Afghanistan: Lessons in
War and Peace-building for US
November 21, 2011
Taliban rockets fired earlier this month on the U.S. embassy and NATO
headquarters from across a Kabul street were a symbolic strike against a
10-year U.S.-led effort to stabilize and rebuild a nation devastated by
decades of civil war, a Soviet occupation and a Taliban campaign to
reshape Afghans in their own fundamentalist image.
For a decade beginning with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United
States and Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. government has led a
major and costly effort to offer Afghanistan a greater sense of domestic
security, a new style of governance and control of its economic destiny.
The Congressional Research Service reports that the combined efforts of
the U.S. Department of Defense, the State Department and USAID (U.S.
Agency for International Development) have cost the U.S. government $444
Afghanistan is a pioneering attempt to rebuild one of the world’s
poorest and most conflicted nations. The U.S. learned some hard but
invaluable lessons from its experience in Iraq. And like in Iraq, the
U.S. faces a deadline on its presence in Afghanistan as well.
The United States has vowed to remove the final 100,000 U.S. troops from
Afghanistan in 2014. They have three years left to make a durable state
capable of growing a diversified and sustainable economy from a largely
rural and traditional society whose major crop is now poppies grown for
an illegal international heroin trade. Will Operation Enduring Freedom
offer Afghanistan lasting political and economic freedom?
The lion’s share of money spent in Afghanistan and Iraq has gone to
fighting a war and creating post-conflict security. However, war costs
trumped rebuilding. The costs of domestic reconstruction were only a
small piece of the total. Together, the Pentagon, USAID and its parent,
the State Department, spent an estimated $50 billion on building key
institutions for a once-failed state: an electoral process, an army,
police force, schools, health clinics, roads, bridges and power plants.
USAID spent $12 billion in funds on development.
However, recent studies now report that some of this money was wasted.
“We threw so much money at Iraq and spent so much and wasted a lot,”
said Chris Shays, a co-chairman of the Wartime Commission for
Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan and former U.S. Congressman from
Connecticut. “So, we’re not repeating them in Afghanistan.” The
Commission’s report cites expensive flaws in the way the U.S. government
issues and manages contracts. The group just submitted a report to
Congress identifying about $60 billion in fraud, waste and abuse – and
projects that are unsustainable because Afghanistan and Iraq either
cannot afford or do not want them.
Despite claims of funds wasted or misspent, some scholars and
development experts give the United States high marks for the
reconstruction efforts, starting with security.
Building a functioning state in a war zone
“The Afghan army and police are becoming a pretty viable and pretty
respectable institution,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings
Institution. “I think, therefore, that there are the makings of a new
Afghan state which has some degree of centralized control and power over
its own territory.”
However, O’Hanlon hedges his assessment with several substantial caveats
for Afghanistan’s future security. “Obviously, it’s a weak state.
Obviously, it doesn’t control all of its territory. It’s under threat,
it has a lot of corruption and other problems but it does have some of
the trappings and prerequisites of a functioning nation state.”
O’Hanlon has been tracking for the past 10 years Afghanistan’s
state-building process through a post-conflict lens of state-building
expenditures that have been borne predominantly by the Pentagon.
Daniel Serwer of the Middle East Institute is equally concerned about
the current vulnerability of the Afghan state. Serwer advocates a larger
role for civilian actors working through the State Department and other
U.S. federal agencies. “We really didn’t try hard in Afghanistan.” He
said development efforts were given short shrift. “For years after the
war, there was very little assistance.”
The Commission’s final report and findings from others such as the
International Conflict Group (ICG) come at a time when Congress begins
an annual examination of funding amounts for the stabilization and
development both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The recently retired U.S Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, went on
record five years ago arguing, surprisingly to some, that the State
Department doesn’t get enough attention when Congress funds such
operations. He illustrated the imbalance of funding by telling his
audience he could put the entire U.S. Foreign Service on one battleship.
He put the number at 6,600 Foreign Service officers.
“One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,”
said Gates, “is that military success is not sufficient to win: economic
development, institution building and the rule of law, promoting
internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services to
the people are essential to success in state building.”
An ICG report calls on the U.S. government to reduce military
involvement in humanitarian, development and reconstruction assistance
and to improve coordination between civilian and military actors. That
point is echoed by others who see advantages in shifting more funds from
military to civilian contractors and in some cases, from the Defense to
the State Department.
