Afghanistan’s Other Transition

by Joshua Foust on 7/19/2011 · 10 comments

For The Atlantic, I write:

Afghanistan is, in a way, the ultimate expression of how dangerous aid partnerships can be. By almost every account, the international community’s aid programs in Afghanistan have made corruption worse than ever before, and made responsible government less, rather than more likely. In other words, aid and development spending has, in many ways, been counterproductive — and now most major cities in the country are dependent on foreign financing (or illicit financing, often expressed by narcotecture).

Thus, when we think about the coming years of transition in Afghanistan, we’re only getting part of the picture. ISAF has been successful at creating a military without a state — a praetorian state, if you want to be clever about it. But what does that really get you, beyond a military with nothing to serve but itself?

Comment away.


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 10 comments }

CE July 19, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Okay, this is one of those things that a simpleton-slash-dilettante like myself doesn’t really get.

Everybody more or less agrees that the solution in Afghanistan is ‘political, not military.’ Great. And yet the only aspect that NATO/ISAF can get their head around is the military side (for obvious reasons). So, we’re building up Afghan military and policing capacity with the aim of having them take over the struggle once they are capable, right? But if we presume a political settlement sometime down the line, then what happens to those 400K or 500K military and law enforcement personnel? After all, every great army needs an enemy; every great force needs opposition. Assuming a political settlement, then the army and paramilitary forces will have nowhere to turn their guns to but outward (in the direction of Pakistan, presumably).

Is that what the grand strategy is, then? Are we building the Afghan state up so that it may one day become a reliable proxy against Pakistan? Under this line or reasoning, everything ISAF/DoD/NATO has done actually makes some sense. And if this is the case, then it also makes perfect sense for the Pakistanis to be nervous and anxious and double-dealing and generally uncooperative.

To summarize: the US strategic military interests do not require a functioning Afghan state, only a functioning Afghan army, which can be used to temper and mitigate the dangers of the radical extremist cesspool that is Pakistan. Under this interpretation, we actually wouldn’t mind an Af-Pak War. In fact, that would be a great way to lure oodles of militants into the cross-hairs, as the combat would likely occur in the tribal areas and sanctuaries which are currently giving us fits.

Don Bacon July 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm

That’s why COIN is a dead duck, effectively replaced by the new National Strategy for Counterterrorism, June 2011.

COIN required an effective government, with the meme being that the U.S. was helping a legitimate “host government” defeat an insurgency. The facts are quite different, as we know.

FM 3-24 COIN
Legitimacy Is the Main Objective
1-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.

I betcha nobody asked King David about what happened to his vaunted COIN theories at his recent CIA appointment hearings.

As for rationalizing the whole mess, the key factor is that tons of monetary profits are being generated and the more that are involved the merrier, and that includes not only war-making but also nation-building. Except we call it preventing safe havens, promoting stability, and whatever other euphemisms the speech-writers can dream up.

To try to ascribe any sensible meaning to this mess is a waste of time.

CE July 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I guess my overarching point was that even the analysts / pundits / scholars that say the solution in Afghanistan is ‘political’ don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Any political solution or settlement will be necessarily unstable and have a very short half-life.

Don Bacon July 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Look at it this way: Continuing instability necessitating more spending and profits indicates that they do know what they’re doing. Whatever they might say to cover it up is a different story and shouldn’t be believed.

“There will come a time when they simply can no longer replenish their ranks,” White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan declared. “We’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaida,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed.

Sure. The forty-year drug war is a good model to go by. They’re always finding tons of pot in vehicles nearby on the interstate, and success is just around the corner. Meanwhile there’s all that money to be made, and careers and such.

Click on my name for more info.

Dafydd July 22, 2011 at 7:56 am

Historically, when occupiers pull out of Afghanistan, the various groups that united to fight against occupation fight each other.

That implies the guns will be turned inward, rather than outward, on departure.

Many people (including US strategists) might like to believe it will be different this time. That will not be enough to make it different.

Red July 19, 2011 at 10:25 pm

In an effort to re-examine our successes and failures in Afghanistan, the real over-arching issue is much simpler than anyone thinks. Are we making life better for the people of Afghanistan by our presence, our efforts, and the relationships we form? This is the only real, true measure we can rely on when it comes to policies and programs we have initiated, worked at, completed, and planned for the near (and long-term) future.

Politics aside, what do we really, truly want to accomplish? Anyone who sincerely desires a proxy regime, (or ‘strategic depth’ on the opposite side of the Durand Line), has succumbed to what can only be described as a severe lack of both vision, and ethical rationality.

As we talk about ‘Transition’, what are we transitioning TO? as Combat operations slow down or thin out, how can we now affect real, positive change?

What do we want? What will make our combined efforts and sacrifice worth the toil, struggle, dollars and lives we’ve invested?

