Tag Archives: Afghanistan

What we need to do post-Afghanistan, but won’t

In my last post, I mentioned the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Nobody who’s been reading his reports for the past dozen or so years could ever have had any doubt about the folly of American policy in Afghanistan. But one can give the Americans credit for something: their political system not only allows, but actually employs someone who has the specific mandate to spend his time revealing all his employer’s follies.

This doesn’t mean that anybody will be held account for their mistakes , but at least the American system provides for a certain degree of transparency, without which learning lessons from past errors is impossible. Unfortunately, we’re not nearly as transparent here in Canada, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be. Overall, all the countries involved in the Afghan fiasco need to engage in some serious reflection, which in turn requires a fair degree of openness and a willingness to listen to unpleasant truths.

So, let’s think about what now needs to be done but, of course, almost certainly won’t be.

The first thing that is needed is that serious reflection I mentioned. A failure on the magnitude of the American/NATO mission in Afghanistan requires a major effort to discover what went wrong and learn appropriate lessons. This might seem to be blindingly obvious, but it needs reiterating. For too often, in the face of disaster, the response of our leaders takes the form of what one might call “let’s move on-ism.” As Tony Blair said after the Iraq war had gone horribly wrong: “I know a large part of the public want to move on. … I share that view.” Rather than reflect on the past and draw appropriate lessons, the tendency is to pretend that it was all a bad dream and that nothing happened. It’s not surprising that we keep repeating the same mistakes.

Reflection alone, however, is not enough. One has to reflect on the right things. The danger is that people will insist on learning not just the wrong lessons but the wrong type of lessons – in other words, they will seek tactical and operational lessons, but strategic ones; they’ll try to learn how to do things better, not consider whether they ought to be doing them at all.

This is a particular issue for military people, as they are by nature ‘how’ people not ‘why’ people. Give them a problem and their natural reaction is to ask ‘how do I do this?’ not ‘why am I doing this?’ or even ‘Should I be doing this in the first place?’ But it’s not just a military problem. In his book The Origins of the Third World War, American sociologist C. Wright Mills pointed a finger of blame at what he called “crackpot realism.” This, he said, was the prevailing mode of thinking of the “power elite”, who are in essence technocratic incrementalists. That’s to say that they are very good at fiddling with existing systems in an effort to improve them; but they never stop to consider the system as a whole.

As I think I’ve said before, crackpot realism is like the inverse of a Monet painting: that’s to say that whereas a Monet painting makes no sense close up but perfect sense from a distance, crackpot realism is utterly logical close up, but crazy when viewed from afar. It’s like Mutual Assured Destruction – theories of strategic nuclear war were perfectly logical, with each step following logically from the last; but when you stood back and looked at it as a whole, it was, quite literally, MAD.

So, we need to avoid crackpot realism, that is to say avoid thinking about fiddling with the system rather than tackling the system itself. When considering “lessons learned” from Afghanistan, we shouldn’t therefore be thinking in terms of how one should conduct such interventions better. We should be considering the fundamental assumptions that lie behind such interventions. Do we have the power to change the world in accordance with our desires? Does intervention makes things better or worse? Should we base our foreign policy on ideology, human rights and all the rest of it? In short, should be we even be doing this stuff? And beyond that, we need to ask questions such as whether a “liberal” international order is an objective that we should be pursuing.

Such questioning will inevitably meet fierce resistance. To face it, we need accountability, which in turn, as I said above, requires openness. Every country involved in the Afghan debacle should do a thorough investigation with the aim of answering key questions. These include: Why did the government get involved? Who gave ministers what advice? Who, in other words, suggested to them that this could work? Who were the journalists, think tankers, and pundits who backed the war in the pages of the press and on TV? Were ministers, generals, political advisors, aid workers, journalists, and others honest with the public? Or did they cover up the true situation in order to win public support for the mission?

