A Real December Review for Afghanistan
The War in Afghanistan is the longest in US history, at 110 months, and the most expensive, at $1 million per soldier and over $100 billion annually. There have been over 2,200 US and coalition casualties, and tens of thousands of Afghan civilian deaths. Additionally, nearly 600 US troops are wounded every month.
Given these extraordinary human and economic costs—at a time when there is great economic pain at home and 60 percent of Americans think the war is not worth fighting—there was much anticipation of the "December Review" President Obama promised one year ago when he announced a 30,000-troop increase in Afghanistan.
But last month the administration began to downplay the review's significance, saying it would only look at the strategy's progress rather than consider policy alternatives. And there was no shortage of leaks revealing that the report would show progress is being made.
So when an unclassified version of the review was finally released, it came as little surprise that it concluded that "the strategy is showing progress."
Unfortunately, one needs to look elsewhere for a more candid assessment.
Take, for example, political and economic development, which are key to the US counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. After assuming command in Afghanistan this summer, General David Petraeus wrote in a letter addressed to "The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Civilians of NATO ISAF and US Forces-Afghanistan": "The decisive terrain is the human terrain.… Money is ammunition; don't put it in the wrong hands.… Pay close attention to the impact of our spending and understand who benefits from it. And remember, we are who we fund. How we spend is often more important than how much we spend."
But the unclassified review gives these development efforts short shrift, touting an "integrated civilian-military approach" without providing examples, and offering the unsubstantiated claim that "we have supported and focused investments in infrastructure that will give the Afghan government and people the tools to build and sustain a future of stability."
How are we really meeting the challenges General Petraeus himself laid out in his letter to the troops? How are we spending in Afghanistan? Whom are we funding? How are we using "ammunition" to win "the decisive human terrain"?
I spoke with Michael Shank, senior policy adviser for Congressman Michael Honda, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus's Afghanistan Taskforce, about these issues. Shank came to DC after ten years of development work in South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, mostly in conflict zones. He has traveled and worked extensively throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. A doctoral candidate at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Shank is also an original co-author of the Afghanistan Study Group report.
Greg Kaufmann: General Petraeus's own COIN manual suggests that counterinsurgency strategy should focus about 80 percent of spending on political and economic development—or soft power—and 20 percent on military. But our expenditures in Afghanistan are more along the lines of 90 percent military and 10 percent development. What do you make of that?
Michael Shank: Much of our development work in Afghanistan now is political. Here's why: it would be difficult to sell to the American public that we're there to liberate the women of Afghanistan from Taliban control unless we had a development arm focusing, albeit insubstantially, on socioeconomic-political agendas.
But if we were serious about development, we would pursue best practices, none of which are being exhibited in Afghanistan. If we really cared about freedom and democracy in Afghanistan we would do it much differently.
GK: How would we do it differently?
MS: Compare the schools that are built by our government, versus the schools that are built locally by Afghans. Schools built by our government contractors are targets for Taliban attack because they have not built sufficient relations with the community. There's no community support. So the Taliban sees that target and says, "The community doesn't care about it so let's hit it."
Case after case in Afghanistan you hear stories about structures that are built, photographed, insurgents paid off until the project is completed, and then the insurgents can do whatever they want.
In contrast, look at more sustainable local models of development like Afghanistan's Community Development Councils, which are run by the National Solidarity Program (NSP). The way the Community Development Councils work is that the community elects the council members. They get a $20,000 or $30,000 block grant [from the NSP—which is funded by the World Bank or other international institutions and Western countries] and the CDC gets to decide how it's spent. They decide—do we want a road, a bridge, a school, whatever.
They build it and the Taliban does not touch these projects. The Taliban knows if they do, they'll alienate the community. The only time CDC members have been killed—and some of them have—is when the US military started associating with them. [The military] was thinking about how to build out the CDCs beyond their development role. Could they be used for policing, election monitoring, a place to nominate candidates for political office?
They're building out the CDCs' roles because they work. Why do they work? Because they're micro-financed in small, manageable projects and their success depends on community trust, confidence and oversight. There are stories of the CDCs giving money back to the government after a project was completed when they didn't use it—like $7,000 here, $9,000 there—money unspent, given back to the government. Sadly, this model continues to remain underfunded.
Congress has gotten on board the CDC concept and now you see the Defense Department trying to replicate them, or associate with them, and that's where the CDC council members have been killed.
GK: So Congress is interested in replicating it?
MS: Yes, but [in order for any US development efforts in Afghanistan to be successful] we need to let go of our ego associated with development.
There's political motive to sell to the public that we're liberating these people. We have to have that veneer of US-led democracy-building.
If we cared about socioeconomic-political development in Afghanistan—if we truly cared about it—we would have a 180-degree switch. We wouldn't be using "Beltway bandits," we'd be using local mechanisms, and we wouldn't need to have "USA" stamped on everything. Local development organizations in Afghanistan, who receive US funds, operate this way. They demand that the US is not associated with the project in any way. The organizations know this the only way the project will be successful and free from insurgent attack.
GK: Talk about the current development model as it's practiced by Defense and non-Afghan subcontractors.
MS: War profiteering in Afghanistan is pervasive because there is no monitoring and accountability. The stories of inefficiency or outright corruption are rampant. For example, a US contractor gets $25 million from the US government to spend in six months and they don't have to report on how they spent that money. With everyone taking their cut along the way, by the time this grant reaches the ground in Afghanistan, you may have only 10 percent left for the actual project. This is quite common. A $5 million project [has] only $500,000 left for the actual road, bridge or damn.
Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs)–these civilian-military collaborations between the State and Defense Departments–are another source of inefficiency. Holed up in a compound with big walls and barbed wire, isolated from the local community, the PRTs mix together a few engineers with a couple hundred soldiers. The engineers are there to consult on the reconstruction projects, and the soldiers are there to securitize and do some of the building.
Now, imagine one of these PRT officials–an expert from State for example—wants to visit a reconstruction project outside the compound. For one official, you're required to travel with two or three armored vehicles and four to eight armed personnel per person, for protection. On average, for one official to do one day's worth of site visits, you're looking at about $14,000 worth of security costs per day.
Local Afghans see this. They also see food and water shipped into these PRT compounds from abroad and wonder why, if we really care about building up Afghan capacity, we don't use legitimate local alternatives.
If State and USAID were, instead, able to commingle with the community without the pomp and circumstance of defense protection—to the extent that we can do that—we'll be more effective. But there is little serious effort at that whatsoever.
I'm ultimately supportive of US-Afghan partnerships if we are truly committed to building up their capacity. But if we want to pursue such a partnership, it has to be overwhelmingly guided, dictated and directed by Afghans. We're not even remotely close to that.