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"?
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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.
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.