In an article in today’s Ottawa Citizen, defence correspondent David Pugliese notes that the Canadian government was repeatedly warned, from an early date, that the mission in Afghanistan was likely to end in disaster. But our political and military leaders chose to ignore the warnings. Pugliese reports how when Liberal Senator Colin Kenny said that, “We are hurtling toward a Vietnam ending,” then Brigadier General (later Chief of the Defence Staff) Jonathan Vance rebuked him for his “uninformed” opinion. Senior officials and generals lined up to say that the Taliban “were on the verge of defeat”. Pugliese notes:

“Over the course of the war, the Canadian public, as well as citizens of other countries, were subjected to one of the most intense government propaganda campaigns since the Second World War. The message pushed the claim that Afghanistan was a success story. … Embedded journalists produced thousands of positive articles. Editorials supported the war effort. A few … raised questions about the mission. They were called traitors.”

Pugliese points our attention to an important fact. A fiasco like Afghanistan doesn’t just happen. It’s made possible by a host of facilitators who fashion public support for it. And that brings us to the final thing we need to do: question how this is possible. How is it that in supposedly democratic societies, with a “free press”, governments can manipulate the media in such a fashion?

These questions force us to consider the makeup of the media, its independence, and its diversity. And here we need to face a harsh reality. In the current climate of fear generated by talk of “disinformation,” “fake news,” and foreign “influence operations,” we are being led to believe that more must be done to clamp down on independent voices. But the problem we face is not that there are too many people out there challenging the “truth” but rather that there are far too few. Critics often scoff at RT’s motto “Question More”, seeing it as encouraging cranks to muddy the waters and create a “post-truth” world. But, we do need to “question more”, and to do it we need more diversity in our media, not less.

To summarize, the Afghan debacle requires us:

  • To reflect.
  • To reflect about strategy not tactics, about fundamentals not superficialities.
  • To expose the truth
  • To hold those responsible to account; and finally:
  • To reform our media landscape.

What’s the chance that we’ll do any of that?

What’s the chance that I’ll win the lottery?

I think you know the answers.

Latest SIGAR REport

With impeccable timing, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued his latest report today. As regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of SIGAR, so rather than comment myself on his report, I’ll just cut and paste the summary his office sent to me. I think that it says all that nearly all that needs to be said – the only thing I’d change would be the last paragraph, which in my opinion, rather than ‘let’s do this better next time’, should say instead ‘don’t do this kind of thing ever again’.

Here goes:

…..

Today, SIGAR released its 11th lessons learned report, What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan ReconstructionThe report examines the past two decades of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, drawing on SIGAR’s 13 years of oversight work.

Key Points:

— Twenty years later, much had improved, and much had not in Afghanistan. If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that could sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture in Afghanistan is bleak.

— There is no doubt, however, that the lives of millions of Afghans had been improved by U.S. government interventions, including gains in life expectancy, the mortality of children under five, GDP per capita, and literacy rates, among others. Despite these gains, the key question is whether they were commensurate with the U.S. investment or sustainable after a U.S. drawdown. In SIGAR’s analysis, they were neither.

— The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan. No single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan.

— The bureaucratic disarray over who should and would ultimately own the strategy made it more likely that senior U.S. officials would struggle to address basic challenges in that strategy. The most fundamental of questions were continuously revisited, including who America’s enemies and allies were, and exactly what the U.S. government should try to accomplish. The ends were murky, and grew in number and complexity.

— The U.S. government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.

— U.S. officials prioritized their own political preferences for what Afghanistan’s reconstruction should look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve. U.S. officials created explicit timelines in the mistaken belief that a decision in Washington could transform the calculus of complex Afghan institutions, powerbrokers, and communities contested by the Taliban.

— Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the United States built in Afghanistan were not sustainable. Over time, U.S. policies emphasized that all U.S. reconstruction projects must be sustainable, but Afghans often lacked the capacity to take responsibility for projects. In response, the U.S. government tried to help Afghan institutions build their capacity, but those institutions often could not keep up with U.S. demands for fast progress. Billions of U.S. reconstruction dollars were wasted in Afghanistan as projects went unused or fell into disrepair.

