Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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.




Well, duh!

There are times when you read something so obvious that all you can say in response is ‘Well, duh!’ The sad thing, however, is that the blindingly obvious often isn’t so blindingly obvious to those who dispense our hard earned tax dollars. We need somebody to gather the evidence and prove the point so that people can’t ignore what they really ought to know anyway. So, thank goodness for John Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), whose reports I have often featured on this blog. SIGAR’s latest report, entitled ‘Private Sector Development and Economic Growth: Lessons from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan’,  is now out, and below are some of the highlights:

— U.S. financial aid practices, at times, encouraged corruption, complicated the challenges of coordination within and between U.S. agencies, and kept non-viable Afghan enterprises afloat.

— The U.S. government and stakeholders failed to understand the relationships between corrupt strongmen and powerholders, and the speed at which Afghanistan could transition to a Western-style market economy.

— Senior technical experts often lack expertise in Afghanistan or even in post-conflict or developing economies, and were unable to provide effective guidance and support.

— The simple existence of laws and regulations is insufficient; it is how they are implemented by courts, government officials, and police that matters. Many laws introduced to promote economic activity were not accompanied by plans to build or modify the institutions needed to apply them, and Afghanistan’s weak judicial system left even the best-crafted laws vulnerable to manipulation.

— The U.S. government’s provision of direct financial support to enterprises sometimes created dependent, commercially nonviable entities, as well as disincentives for businesses to use local financial and technical services.

— Assistance provided to Afghan institutions and firms relied mainly on Western technocratic models that often failed to consider how powerful Afghan social groups and institutions influenced public policy and the functioning of markets.

— Due to a lack of understanding and uneven enforcement of market principles, the market economy was conflated with unfair competition, monopolization of markets by politically well-connected firms, unfair trade practices by regional neighbors, and administrative corruption.

— Rapid opening up to trade allowed Afghan consumers access to cheaper imported goods, but the opening of the country’s borders before Afghan goods were competitive with imports hurt domestic producers.

— Fear of government regulatory and tax-collecting institutions reinforced Afghan firms’ historical inclination to stay informal and small rather than risk expanding, hampering both government revenues and private investment.

Well, duh!  What amazes me is that anybody thought it might turn out any differently. Stripped down to its essence, the lessons here are:

  • Massive foreign aid produces corruption in the recipient country.
  • Aid encourages inefficient economic practices.
  • Formal institutions, such as laws, depend upon informal institutions, such as local customs and social structures.
  • Informal institutions in foreign countries like Afghanistan aren’t the same as in the West
  • Foreign advisors don’t understand these specificities.
  • Consequently, trying to turn those countries into copies of the West by slapping down Western institutions there and flooding them with Western advisors and money doesn’t work.

Well, duh!

None of this is particularly novel. SIGAR is to be thanked for drawing it once again to our attention. Sadly, I don’t get the impression that anybody in power is listening.

Reinforcing failure

So, now we know what Donald Trump intends to do about Afghanistan. He intends to reinforce failure, sending additional troops to that country (believed to amount to 1,000 soldiers and 3,000 military contractors, although Trump didn’t specify)  in an effort to defeat the Taleban. Quite how this miniscule increase in military power is meant to achieve that objective isn’t at all clear, especially given that the United States was unable to achieve it when it had 10 times as many troops in Afghanistan. With Steve Bannon out of the White House, we are led to believe that national security policy is now in the hands of the ‘grown-ups’, serious military men like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, who understand strategy. But reading Trump’s speech on the subject it’s hard to see any sign of strategy. It is, quite frankly, a confusing mess.

On the one hand, Trump declared that he intends to ‘win’ the war in Afghanistan. ‘We will always win’, he said. But how will the US win? By avoiding all that touchy-feely nation building stuff, allowing more permissive rules of engagement, and permitting the US military to kill more bad guys, Trump seemed to say. ‘We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,’ he declared, adding that, ‘we will no longer use American might to construct democracies in faraway lands … Those days are now over.’ But how many more ‘terrorists’ is another 4,000 people going to manage to kill, and what’s to say that more of them won’t just pop up in their place? Trump doesn’t have an answer. Indeed, he contradicted himself by saying that, ‘Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country. But strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace’.

Ah! So the aim isn’t after all to ‘win’, but to ‘create the conditions for a political process.’ But what is this process? Trump didn’t tell us, no doubt because he hasn’t got a clue what it might be. All he could say was:

Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.

So, the strategy is to use military power to create the conditions for a political settlement with the Taleban, even though it has so far utterly failed to achieve that, and even though ‘nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.’ And this is what constitutes ‘grown-up’ thinking? At the end of the day, Trump’s announcement amounts merely to a statement that withdrawing will bring untold disaster, and therefore we have to persist, because, well, you know, it will be bad if we don’t. There is nothing in this announcement which suggests how Trump or his advisors imagine that this war will end. They are as clueless as Obama and  Bush before them, and so are just carrying on doing the same thing over and over.

