Afghanistan: Leaving as Tragic as Staying

“What do we care?”

That’s what Bing West, former assistant secretary of defense and Vietnam veteran, exclaimed when it was suggested that Afghanistan might slip “back into warlordism” if the U.S. military stopped focusing on governance and development there.

“The reason we tried nation-building in Afghanistan was because of our hubris, on the one hand, and because we thought we were so rich we could do anything. And so we’ve spent 10 years with 9th-century tribes on a bunch of rocks, trying to sort of say a social contract is the way we’ll do business as a military,” said West.

Now, the author of The Wrong War charged, “we have created a culture of entitlement … we have driven the Afghans, after 10 years, to expect when you look at an American, you see a dollar sign.”

West told an audience at the Center for a New American Security’s annual conference (.pdf) last month that it was time for most U.S. forces to pull up stakes, leaving behind a small force of special operations to pursue targeted counterterrorism. That’s it. Stop the madness, end the welfare.

After a decade of fighting at a staggering cost of some $4 trillion, according to a new report, West’s perspective has been well received by many in Washington, as is his blunt view that Marines are not nation-builders, and that the whole idea of so-called population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) was a politically-driven and now unredeemed Washington confection used to sell the Long War to the American public. In fact, more than anyone, he’s likely helped along a growing backlash against COIN within the national security establishment at a time when the public is restive about the prolonged nature and cost of war to the American economy.

Proclaiming “what do we care?” is kind of cathartic, after a decade of feeling we’ve cared too much with little in return. It’s not too surprising, then, to hear the chorus — President Obama included — that it’s time for Afghans to “stand up and take control” of their own fate. I guess it’s helpful for people to think of Afghanistan in conservative American social terms, that the people there are like welfare recipients enabled in their dependence on Uncle Sam by billions in aid and security, and that the removal of the “crutch” will only make them stronger —  it certainly takes the edge off the feeling that we didn’t quite come through with our earlier promise to help build a better Afghanistan.

People like Karolina Olofsson, who works with Integrity Watch Afghanistan, and was in Washington last week to talk about cleaning up corruption in Afghanistan, says it’s not that easy. She’s from the school of thought that since we helped to break it, we have to stick around to fix it, even if that means forestalling the withdrawal until it’s done. Now while most of us here wouldn’t agree, it is worth looking at the mess we mean to leave behind — which Olofsson and others point out could be quite substantial.

“It’s about responsibility —  are we going to stay to fix the problems that we by and large caused, or leave it for the Afghans,” who will likely be engulfed in a civil war once U.S. forces withdraw, said Olofsson, who has been living and working in Afghanistan for the last two years.

“People are already saying to anyone who asks, that this feels a lot like when the Soviets were leaving” in 1988-1989, she said, and civil war ensued and a working government in Kabul was non-existent.

Olofsson’s group is focused on the rapid and largely unregulated infusion of foreign aid into the country, which she says has created “money lords out of warlords.” While no one suggests that corruption did not exist in Afghanistan before, Olofsson said the sheer lack of oversight on the part of the Karzai administration and its foreign patrons, particularly the U.S., has institutionalized corruption in Afghan civil society and in the private sector, and has critically stunted any progress the people hoped to gain since 2002.

In its own survey of Afghans in 32 provinces in 2009, IWA found that one in seven adults had directly experienced bribery, and 28 percent paid at least one bribe that year to attain a public service, with the average bribe being $156, a huge amount for a country in which the per capita income is $502 a year. IWA says this amounts to about $1 billion in bribes in 2009, up from $446 million in 2007. Sadly, according to the survey, the greatest number of bribes are paid to get basic social services, like health and education.

Furthermore, some 50 percent said that corruption was furthering the cause of the Taliban (for more about its own extortion rackets, read here) and one-third said corruption was a major source of conflict in their town or village.

Olofsson said IWA has had marginal success in helping to foster local corruption monitors while waiting for the Karzai government to come through on promised reforms to the system. They may be waiting a very long time, she admits, and there is hardly a guarantee that things would get any better if and when Karzai is gone.

American lawmakers are more aware than ever before that U.S. aid to Afghanistan is being scrutinized. No doubt they sense that time is running out to get it right, too. Just recently, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations said in a June report (.pdf), “foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, disrupt labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources and contribute to insecurity.”

So why not just stop the flow of the money, the source of such upheaval and corruption? The U.S. has given about $19 billion to Afghanistan since 2002. The country has received about $52 billion overall. Choking it off sounds like an easy solution, but it would come at a tremendous cost, others point out, again, to the very people we once pledged to shepherd out of the ruins and into modernity.

For one thing, according to the World Bank, some 97 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP consists of spending related to the international military and the donor community presence. Citing previous testimony from experts, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee acknowledged that a “precipitous withdrawal in the absence of reliable domestic revenue and a functioning market based economy would trigger a major economic recession.”