— Counterproductive civilian and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The U.S. government’s inability to get the right people into the right jobs at the right times was one of the most significant failures of the mission. It is also one of the hardest to repair. U.S. personnel in Afghanistan were often unqualified and poorly trained, and those who were qualified were difficult to retain.

— Persistent insecurity severely undermined the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The absence of violence was a critical precondition for everything U.S. officials tried to do in Afghanistan—yet the U.S. effort to rebuild the country took place while it was being torn apart.

— At several points over the last two decades, rising insecurity forced policymakers to accept problematic compromises in the development of the country’s official uniformed security forces.

— The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly. Ignorance of prevailing social, cultural, and political contexts in Afghanistan has been a significant contributing factor to failures at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.

— U.S. officials rarely had even a mediocre understanding of the Afghan environment, much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions. Many mistakes were borne from a willful disregard for information that may have been available. In many cases, the U.S. government’s very purpose was to usher in an orderly revolution that would replace existing Afghan social systems with western or “modern” systems. If the intention was to build institutions from scratch, understanding and working within the country’s traditional systems was unnecessary.

— U.S. government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation (M&E) to understand the impact of their reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Unless and until agencies are permitted to dramatically increase their staffing levels for program oversight and M&E, the only way to ensure that sufficient time and attention is dedicated to M&E would be for agencies to significantly limit the scale and complexity of the programming they undertake.

— There will likely be times in the future when insurgent control or influence over a particular area or population is deemed an imminent threat to U.S. interests. If the U.S. government does not prepare for that likelihood, it may once again try to build the necessary knowledge and capacity on the fly. As seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, doing so has proven difficult, costly, and prone to avoidable mistakes.

Full Report: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-46-LL.pdf

Interactive Report: https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/what-we-need-to-learn/

More on Afghanistan and Western Foreign Policy

In my latest piece for RT (here), I contrast the Western flight from Afghanistan with the relative calm being displayed by the Chinese and Russians. I always like to be positive and find a silver lining somewhere. In the instance of Afghanistan, the fact that the country now has peace for the first time in about 45 years is one such lining. There are some indications that the Taliban may be rather more pragmatic and interested in good governance and positive relations with their neighbours than they were when they first took power in 1996. If that is so, the Russians and Chinese may be well placed to take advantage. As I conclude:

Somewhat strangely, therefore, the rise of the Taliban provides certain opportunities for Afghanistan’s development that were not previously available. It’s far from certain that the Taliban will want to make use of these opportunities, but the Russians and Chinese seem to be willing to give it a shot. If they do, they may well reap considerable benefits.

Meanwhile, you can watch me discuss Afghanistan, NATO, and Western foreign policy with James Carden in this interview for the American Committee for US-Russia Accord.

Explaining Afghanistan’s Collapse

News reports from Afghanistan on Saturday indicated that Taliban forces had advanced as far as Maidan Shar, a town 40 kilometres from the capital Kabul. On Sunday, they were said to be on the outskirts of Kabul itself. This followed a remarkable week in which the Taliban captured the majority of the nation’s provincial capitals, including the second and third largest cities in the country, Kandahar and Herat. The collapse of the Afghan government has been extraordinarily rapid.

As I point out in an article published yesterday by RT (read here), the government collapse compares very unfavourably with what happened after Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989. Then, the government defeated the initial mujahideen offensive and held onto power for a little over 3 years, until the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin cut off the supply of aid. When it comes to building a strong Afghan regime, it seems that after 20 years of effort, America and its allies have managed to do even worse than the Soviets.

How do we explain this?

Continue reading Explaining Afghanistan’s Collapse

Oh What a Lovely War!

Back in autumn 2006, I attended a conference at the Chateau Laurier here in Ottawa at which a Canadian general waxed lyrical about the just completed Operation Medusa in the Panjwai District of Afghanistan. The Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were the best the country had every produced; the Taliban had been utterly crushed; it was now just a matter of some final mopping up. Victory was ours!

