

— Powerbrokers and predatory government officials with access to coalition projects became kings with patronage to sell, fueling conflicts between and among communities. Afghans who were marginalized through this competition found natural allies in the Taliban, who used that support to divide and conquer communities the coalition was keen to win over.

— During the 2009 Afghanistan strategy reviews, President Obama and his civilian and military advisors set in motion a series of events that fostered unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved. They also ensured the U.S. government’s stabilization strategy would not succeed, first with the rapid surge and then the rapid transition.

— By prioritizing the country’s most dangerous districts, the coalition was generally unable to properly clear, secure, and stabilize those targeted areas. As a result, the coalition couldn’t make sufficient progress to convince Afghans in those or other districts that the government could protect them if they openly turned against the insurgents.

— Civilian agencies were compelled to establish stabilization programs in fiercely contested areas that were not ready for them.

— Once DOD deemed money a “weapon system” in 2009, commanders were often judged on the amount of money they disbursed. With insufficient attention to impact and a frequent assumption that more money spent would translate into more progress, these projects sometimes exacerbated the very problems commanders hoped to address.

— According to a senior USAID official, spending continued even as stabilization had become a “dirty word” at the agency, associated with excessive and ineffective spending at the military’s behest.

— Afghan forces and civil servants were generally unwilling, unprepared, or unable to carry forward the momentum created by coalition forces and civilians, particularly on the unrealistic timeline defined by the coalition.

— When the promise of improved services raised expectations and failed to materialize, Afghans who saw more of their government through stabilization projects actually developed less favorable impressions of it, perhaps a worse outcome than it the government had not reached into their lives at all.

— The effort to legitimize the government was undermined when the very Afghans brought in to lead the efforts themselves became sources of instability as repellent as (if not more repellent than) the Taliban.

— By the time all prioritized districts had transitioned from coalition to Afghan control in 2014, the services and protection Afghans were in a position to provide often could not compete with a resurgent Taliban as it filled the void in newly vacated territory.

— Most practitioners we spoke to believed that stabilization rarely brought communities closer to stability than merely providing reliable and non-predatory security would have.

 

 

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Reading Russia Right

I had been planning to write a post today about the latest report on Russia by the British House of Commons, but something came my way which is so out of the ordinary that it has to take precedence. The item in question is an article by University of Rhode Island professor Nicolai Petro entitled ‘Are We Reading Russia Right?’ and published in The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. I urge you all to read the full text online here, and to spread it as far and wide as you can. But in case some of you only have time for a condensed version, below is a summary of what Nicolai has to say.

The article starts out by describing the extremely negative image of Russia painted by most Western commentators. This image, Petro says, is incomplete. There are indeed many shortcomings in Russia, but under Putin there has also been enormous progress. Focusing entirely on the former without mentioning the latter produces a thoroughly distorted picture.

Petro then sets about listing the various ways in Russia differs from the image painted of it in the West. These include the following:

More than ten million Russians are involved in some form [of] organized volunteer activity, roughly ten percent of the adult population … sustained by multiple funding sources. …

Several of Russia’s largest daily newspapers, like Vedomosti, Kommersant, and Nezavisimaia Gazeta, are staunchly anti-Putin and reach tens of millions of readers. Novaya Gazeta’s web site alone garners more than twenty million views a month. … only three percent of Russia’s hundred thousand media outlets are state owned … Russia’s media ecology is thus far more complex than is commonly assumed.

… it was Vladimir Putin who introduced key elements of modern criminal justice to Russia. These include habeas corpus, a juvenile justice system, trial by jury, bailiffs, and justices of the peace … courts struck down compensation limits for government negligence, strengthened the rights of defendants to exculpatory evidence, provided clearer guidelines on secrecy … Closed judicial proceedings and pretrial detention centers have been all but eliminated, privacy protections for individuals expanded, and 24,000 free legal aid centers created. … Since 2014, the number of suits brought on behalf of foreign companies has tripled, while judgments in their favor have risen from fifty-nine to eighty-three percent of the total. … the number of persons incarcerated in Russia has fallen by almost forty percent since 2001, and the number of minors in prison has fallen from 19,000 to just 1,000.

… Pensions have risen tenfold since 2000 … average life expectancy has increased by more than six years to 72.6. … the government plans to raise the minimum wage to the living wage.

