A Real December Review for Afghanistan
GK: So most of the development resources are being used for security and non-Afghan contractors, leaving scarce resources for the Afghans themselves?
MS: That's right. It just doesn't work. The only things working in Afghanistan right now in terms of development are organizations like Aga Kahn Foundation, ICRC, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, etc.
Aga Kahn travels with no security whatsoever. Their development work has no security detail and the only way they go to the site is if the community supports them. This is how I travel too; I only travel if the community supports me. That's my security.
It's the exact same thing with the Community Development Councils. They are protected by community support, legitimacy and credibility. If we were committed to long-term investment and sustainable development, on a much smaller scale, it could work.
The scary thing is that Defense wants to take over development—to create a development wing within Defense. The militarization of development is increasingly common, but so too are the attacks on the troops who, having been tasked with the clearing and holding, are now building.
GK: If there are clear examples of a sustainable development model that works, why aren't we moving in that direction?
MS: Private industry is shaping US foreign policy. The defense industry was already strong before our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lockheed, Raytheon, General Dynamics, BAE were already quite robust and developed. But they've gotten stronger because we've just dumped trillions of dollars into Iraq and Afghanistan and they've benefited mightily, and now the privatized development industry is growing stronger too.
My thinking is—and you're already seeing this with Yemen—the defense and development industries have built up enough of an infrastructure that they have to sustain it. That's the problem with progressives calling for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, because it implies that we're going to bring all those resources home. We're not. We're going to take it to Yemen, we're going to take it to Pakistan, and we'll take it back to Somalia.
We're in a whole different playing field now. It's war—ongoing, enduring, forever. It's eternal war-making, because the industries will guide us in that direction.
Ultimately, it will be ineffective in undermining the threat. If you're going to bomb Al Qaeda, then you better be bombing urban centers in the West, because Al Qaeda is global and amorphous. They're sophisticated. They're not fighting in the hinterlands of Af-Pak. Our combat-heavy approach, our machine-heavy approach is totally ineffective on this front.
GK: So what is a more effective way to fight terrorists?
MS: When it comes to counter-terrorism strategy, Seth Jones's RAND report—"How Terrorist Groups End"—found that three of the most effective strategies capable of ending or dismantling terrorist groups involved policing, intelligence and negotiations. Military was deemed much less effective here. These are not big investments and they do not require heavy military equipment.
The lesson here is that we should help governments globally—not just where oil resources are—train up on policing, intelligence and negotiations. This focus does not require $40 billion Joint Strike Fighter planes. However, we don't cut those big ticket items because the private industry runs this town.
GK: Some Congressional hearings—and the Afghanistan Forums you were a part of—have highlighted the kinds of changes we need to make in order to build political and economic capacity. Do you see any of those changes on the horizon?
MS: No. In Afghanistan, we're now doing what we did in Iraq. We're arming and funding local communities, essentially pursuing the Anbar-style, localized and militarized approach. We're choosing the Afghan villages and working with them directly, circumventing the central government entirely. We're already doing this with sixty-eight villages or groups of villages throughout Afghanistan.
This frightens me because it's pitting tribe against tribe, or in some cases, dividing tribes even further. It's a subjective process, decided by the local commander, and it doesn't help build up political-economic capacity because it undermines the Afghan state structure.
GK: For all the media coverage about the corruption in the Afghan government, we certainly have plenty of US contractor corruption there as well. But we don't hear much about that. Why do you think that is?
MS: We certainly have plenty of contractor corruption; this war is awash with money.
But one of the key obstacles to accountability is access. Media can't access locations unless they have US military or NATO escort. Auditors can only go where the US military will take them. [So] nobody here is able to ferret out the truth.
Another reason why accountability is so difficult: the Inspectors General and auditors are housed within State and USAID and Defense Departments. There is no third party, independent auditing.
I think there's a third reason why all this corruption is allowed to continue. Not only is the war so far afield from our thinking here, nor do we really know what's going on, but we buy wholeheartedly into the security narrative and the fear narrative [and] we give implicit oversight to the government. We trust the government to deal with this fear and security threat, so we hand over all oversight and accountability. We almost don't want to know what's going on in Afghanistan or Iraq.
We need more people on the ground, in these war zones, penetrating this bubble. It's remarkable how effective the Defense Department has been in making these places seem mysterious and dark and dangerous. If we can create this culture of mystery, and only a few people have security clearance, it makes it very easy to create an impenetrable, impervious policy-making platform.
And as a result, we don't go, we don't look.
GK: Do you believe that Af-Pak development efforts—as we pursue them now—actually fuel the insurgency?
MS: The way in which we do development now in Afghanistan is fueling the insurgency. Development does not have to cause conflict, though. If done correctly, it can prevent conflict. I'm a big believer in the positive correlation between development and the reduction of violent conflict. Paul Collier's work—World Bank economist, Oxford economist—studied over 1,000 civil wars globally and found that if you increase secondary enrollment of young males by 10 percent, you reduce the risk of violent conflict by 4 percent. He also found that if unemployment goes up 1 percent, homicides go up 6 percent.
There are unemployment rates as high as 80 percent in Helmand Province, with illiteracy rates as high as 75 percent. In the Af-Pak mountainous border regions, unemployment is between 50 to 75 percent. If a madrassah comes in with free schooling, free housing, free food, well, you know that argument—and in Pakistan that's very evident, and in the Afghanistan border regions too.
If you want to reduce violent conflict, get people employed. Get them schooled. If you want to reduce violent conflict, that's what you need to focus on. And we could do that for a lot less money.