It was a glorious display of triumphalism, echoed in just about every other talk at the conference. It was also completely unjustified. The Taliban were far from defeated, and the Canadian army had to go backwards and forwards in Panjwai for several more years (“mowing the grass” as they called it) before packing up and going home.

Now, the tables are turned, with news emerging from Afghanistan that Panjwai has fallen fully under Taliban control. It’s estimated that Canada spent $18 billion in Afghanistan. 159 Canadian soldiers lost their lives – many more were injured. After the country paid such a price, you might imagine that our press would be interested in the news that the Taleban have captured Panjwai. But not a bit of it. On the CBC website, there’s not a word. In Canada’s premier newspaper, The Globe and Mail, not a word. In my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen, not a word. It’s as if it all didn’t happen.

To my mind, this is deeply problematic. If we are to learn any lessons from the fiasco of the Afghan operation, we first have to admit that there’s a problem. Instead, we seem intent on forgetting.

The military campaign in Afghanistan was a mistake from the very start. It’s tempting to believe that we could have got a different result if we’d committed more resources or tried different tactics. But political limitations meant that more resources were not available. Afghanistan simply didn’t matter enough for the government to be able to persuade the public to commit significantly more to the conflict. As for tactics, different commanders tried a whole succession of different methods; none worked. Failure wasn’t a product of military incompetence. The war was fundamentally unwinnable.

Against this, some might argue that winning was never the point. Canada, like many other NATO members, wasn’t there to defeat the Taliban but to be good allies to the United States. But this isn’t a very effective argument. The only point of showing oneself to be a good ally is so that you get something back in return. But Canada – like, I suspect, other US allies – appears to have got diddly squat. For instance, helping the Americans in Afghanistan didn’t stop Trump from tearing up the NAFTA treaty or stop Biden kicking Canada in the teeth by cancelling the Keystone and Line 5 pipelines (both of great importance to the Canadian economy). Besides, if the point of fighting is to be an ally, you achieve your strategic goal just by turning up. Consequently, what you do thereafter doesn’t matter. Military operations thus get entirely detached from strategy. The result is inevitably a mess. In other words, it’s a poor strategic objective. It’s not one we should have set ourselves.

There is a simple lesson to draw from all this: we shouldn’t have sent our army to Afghanistan. It didn’t help Afghanistan, and it didn’t help us. Let’s not repeat the same mistake somewhere else in the future.

More Bad Journalism on Russia

Having said in my last post that you shouldn’t disbelieve everything that the press tells you about Russia, I find myself returning once again to examples of bad reporting, as these seem to be rather more prevalent than the good variety. Bad journalism, though, is not all the same. It takes different forms, and some examples from this week and last prove the point.

First off is report by the BBC’s Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg that came out yesterday, which you can watch on the BBC website. Rosenberg travelled to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk supposedly to find answers to the question ‘In what direction is Russia heading?’, Krasnoyarsk being chosen because it’s geographically more or less slap bang in the middle of Russia.

As I note in an analysis of the report published today by RT (which you can read here), it’s not very good. Having travelled 4,000 kilometres to Krasnoyarsk, Rosenberg tells us absolutely nothing about the city itself, but limits himself to interviewing three people who tell him a bunch of things he could just as easily have heard if he’d stayed in Moscow. The whole piece is then framed, start and finish, by a statement that “Russia is heading towards a big catastrophe.” Ah yes, Russia is doomed! How many times have we heard that one?

Frankly, I can’t imagine why Rosenberg bothered going to Krasnoyarsk to do this. Having travelled that far, he could have made an effort to explore the city and tell us how things are there. But none of it. It was just another excuse to tell us that Russia is going down the plughole.

This then is one type of bad reporting: it consists of focusing on selling a given narrative rather than trying to understand and explain the object under study.

This type isn’t untrue, it’s just not very interested in anything that doesn’t fit the chosen story. The second type, by contrast, bends the truth to fit the narrative.

Continue reading More Bad Journalism on Russia

Imperial Waste

Imperialism is a big gigantic waste of money. Let’s start with that.