Western journalists are unable to see these things, says Petro, because they suffer from ‘paradigm blindness’, which is similar to the psychological trait known as ‘availability bias.’ Wishing to interpret events in Russia, they simply take the closest available paradigm which they already know – that Russia is incapable of democracy – and view everything in light of that. ‘Americans,’ says Petro, ‘cannot talk about Russia as a democracy because there is no frame of reference for Russian democracy in their minds.’ In reality, Petro writes,

Putin’s power base lies not with the oligarchs, but with the Russian people. Any approach to Russia that overlooks this is simply out of touch with reality.

Towards the end of his article, Petro includes a number of quite shockingly Russophobic comments by American writers and officials. He quotes Robert Kaplan, for instance, as saying that, all those who love Russia eventually wind up ‘realizing the utter impossibility of any good ever coming out of Russia … and throw up their hands at the beastly unchangeableness of Russia.’ Sadly, this attitude has become the norm.

No doubt those who share Kaplan’s point of view will complain that Nicolai Petro’s article is horribly one-sided, listing all Russia’s achievements while ignoring all its shortcomings. But given how many people do the opposite, some form of rebalancing is much needed. ‘To sum up,’ concludes Petro, ‘a radical re-conceptualization of relations with Russia is long overdue.’ I cannot agree more.

Richard Pipes, 1923-2018

Richard Pipes, who died today, was one of the most pre-eminent and controversial English-speaking historians of Russia. To his admirers, he was a trenchant and original historian with a broad vision. To his detractors, he was a Russophobe who propagated a distorted view of Russia’s past and who ignored the work of other historians which didn’t fit his prejudices. There is an element of truth to both points of view. What made Pipes a poor historian in some respects was also what made him a great one in others, and vice versa. For all his deficiencies, he was one of those who inspired me to take up Russian history professionally.

pipes

Continue reading Richard Pipes, 1923-2018

Time to break free from America

The Chinese smartphone company ZTE employs 75,000 people and last year sold $17 bn of products. Yet, despite being a booming and profitable concern, this week ZTE shut down its operations. Why? Because the United States has ‘banned American companies from exporting technology’ to it. ZTE phones contain a number of US-made components, as well as US-designed software. Thanks to the ban, the phones can no longer be made. ZTE is out of business, and 75,000 people will lose their jobs – just like that.

The ZTE ban follows American complaints that the company had been circumventing US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. ZTE admitted this and paid a $890 million fine to the US government, but American regulators maintained that it was still not being honest about its dealings – thus the sanctions imposed against it.

Meanwhile, following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal previously agreed between the USA, Iran, and several other countries, American officials have been warning European companies that they must stop doing business with Iran. The European company Airbus had signed an agreement to sell Iran billions of euros worth of passenger aircraft. More than 10% of those aircraft, however, consists of American parts. Conseqently, the US has now prohibited Airbus from selling them to Iran because of sanctions re-imposed on Iran following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Airbus could, of course, sell the planes anyway, but it would then find itself being fined huge sums of money in the USA and, like ZTE, have its American supplies cut off.

Any other non-American companies who rely on US components or software, and who are considering doing trade with Iran are now going to have to seriously reconsider their position. European governments and the European Union are none too happy with this. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian complained that, ‘We feel that the extraterritoriality of their [American] sanction measures are unacceptable. The Europeans should not have to pay for the withdrawal from an agreement by the United States, to which they had themselves contributed.’ Meanwhile, French Finance Minister Bruno de Maire asked yesterday, ‘Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers? Or do we want to say we have our economic interests?’

European politicians are now considering what measures they can take to protect themselves from American efforts to force them to comply with American sanctions policies. According to de Maire, the EU is considering various avenues. One of these, he says, involves ‘looking at Europe’s financial independence – what can we do to give Europe more financial tools allowing it to be independent from the United States?’ Connected with this is a ‘proposal is to set up a purely European finance house to oversee euro-denominated transactions with Iran’