Why do they do this? The answer is that the financial costs of the war are dispersed over a vast number of people, so that nobody actually notices them, while the human costs are concentrated in a small segment of the population – the military – which the rest of the people can safely ignore (and at the current tempo of operations, the number of Americans dying in Afghanistan is quite low). Politically speaking, continuing the war is relatively cost-free. But should America withdraw, and something then goes wrong, Trump and those around him will be held to blame. It is better therefore to cover their backsides and keep things bubbling along as they are until the problem can be passed onto somebody else. This is a solution in terms of domestic politics, but it’s not a solution in terms of the actual problem.

By coincidence, today I got more news about Afghanistan, in the form of the latest missive from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). This relates to a review of ‘USAID-funded initiatives to implement an electronic payment system for the collection of customs duties in Afghanistan.’ Like most Western-backed initiatives in Afghanistan, this one (managed by the company Chemonics) hasn’t gone according to plan. According to SIGAR, ‘Chemonics and USAID significantly revised the revenue generation targets downward for the first three quarters of program year four because the program failed to achieve any of the revenue generation targets established for year three.’ Beyond that, says SIGAR:

As of December 2016, there was little evidence to show that the project would come anywhere close to achieving the 75 percent target, however, USAID and Chemonics have not altered project targets to account for the reality of the situation, and instead continue to invest in an endeavor that appears to have no chance of achieving its intended outcome. [my underlining]

That pretty much sums it up.

Why we’re losing

As I noted in a previous post, the failure of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere is in large part a product of a lack of strategic thinking. But there is more to it than that. While Western armies are excellent from a purely tactical point of view – i.e. they can drop bombs and fight engagements very efficiently – both they and their civilian counterparts are staggeringly incompetent in other respects. Even with the best possible strategy, they would still probably fail.

To understand why, I urge you all (as I have done before) to read the reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Here is a summary of the latest.  And bear in mind that this is just one small example. The waste identified here has been repeated in scores and scores of other projects. When the history of this campaign is written, the scale of waste, incompetence, and corruption will boggle the mind.

If it weren’t so tragic, you’d have to laugh (OK, I confess that I did).

Can somebody explain to me how they think we can win this war?

— DOD’s [US Department of Defense’s] decision to procure ANA [Afghan National Army] uniforms using a proprietary camouflage pattern was not based on an evaluation of its appropriateness for the Afghan environment.

— Procurement costs to the U.S. government were 40–43 percent [higher] than similar non-proprietary patterned uniforms used by the Afghan National Police (ANP), which potentially added between $26.65 million and $28.23 million to the costs of the ANA uniform procurements since 2008.

— In 2007, responsible DOD officials stated that they “ran across [HyperStealth’s] web site and the Minister [then Minister of Defense Wardak] liked what he saw. He liked the woodland, urban, and temperate patterns.” {This is where I laughed – PR}

— CSTC-A, in consultation with the Afghan MOD, decided to adopt the camouflage pattern containing a “forest” color scheme for ANA uniforms, despite the fact that forests cover only 2.1 percent of Afghanistan’s total land area. {And laughed again – PR}

— Determining the effectiveness of a uniform pattern for a specific environment requires formal testing and evaluation.

— Acording to a technical paper prepared for the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, the spatial characteristics and color palette of a camouflage pattern should be tailored to the specific environment. Matching a camouflage pattern “with background texture, color, and contrast is essential to all levels of visual processing.”

— CSTC-A, however, made the decision to procure 1,364,602 ANA uniforms and 88,010 extra pairs of pants —totaling approximately $94 million—using HyperStealth’s Spec4ce Forest camouflage pattern without conducting any formal testing or evaluation.

— As a result, neither DOD nor the Afghan government knows whether the ANA uniform is appropriate to the Afghan environment, or whether it actually hinders their operations by providing a more clearly visible target to the enemy.

— CSTC-A recommended a sole-source award to HypersStealth but the DOD contracting office believed that, because there were so many available camouflage patterns in the world, a sole-source award would be hard to justify.

— Instead of issuing a sole-source award, DOD issued a local acquisition solicitation that included the requirement that the uniforms use HyperStealth’s proprietary Spec4ce Forest camouflage pattern.

— CSTC-A initially estimated that the new ANA uniform would cost $25–$30 per set. The actual cost ranged from $45.42–$80.39 per set.

— Our analysis found that changing the ANA uniform to a non-proprietary camouflage pattern could save U.S. taxpayers between $68.61 million and $72.21 million over the next 10 years.

— SIGAR suggests that DOD conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the current ANA uniform specification to determine whether there is a more effective alternative, considering both operational environment and cost, available.


Strategy-free time

It’s a depressing truth, but at least someone has finally had the guts to admit it. The United States has no strategy for its war in Afghanistan, or as Defence Secretary James Mattis put it in testimony to the US Senate, it is a ‘strategy-free time’. Mattis promised to put a strategy together. ‘We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,’ he said, ‘And we will correct this as soon as possible.’

Forgive me if I’m sceptical. The United States hasn’t managed to come up with a winning strategy in the 16 years it has been fighting in Afghanistan. It beggars belief that Mattis has the solution up his sleeve. After all, he’s been part of the war since the beginning.