A couple of news items caught my attention this week that illustrate this point, but before getting on to them, we first need to make a bit of a detour and try to determine imperialism’s roots.

It’s harder than it might seem. For instance, historians have a real problem explaining late nineteenth century imperialism, in which European powers conquered large parts of the globe, most notably in Africa. All sorts of explanations have been generated, but few stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

Particularly implausible are the theories of socialist thinkers, the most famous of which is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Last State of Capitalism. The socialists’ idea was that capitalism generates lots of surplus capital that it can’t get rid of because it is suppressing the wages of its own workers and so denying itself investment opportunities at home. Instead, capitalism exports its surplus, for which it needs colonies – thus imperialism.

The problem was that, like a lot of Lenin’s stuff, the theory was total hogwash. First, capitalist economies had no shortage of investment opportunities at home; and second, they didn’t need colonies to invest abroad. The British, for instance, invested far, far more in Latin America, which they never conquered, than in Africa, which they did.

Furthermore, imperialism was, generally speaking, loss-making. Colonies had to be defended and administered, but they tended to be economically undeveloped, and so didn’t generate much revenue. There was a reason why the Brits were so happy to let the Canadians become self-governing – they were fed up having to pay for a frozen piece of wasteland that only produced some fur and lumber.

So, imperialism doesn’t make a lot of sense from the point of view of the national interest, broadly defined. But it does make sense to certain minority interests within an imperial society. There are medals and promotions to be won by the military; there are contracts for the military industrial complex; and there’s also money to be made by all sorts of other entrepreneurs willing to hang on the imperialists’ coattails. If these people and groups have outsized political influence – through control of the media, financial support to politicians, or whatever – they can distort politicians’ and even the entire population’s understanding of the national interest. And thus the nation gets dragged into foreign endeavours that enrich and empower a few but do nothing at all for the people as a whole.

Which brings me on to this week’s new stories, both of which involve staggering waste of government money on military and imperial adventures.

Continue reading Imperial Waste

Afghan tales

I’ve said before, and no doubt will say again, that depictions of Russia often have little to do with Russia itself and are more about those doing the depiction. For many in the Western world, Russia is, and long has been, a significant ‘other’, comparison with which serves a useful purpose in the creation of self-identity. Beyond that, negative (and on occasion even positive) portrayals of Russia feed into domestic political struggles and help legitimize one side or other in whatever argument people are having. Whether these portrayals of Russia are accurate is neither here nor there. What matters is their impact on domestic politics.

Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but historians who have looked at how Westerners have viewed Russia over the course of time have amassed enough evidence to show that it’s often the case. If you doubt it, then you have merely to look at what has happened in the United States in the past four years, during which time Russia has been elevated into enemy number one, an allegedly existential threat which is on the cusp of destroying American democracy and plunging the country into civil strife. The point of the Russiagate hysteria has never been Russia itself. Rather it has been to delegitimize the election of Donald Trump as American president by portraying him as, in effect, a traitor, who has sold out his country to a foreign enemy. This narrative, of course, presupposes a foreign enemy, for which purpose one has had to be created, and Russia has proven a convenient candidate for the role.

It is this, I think, which explains the latest Russia scandal to strike the United States – the claim this week in the New York Times that Russian military intelligence has been paying the Taleban in Afghanistan to kill Americans. I am, of course, not in a position to testify as to the accuracy of the complaint, but like others am deeply sceptical of anything that is based solely on the testimony of anonymous intelligence officials and that lacks any supporting evidence. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times’s story has led to much derision, being interpreted as a sign once again of the deeply Russophobic nature of the American press. I think, though, that that interpretation may miss the point, which is that the story, like so many others, is not really about Russia but rather yet another effort to discredit Donald Trump as a puppet in the control of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

This is because a key aspect of the story was an allegation that Trump had been briefed about Russia’s nefarious activity but had done nothing in response. As might be expected, Trump’s enemies in the media were quick to exploit the story to attack the president. For instance, MSNBC’s prime Russiagate cheerleader Rachel Maddow had this to say:

Not only does the president know … there was that unexpected and friendly conversation he had with Putin. … President Trump got off that call with Putin and immediately began calling for Russia to be allowed back into the G7. … That’s how Trump is standing up for Americans being killed for rubles paid by Putin’s government.