No doubt. This is why Olofsson likes to say that it isn’t the amount of aid, but how it is spent. Right now the money has been spent in ways that have been identified by outside observers as hurting the population, rather than helping it. And while USAID (the primary civilian U.S. agency in charge of reconstruction) and the U.S. military have touted areas where assistance has been put to positive use, there is a growing body of evidence to concede that no one — American, Afghan or otherwise — has really gotten much bang out of their billions of buck.

Some recent examples include a damning report by Glenn Zorpette for The New York Times, which describes the failure and seeming futility of a $1.2 billion USAID project to establish a modern electrical grid in Afghanistan, which as of today, still remains in the bottom 10 percent of the world in electricity consumption per capita.

In one case, USAID took nearly three years to build a 105-megawatt power plant in Tarakil, outside Kabul. Contracting problems, delays and budget overruns have cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $40 million for the project and as of today the plant “most often has sat idle,” while power in the form of diesel fuel is trucked in to the area to supplement — of course at gougers’ prices.

“The agency has shown an inability to manage large electrical projects. It’s programs change with the policy goals of the American administration it serves, and it seems to lack officials in Afghanistan who arrive with prior experience in electrical projects and contracting,” writes Zorpette, who suggests turning over the projects to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In another recent report, the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote that USAID programs that were designed to support local development, agriculture and job training have been severely delayed because of various bureaucratic logjams, competing priorities and as one unnamed official said, an 85 percent turnover rate on staff.

And while the Army might have done better than USAID at say, individual electrical projects, real success at reconstruction and development has often eluded the military, too.

“Another problem with Zorpette’s model of throwing everything to the military because you need to get it done right now is that the military isn’t all that good at this stuff, either,” wrote’s Joshua Foust, in a response last week.

In fact, according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, as well as many critics across the political spectrum, development at the hands of soldiers and Marines might be more harmful short- and long-term for the Afghans. “Our strategy assumes that short-term aid promotes stability in counterinsurgency operations and ‘wins hearts and minds,’ ” according to the study. “The evidence from Afghanistan supporting these assumptions,” however, “is limited.” Worse, said the committee, if not handled properly, such funding could have the opposite effect, causing infighting among tribes or find its way into the hands of the insurgency.

“We see that much of the (military) development is already falling apart,” Olofsson told, charging that reconstruction based on the military’s goals of counterinsurgency is expedient as well as expensive, and more often than not, unsustainable by communities still living in poverty. Not to mention they don’t always match the humanitarian and local governance needs of the community.

The committee quoted former Pentagon adviser Mark Moyar, who wrote about the Kajaki Dam near Kandahar, and testified before Congress last March. In keeping with the theory that aid does not necessarily result in stabilization and a successful counterinsurgency, Moyar wrote in his report (.pdf):

In sections of the Afghan countryside where counterinsurgent forces have not established military dominance, insurgents have regularly halted projects through threats or violence against the workers. When projects have been completed in insecure areas, insurgents have often destroyed them, or kept away the staff who are required to operate them.

In other insecure areas, the insurgents allow development to proceed in order to leech off of it. Numerous development contractors in Afghanistan pay protection money to private security companies or local power brokers because the counterinsurgents lack sufficient forces in the area, and oftentimes this money falls into Taliban hands through intimidation or collusion. Military superiority also allows the insurgents to reap the economic benefits of completed projects. For instance, the United States spent more than $100 million repairing and upgrading the Kajaki hydropower plant to provide electricity to Helmand and Kandahar provinces, but last year half of its electricity went into areas where the insurgents control the electric grid, enabling the Taliban to issue electric bills to consumers and send out collection agents with medieval instruments of torture to ensure prompt payment. The consumers in these places use the power for the irrigation of fields that grow poppies, which in turn fuel the opium trade from which the Taliban derive much of their funding.

If the military plans to continue shifting priorities from development to so-called counterterrorism, which would no doubt make people like Bing West happy — then the chances of it ever getting stabilization and development “right” like Moyar suggests (futilely) later in his paper, decrease by the minute. As for USAID, there seems to be a litany of issues — from funding, staffing, and disorganization to waste, fraud, and abuse in contracting — that make it largely unable to turn around anything now.

Meanwhile, so much is left undone even on the most basic level: the refugee crisis (91,000 fleeing their homes in the first five months of 2011 alone), the high maternal mortality rate (still the worst in the world), and crimes against women (the second worst in the world). As for health care, it’s still nearly unattainable in the rural areas, and education, well, there have been recent questions about the actual number of children attending newly built schools compared to the “official” numbers given to the press.

The pressure is on for the West to pull up stakes. There are many smart people inside and outside Washington who say it’s time, and the sooner the better — though not everyone would agree on when, and whether that should include the millions of aid sent over there each year.

Whatever one believes, it’s obvious we’ve passed the high road a long time ago. Leaving will be as tragic as staying, primarily because as it looks now, our legacy will have served no one, save the corruptible, power-hungry elements that had been there all along.

But what do we care?

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.