The United States lacks a workable strategy in Syria as well. Theoretically speaking, US support for rebel forces in Syria is justified by the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and is meant to help destroy ISIS. But because of recent advances by troops of the Syrian Arab Army (the official government forces), the rebels are no longer in physical contact with ISIS. As you can see from the map below, they couldn’t fight ISIS even if they wanted to.


Continue reading Strategy-free time

Can-do attitude

For obvious reasons, military institutions like to have soldiers with a ‘can-do attitude’. When you tell your troops to do something, you don’t want them replying that it all looks a bit too difficult, and they’d rather not, thank you very much. You’d prefer to have people who regard difficulty as a challenge and strive to get the job done however impossible it may seem.

That’s all well and good, but sometimes the job is just plain wrong, and shouldn’t be done at all; or it just can’t be done, no matter how hard you try; or it can only be done at disproportionate cost. In such cases, what you need is not a can-do attitude, but somebody who will say ‘Sorry, boss, but this immoral/stupid/impossible, don’t do it.’

Continue reading Can-do attitude

Goats and boats

Several times in the past, I have drawn attention to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, who audits the $117 billion the United States has spent on economic and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. His reports are a catalogue of waste and incompetence on a quite staggering scale. Among other things, he uncovered the stories of how the US spent $6 million airlifting 9 Italian goats to Afganistan; spent $486 million buying aircraft for the Afghan airforce which were so dangerous to fly that they were never used and ended up being turned into $32,000 of scrap metal; built an entirely unused 64,000 square foot command centre at a cost of $34 million ; spent $150 million building luxury villas to lodge staff of its economic development office; and expended $3 million on building a navy for landlocked Afghanistan, but never actually delivered the boats. Unfortunately, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a chronicle of folly which boggles the mind.

I cannot recommend SIGAR’s reports enough to anybody wanting to understand why America’s campaign to stabilize Afghanistan (and by extension, many other places) is failing. Sopko is in some ways the storyteller of our time, reaching to the heart of the rot in the West’s international policy. Yesterday, he gave a public lecture at the University of Ottawa and provided a number of valuable insights. Below is a brief summary of what he said.

  • The situation in Afghanistan is not getting any better. Afghan security forces are ‘playing a deadly game of whack-a-mole’. They have little mobility or capacity for offensive operations. All they can do ‘is retake major areas after they fall’. They are ‘unable or unwilling to take the fight to the Taleban.’
  • The root of the problem is an ‘insidious combination of poor leadership and corruption.’
  • ‘The donor community contributed mightily to the corruption problem’ by putting in ‘too much money too fast in too small a country’ without considering local conditions. ‘The United States and other donor nations contributed enormously to the corruption explosion in Afghanistan.’
  • The Taleban have stopped providing supplies to many of their troops and instead told their commanders to buy the supplies from the Afghan army because it is cheaper! ‘Fully 50% of the fuel purchased for the Afghans never reaches the intended recipient.’ ‘At the end of the US supply chain in Afghanistan is the Taleban.’
  • ‘The US has spent $8.5 billion in Afghanistan to fight narcotics. Unfortunately, we have little to show for it.’ ‘Afghanistan is continuing to grow poppies at near record levels’, providing the Taleban with the majority of its revenues.
  • The Afghan state is not financially sustainable. Its revenue from domestic sources is a mere $2 billion a year, whereas it spends $4 billion a year on non-security expenditures and $4-6 billion on security. The difference comes from foreign donors. Meanwhile, the state lacks the capacity to manage large sums of money, and once that money is given to Afghans, it ‘becomes incredibly hard to follow’. ‘It may take decades for the Afghan government to achieve success and military and financial sustainability’. ‘Future prospects look bleak.’

Sopko concluded his lecture by saying that ‘It’s been amazing to me how little common sense has been used in our reconstruction effort’. ‘If we don’t change how we do things’, he said, ‘we will almost certainly fail in Afghanistan. … If we keep doing what we did the last 15 years, we’re going to get run over.’

Putting this all together, it seems to me that the basic problem is this:

To fight the Taleban, Western countries have created a huge Afghan military and security system, which is far beyond what Afghanistan can afford. Also, in an effort to bring ‘good governance’, economic development, human rights, and all the rest of it, in the hope that all this will contribute to defeating the insurgency, we have constructed an Afghan state with a large volume of social commitments which again it cannot afford. To make up the massive budget deficit, we have pumped billions of dollars into the country, thereby creating the conditions for corruption on a gigantic scale. This has then fatally undermined the legitimacy and competence of the state we are trying to support.

It’s a sort of vicious circle, or a Catch 22 situation. If we stop supporting the Afghan state, it will collapse. But supporting it on the scale it needs to survive pretty much guarantees that it will fail.

Sopko refused to make any policy recommendations, saying that as an auditor that’s not his job. Personally, I can’t listen to what he says or read his numerous reports, and feel any optimism that we are capable of finding a good way out of this mess. Frankly, we are way too incompetent. On the whole, rather than continuing to invest to recover sunken costs, it probably makes more sense to cut our losses and admit defeat.