Military as major player
James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation holds that in conflict
nations, the military must take the lead. “The right model is when you
have a conflict environment and you’re trying to help get something
established, the military guys need to be in charge because the
overwhelming requirement is security,” said Carafano. “Once you’re out
of the conflict stage, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge.”
“There’s no question but that a deployed soldier in Afghanistan who
costs over a million dollars a year is far more expensive than
civilians,” said Daniel Serwer, the Middle East Institute scholar.
Serwer believes that sending in civilians “is not just cheaper but
better.” But adds that “This requires a real build-up of the State
Department and USAID capacity that we haven’t seen.”
“The United States has relied on its military as a main instrument of
its own state building and of its foreign policy for a very long time,”
Serwer said. “I think we’re at the point where the extra dollars spent
on the military are not as productive as extra dollars spent on the
civilian instruments of projecting power.”
The ICG report also recommends the U.S. government shift from their
quick-impact military or civilian stabilization programs to partner with
Afghanistan’s own National Solidarity Program that promotes Afghan-led
community development, places management responsibilities in the hands
of more than 20,000 committees that are implementing more that 50,000
projects. That’s exactly what six non-government organizations have been
doing with funding from the Gates Foundation, the European Commission,
the World Bank and the governments of the Netherlands, Japan and Norway,
as well as from USAID.
Experts agree that, in the end, it does not matter which agency takes
the lead in post-conflict countries, but how well any manager of U.S.
foreign assistance can choose and supervise projects and its
contractors. At least, the Wartime Commission holds that view.
“We went into Iraq and Afghanistan unprepared to use contractors, and
the military has told us they can’t go to war without contractors,” said
Shays, the wartime commission’s co-chair. He was surprised to learn in
the committee’s first investigations that at times in the last 10 years,
U.S. contractors outnumbered U.S. troops.
‘They are re-building their own country with our support’
The Commission’s report highlights some of troubles the International
Conflict Group recently addressed in Afghanistan. Aid disbursed since
2001 “has largely failed to fulfill the international community’s
pledges to rebuild Afghanistan,” according to the ICG report. “Poor
planning and oversight have affected projects’ effectiveness and
sustainability, with local authorities lacking the means to keep
projects running, layers of subcontractors reducing the amounts that
reach the ground, and aid delivery further undermined by corruption in
Kabul and bribes paid to insurgent groups to ensure security for
Representatives from several leading non-governmental organizations
testified in April at the Wartime Commission hearings in Washington,
D.C., that not-for-profits can do a better job in the final three years
in Afghanistan and Iraq. Speakers for Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief
Services, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee (IRC)
argued that their development model is successful because it is based on
experience in dozens of other conflicted countries over more than 20
years. They rely heavily on local communities to propose, implement and
monitor projects of their own selection, such as schools, clinics, roads
“We take a very low-cost approach, we have a small footprint, most of
our staff overseas are the citizens of that nations,” said Anne Richard
of the IRC. She said her organization has 400 employees in Afghanistan
and 98 percent of them are Afghans. “They are re-building their own
country with our support and it can be a tremendously successful
IRC first began working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan many years ago.
In Afghanistan, they have partnered with other NGOs in supporting the
growth of committee support for schools: teaching parents the value of
an education, providing teacher education and getting girls into the
classroom. They have partnered with several NGOs investing in
development efforts through the National Solidarity Program, whose work
had been endorsed by the ICG report.
“It’s true that your NGOs, like Save and Mercy Corps, and others have
been in-country and know the culture and depend on the indigenous people
to do the work,” Shays told VOA after the hearings.
Shays also said the committee has concerns about how USAID and the NGOs,
which do the work in the field, perform due diligence in monitoring the
projects. The Commission believes weaknesses in contracting occur in
Going to war with contractors
Shays suggested a corollary to the infamous remark by former Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to a U.S. National Guard unit in Kuwait, “You
go to war with the army you have.”
“If you’ve got to go to war with the army you’ve got,” Shays adds,
“you’ve also got to go to war with the contractors you’ve got. And you
are going to be a little more lenient for the first year or two,” Shays
said. “After a few years you shouldn’t be doing the same wasteful
“In the first year or two you cut yourself a little slack. But we have
been wasting money continually. So we need many reforms and it will take
years, but it will save literally billions and billions of dollars,"