Here’s a thought: How about an Afghanistan where farmers can get good crops to market, over decent roads, and get paid fair market value for them? How about a national school system which can function, with at least an operational minimum of qualified teachers, safe buildings, books, supplies and a secular educational focus? How about workable, sustainable agricultural models, with new regional innovation and practical mentoring? How about a police-centeric model of local policing, wholly separate from a military-modelled active military? How about a fully funded and functioning de-mining initiative? How about a functional network of bare-minimum health care, with a focus on training native doctors and nurses to fill the gaping hole in both city and village life? How about taking steps to help bring the country out of the cellar of neo-natal death rates? How about building water treatment plants, hospitals, schools, bridges, airports, clinics, farm co-ops, training centers; in short, the basic infrastructure necessary to give the people of Afghanistan even the slimmest fighting chance at becoming the nation it could be, the nation it SHOULD be? How about employing the Afghans themselves to build that infrastructure, in a massive series of public works which would inject dollars directly into the hands of workers, instead of politicos?

We Americans are self-described experts on making things happen, right? We believe that a stable Afghanistan is a good Afghanistan, right? We truly do believe that an educated, healthy and well-fed population is less like to allow themselves to become radicalized, right? So? How many billions of dollars will that take? Whom do we need to send? How many bulldozers and how many miles of pipe, bags of concrete and board-feet of lumber? How many desks, textbooks, nursing manuals and such do we need? Because for that, not only would I happily write a check to Internal Revenue, I’d hold a damn bake sale. And folks, I am not alone.

DD July 20, 2011 at 1:18 am

Man, you should run for office.

My knee jerk reaction is to say that the ANA won’t be a match for Pak Mil anytime soon, should they make the decision to actively engage the tribal areas. But, in such a scenario, were they to risk gaining the undivided attention of Pak Mil, how would it really play out? How much can Pakistan divert from the Indian border? What will the US do? What will India do?

There’s a lot of moving parts here, and it seems that it actually could all go quite badly. That being said, the US could just put away its check book and threaten to end funding for everybody if it had to, but I don’t think it will come to that.

In my observations, even in Pashtun areas with traditionally strong cross-border solidarity, Afghans are tired of what they see as Pakistani meddling. That narrative has only increased in intensity in the last couple years, and is worth keeping an eye on.

THEN I think, what about all the insurgent groups? What will they do? Pick sides? Nothing brings folks together like a common enemy, I guess. Is it possible that Afghanistan can co-opt some of these groups who have tenuous relationships with ISI, under the auspices of “reintegration?” So many contingencies, it makes my head hurt.

doylecjd July 20, 2011 at 9:56 am

Great post Red and one that echoes my sentiments as well. In our insistence of a strong central government we inevitably prop up at best, ineffectual leaders, at worst, corrupt disasters as we have done in Karzai. By funneling support for these types of projects through the Kabul filter, so much energy is siphoned off and squandered leaving the efforts largely neutered. Instead of engaging the people to help them help themselves through projects and packages that matter, we’ve thrust aid upon Kabul which in turn takes their cut and then shoves some unwanted or unneeded project upon one local populace or another.

In my mind, the US made long term commitments and promises to Afghanistan and the Afghan people when we went in, but we stand poised to break a lot of promises because we’ve lost the political appetite to see things through, or at least beyond the next election.

Machiavelli July 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm

“a severe lack of both vision, and ethical rationality” I agree with most if not all of your points but feel you are suffering from your own words. That is in fact ideal but the 2nd and 3rd order affects of putting all these things in place? We tried virtually everything as mentioned above and many failed, either on our end of the Afghanis we put in charge end.

Red July 21, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Agreed. The PRT’s are out there, doing all they’re allowed to do under current operational guidelines. But are they directly in charge of the project budgets, staffing, manpower and supply/property acquisition? Are they directly doling out paychecks to workers? From what we’ve been told, they can essentially only suggest, inspect, train, assist in design and implementation of programs, and offer medical/technical/educational assistance only where it is absolutely lacking. And those PRT’s are only so big, the can only do so much.

The US has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan, a *small fraction* of which has been in the kinds of aid which would make the biggest difference in the country. Combat operations have, indeed, been both necessary and have had a level of success which has partially marginalized the Taliban’s ability to make serious warfare within the country. In other words, laying the groundwork for an environment in which serious reconstruction might be carried out.

But as we talk of drawing down our troop levels, my question is whether or not we, ISAF, NATO, the United States, are willing to finish the job of making a difference in Afghanistan, or if we’re essentially taking our ball and going home.

If we know that a sizeable chunk of aid money is being pocketed, why not bring that entire system in-house, and deal directly with the local people who would actually use these projects? Why not address this problem with a “surge” of teachers, doctors, engineers, nurses, and technicians, now that we have achieved a certain level of maintainable security? If we can maintain a force of over 140,000 troops, surely we can maintain a force of 20,000-30,000 experts in education, civil engineering and medicine.

Or are we not really serious about helping to turn Afghanistan into a healthy nation, with an involved population, who have a favourable opinion of not only us, but democracy in general?

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