For some time now, a number of Russians who disagree with their government’s economic policy have been complaining that by seeking to integrate Russia more and more into the world economy, the government has undermined national sovereignty and made it vulnerable to financial pressures from potential enemies, notably the United States of America. Economists such as Sergei Glazyev have for a while been urging the Kremlin to increase Russia’s financial independence by, for instance, ‘the creation of a system of exchanging information between banks, analogous to SWIFT but independent of the USA and the EU,’ the establishment of ‘our own rating agencies,’ pricing exported goods in rubles rather than dollars, and so on. For very good reasons, the Russian government has resisted going down this route. Economic autarky tends not to turn out well. Integration into the global economy has its benefits. Having said all that, it seems to me that examples like those above are going to add to the pressure not only on Russia but also on other countries around the world to go in the direction the likes of Glazyev are suggesting, albeit gradually and with caution. Looking at the fate of ZTE and Airbus, any senior manager of an international company worth his or her salt is going to have start thinking about how to reduce the company’s dependence on US suppliers. Politicians are also going to have to put more thought into how to strengthen their economic sovereignty. This is not something which is going to happen overnight, but the impulse to move in that direction must be stronger this week than last.

Some steps have already been taken. We see new financial structures outside US control beginning to emerge, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the petro-yuan. Already financial journalists are speculating that the US decision to renege on the Iranian nuclear deal will strengthen the latter. I tend to the view that such developments are an inevitable part of the global shift in economic power. As the US declines in relative economic terms, its grip on international institutions is bound to weaken. But decisions such as that concerning Iran can only accelerate this process. Very gradually, but nonetheless more and more perceptibly, other countries are going to want to distance themselves from the United States.

The Americans are like a man sinking in quicksand.: the more he struggles in an effort to get out, the faster he sinks. As their relative power declines, the Americans are fighting with all their might to retain their hegemony, striking out in sometimes rather peculiar directions. But the very act of struggling just sucks them down further. In the aftermath of Trump’s decision on Iran, the sound of the sand sucking America under can be heard louder and clearer than ever before.

The Russia Hands

If you have time, I suggest that you all take a few moments to read an article in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine by Keith Gessen entitled ‘The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio’. Keith is the brother of Masha Gessen, who has acquired some fame as a result of various books she has written denouncing Vladimir Putin and the ‘totalitarian’ Putin ‘regime’. Keith is a very different kettle of fish. Seeking to explain why Russian-American relations seem to stay bad no matter who is in power in Washington, he is willing to consider the possibility that the answer might lie not just in Russian misbehaviour but also in the nature of the American state and the people who advise it about Russia. To this end, in his article he describes his conversations with the so-called ‘Russia hands’ (the Russian ‘experts’ within the American public service), and he seeks to determine how they view Russia, what policies they recommend, and how this affects politicians’ decisions.

The result is an excellent article which I thoroughly recommend to you all. Two points in particular struck me as I read it: the first relates to the structural incapacity of the American state to take Russian interests seriously; the second relates to the relative ideological unity among the ‘Russia hands.’ Let’s look at these in turn.

Continue reading The Russia Hands

Thought for the day

In the past few years I have noticed something of a pattern. Those who complain the loudest about Russian ‘disinformation’ are often the most inaccurate in their own depictions of reality. You can see this in my review last week of Timothy Snyder’s latest book. Likewise, I noted three years ago in my review of Peter Pomerantsev’s book ‘Nothing is True and Everything is Possible’ that Pomerantsev distorts reality every bit as much as the Russians he complains about. Pomerantsev also produced a report with Michael Weiss entitled ‘The Menace of Unreality’ about Russian ‘misinformation’ which, as I wrote, was very much ‘a case of the pot calling the kettle black’ given that the report was full of misinformation itself. Then there’s our own beloved Chrystia Freeland, complaining about Russian disinformation because of stories about her grandfather, stories which are true and which therefore make her own statements on the matter disinformation. And so on. You get the picture.

The same phenomenon, I think, applies on the Russian side. Russian TV contains lots of complaints about Western ‘fake news’, but generally speaking those who complain the most about it are those whom I trust the least.

And then, of course, there’s the Donald, who also loves to scream about fake news, while being a completely unreliable source of  information himself.

I don’t think that any of this is coincidence. People who complain that others are spreading disinformation are likely to be people who are very confident that they themselves are absolutely right and that people with other points of view are therefore wrong. But an excessive belief in one’s own absolute correctness is likely to be associated with extreme opinions and a closed-minded attitude, and so with being wrong.

So, here’s my observation on this matter, which I might term ‘Robinson’s law’:

‘There is a inverse correlation between the quantity and volume of somebody’s complaints about disinformation and the truthfulness of that person’s own pronouncements.’

Discuss.

Russia, the West, and the world

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