Maddow’s colleague, MSNBC morning news host Joe Scarborough, followed suit. ‘Donald Trump has known about Putin killing Americans for months and has refused even to condemn Russia diplomatically. What Republican senator will speak out against this shocking dereliction of duty?’ he tweeted. Other journalists were equally outright in their condemnation. ‘While Trump was cozying up to Putin, Russia was paying the Taleban to kill American troops in Afghanistan,’ said GQ’s Laura Bassett on Twitter; and so on.

Whether any of this was true was something that none of these journalists bothered to ask. They simply assumed that it was, for the obvious reason that always assuming the worst about Russia suits their political agenda. Most notably, Trump’s electoral rival, Joe Biden, said this about the president:

Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin. … His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It’s a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.

The problem with all this is that, as with so much of Russiagate, it appears to be entirely false. The White House immediately denied any knowledge of the Afghanistan story, and the Director of National Intelligence backed up Trump by confirming that, indeed, the president had never been informed about the alleged Russian activity. As so often, The New York Times appears to have been peddling ‘fake news’. None of this, however, has stopped Trump’s opponents from seizing on the story as further evidence of the president’s treachery.

The question in my mind is what will happen should Trump lose the presidential election in November, an outcome that now seems likely. It strikes me that there are two possibilities. The first is that the Democratic Party and its supporters will lose interest in stories of alleged Russian malevolence, as they will no longer be needed. A Biden victory in November could, therefore, lead to a lessening in the current rhetorical tension. The second possibility is that nothing will change. Democrats, I fear, have come to believe the nonsense that they have been peddling, to the extent that it’s become part and parcel of who they are. They are therefore incapable of altering course, and will govern on the basis of the prejudices they have generated in themselves over the past few years. I would like to think that the first possibility will come to pass, but I have to say that I’m not too optimistic. As for what will happen in the event that Trump is re-elected, I dread to think. But at that point, America might well be engulfed in flames, and Russia will be the least of anybody’s problems.

How goes the war?

This week brought a bunch of news about the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have been directly involved in fighting the Taleban for over 18 years. In Syria, they’ve attempted to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad with the help of proxies in various forms, who are now holed up in an ever-shrinking enclave in Idlib province. And in Yemen, they’ve been backing the Saudis in their attempt to reinstall Adrabbun Mansar Hadi as president in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, now under the control of the Houthis. So, how go America’s wars?

First, Afghanistan:

A few days ago, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released his latest quarterly report to the US Congress. According to an email I got from SIGAR’s office, the key points of this report include the following:

  • Enemy-initiated attacks (EIA) and effective enemy-initiated attacks (EIA resulting in casualties) during the fourth quarter of 2019 exceeded same-period levels in every year since recording began in 2010.
  • The month of the Afghan presidential election (September 2019) saw the highest number of EIA in any month since June 2012, and the highest number of effective enemy-initiated attacks (EEIA) since recording began in January 2010. The high level of violence continued after the presidential election; October 2019 had the second highest number of EIA in any month since July 2013.
  • According to the UNODC, the overall value of opiates available for export in Afghanistan in 2018 (between $1.1 billion and $2.1 billion) was much larger than the combined value of all of the country’s licit exports ($875 million).
  • As of December 18, conflicts had induced 427,043 Afghans to flee their homes in 2019 (compared to 356,297 Afghans during the same period in 2018).
  • Between November 2019 and March 2020, an estimated 11.3 million Afghans – more than one-third of the country’s population – are anticipated to face acute food insecurity.

I think that gives a good enough impression. Eighteen years on, things aren’t going so well in Afghanistan.

So what about Syria?

Continue reading How goes the war?

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.