Rajiv Chandrasekaran has a sad history of Lashkar Gah:
All of the principal challenges of the Little America project — the tension between modernists and traditionalists, the incompetence and venality of contractors, the inability of the Afghans to fulfill their end of the deal, the unrealistic expectations of American and Afghan officials — are the same reasons that today’s grand nation-building effort is so troubled.
The U.S. government has again sided with the country’s urban elite instead of seeking to empower local and tribal leaders. It did so in the name of good governance, but it has weakened the grass-roots leadership essential to building stability.
Many U.S. contractors remain more focused on spending their allotted funds, as Morrison Knudsen did, than on scaling back in the face of uninspiring results. “Maintaining the burn rate [of spending] defined how we approached the program,” said a former contractor who worked on a large agriculture assistance initiative in Helmand over the past two years.
And so on and so forth. Of course, there are challenges with building up grass-roots leadership to the exclusion of a central government as well. In the 20th century, there was a collaborative relationship between the center and the periphery—each approached the relationship as negotiating partners, and each understood they would give and get certain things out of the relationship. It wasn’t strictly transactional, per se, but it was largely transactional.
The same sense of give-and-take between the center and communities does not exist under the Bonn framework. And considering the decision to remake the same mistake we made in 2002—excluding the Taliban, i.e. Afghanistan’s most violent political activists—there’s no real sense that we’re looking to avoid making that same mistake once again.
Now, there are some people who think the good feelings some Helmandis have about the canal system the U.S. built in the 60s means we should keep going, stay forever, etc. But that’s false. Just as many Afghans fondly remember the Taliban’s rule as an oasis of rules and order, even if it was also horrible. People tend to euphemize the past. Lots of Kabulis look back on the Soviet era in Afghanistan as a good one—it’s when schools were built, women were educated, and people could travel through a political empire stretching across Asia (one Afghan even went into space).
That doesn’t mean we should replicate the Taliban or Soviet eras just because some people look at it with rose-colored glasses. Similarly, looking at the era of “Little America” in Afghanistan with anything other than sentimental distance is a mistake: not only is a similar era in Afghanistan not coming back in our lifetimes, we’ve not learned the clearest and most important lessons from it, as encapsulated in that excerpt above: working with the wrong people, and spending money on the wrong things.
Alas, in Afghanistan, we should have been able to do better. But we chose not to. A sad history, indeed.