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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17 thoughts on “Enough is enough”

  1. 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.

    Well, the usual retort to this involves the post-war occupation and reconstruction of Japan and Germany…

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    1. Because, of course, an advanced industrial economy like Germany, with a well organized, centralized society, a long history of efficient state bureaucracy, and the like, is exactly like Afghanistan…

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      1. … and it’s fair to say that a significant number of Germans and Japanese wanted or at least accepted such ‘reconstruction’ as inevitable. And most understood they had suffered a final loss and had no prospect or desire to continue their war against the Allies in guerrilla or other form.

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      2. Sure. But the claim was: “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.

        So, it’s not unconditional, not a universal law of nature… All I’m saying…

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  2. I think they are not making mistakes but that is what they want everyone to believe. What is happening there is exactly what was intended. We have kept Africa in a state of chaos and poverty for a few hundred years and that allows us to steal all their resources without paying a fair price. And if we want to send our military in there is always an excuse or justification. Iraq and Afghanistan are not being ignorantly mismanaged, everything is going according to plan.

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    1. I agree with this point.
      The USA create chaos in countries to enable them to stay indefinitely.
      Africa , is a good example; look at their actions in Iraq and Syria they are not going anywhere.

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  3. I was an OIG investigator (State Department) for over 20 years, and I can tell you exactly why we WON’T stop doing it–because much of that corruption is American. Even if the grantees and contractors who are given countless billions for reconstruction don’t actually steal it, they pay themselves huge gobs of taxpayer money to distribute it, and line Congresscritters’ pockets at election time so that the “waste” of taxpayer funds will never be considered a crime. As a result, the Washington DC area has become the world’s largest boomtown, with more McMansions, luxury shopping malls and luxury SUVs than you can count.

    Only when America finally maxes out the national credit card and unlimited sums can no longer be borrowed will this craziness stop–and then we’ll have far more urgent things to worry about.

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    1. “…and line Congresscritters’ pockets …”

      What a wonderful gender-neutral all-inclusive term! I furiously approve! 🙂

      As for the corruption being first of all domestic (i.e American) – ah, that’s news now?

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      1. We used to joke around in the office every time we scored a big settlement from some corporation that we’d just handed out another million dollar speeding ticket.

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  4. Is anybody really surprised. Unfortunately westerners, particularity the Anglo Americans but also the Scandinavians have this crusading impulse to impose their values on any other culture and are congenitally incapable of understanding others. The idea of let country X be X and we will work out a way of getting along is an anathema to political establishment in Anglophone countries.
    * Foreigners showing force in your homeland will only anger you
    * Injecting dollars into a poor country as seen as a bribe – unfortunately the definition of an honest official is one who when bribed stays bribed – When foreign aid is larger than any domestic economic activity a dependency culture develops and so does a parent and teenager relationship between donor and recipient.
    * Western knowledge is poor – what do you expect when there is a near racist contempt for people who are bot from your culture, when you have few specialists who understand the place, when you have exiles or second generation immigrants who have partially rejected their ancestral home
    * “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” – what can one say

    The best thing that the Anglo Americans can do is go home, stay there and focus on making the US and Britain better places, rather than throwing their weight about globally and feeling patronisingly virtuous while doing this.

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    1. “The best thing that the Anglo Americans can do is go home, stay there and focus on making the US and Britain better places, rather than throwing their weight about globally and feeling patronisingly virtuous while doing this.”

      I partially disagree with this, but I think it brings out an interesting point about what’s wrong with efforts like America’s in Afghanistan. There’s a middle ground between invading other countries to impose your values and just “going home”. Norway, for example, has a long history of quiet mediation efforts, with a fair record of success. (There’s a short summary here https://www.regjeringen.no/en/topics/foreign-affairs/peace-and-reconciliation-efforts/innsiktsmappe/peace_efforts/id732943/). The thing is though, this kind of mediation doesn’t involve imposing anything on the parties. The mediator is a facilitator, not someone forcing the parties to accept a particular solution. Of course, the mediation record isn’t perfect (sometimes no agreement can be reached, and sometimes, most notably in the case of the Oslo Accords, an agreement is reached, but the cure turns out to be worse than the disease). But to use Norway as an example, it’s scored some really major successes in places like Colombia and Nepal. But that only underlines further how disastrous these more aggressive missions like Afghanistan are. Not only do they fail in the country in question, but their failure leads to reactions that endanger more productive mediation initiatives as well.

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      1. I agree on Norway’s effective role in mediating conflicts. The Norwegians have the advantage of not having been a colonial empire since Viking times and therefore can be seen as an honest broker.

        The U.K. and US however have done too much damage in the Middle East and other places to be able to act effectively in this way. What the Anglos do not see is that many people in Africa and Asia have very long memories and will take a very long time to trust the Americans. In order for trust to happen their needs to be contrition.

        One of the most impressive things that I recently learnt about was German chancellor willy Brandt going on his knees to the Warsaw ghetto. The Germans to their credit have understood their historical wrongdoing. Some Russians have also understood (but not enough). The Anglos not at all

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      2. “The Germans to their credit have understood their historical wrongdoing. Some Russians have also understood (but not enough).”

        I don’t understand. What Russian “historical wrongdoings”?

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  5. Aslangeo, are you a firm believer in collective guilt? Is there, then, a hierarchy of guilty collectives? Would you like to share it with us?

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  6. I believe in collective responsibility, understanding and reflection. All Nations have done things that they are proud of and all nations have done things that they should be ashamed of.

    Some societies have acknowledged that wrongs that have been done in their name. The Russian government for instance has several memorials to the victims of Stalinism and has had commemorations for example, of the Katyn Massacre. Other nations have not acknowledged any wrong doing or brushed it under the carpet or have developed a victim mentality.

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    1. “Some societies have acknowledged that wrongs that have been done in their name. The Russian government for instance has several memorials to the victims of Stalinism and has had commemorations for example, of the Katyn Massacre. “

      And that’s wrong. BTW – I was not asking what Russian government had been repenting for. I was asking you to name here in comment section Russian “historical wrongdoings” – can you do that?

      As for the central issue, the basic rule of politics is the following: never admit that your government ever did anything wrong. Nothing good ever comes from admitting that you did something wrong. They won’t forgive you and they won’t forget, no matter how earnest or remorseful you are. They’ll just beat you over the head with it all the time and whine and complain even louder. Therefore, always deny all wrong-doing, no matter how implausible your denial. If you really want to make up for the sins of the past, then do it behind the scenes. But never admit it

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  7. ‘Society’ and ‘nation’ are different things. It seems to me, for a society to characterize its institutionalized behavior as ‘wrongs’, it would have to first become a different society… Conversely, for a society to preserve itself (which is, I suppose, always the default, normal behavior), it must mythologize and glamorize its past…

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