At least one committee in Congress is almost ready to question the mythology of the Afghan war—or at least to put into practice the idea that “counterinsurgency theories deserve careful, ongoing scrutiny to see if they yield intended results,” as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released this week says. This is more than our military has been willing to do. For General Petraeus and his apologists, it isn’t possible that their strategy can be wrong; no, it’s always just a matter of more time, more troops and more money. Another way to put that is to call it what it is: a fantasy ideology.
But luckily for Americans and Afghans alike, it seems that Congress may be about to pull the plug on our spending in Afghanistan, which is $2 billion per week. With Senator Jeff Merkley circulating a petition among his colleagues asking for “significant” troop withdrawals, and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin asking for the same, it seems that Congress is finally waking up to the enormous waste and blind mismanagement of the war.
The senators are surely aware that public opinion continues to shift against the war, with a CNN poll last week showing 39% in favor of withdrawing all American forces now, and 45% saying troops are no longer necessary, and just 53% saying they are. Now if only our president would show good sense too. Though the report was Democrat-sponsored, Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney distanced the White House from it. Perhaps in the wake of bin Laden’s killing, Obama is more ready to embrace the Afghan war as his. This is a mistake. Carney picked just about the worst possible example to illustrate “significant progress” in Afghanistan: the training of the Afghan national security forces.
Yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee majority staff report warning that our $18.8 billion spending in aid in Afghanistan has produced little—and much of that unsustainable once we leave, because of pervasive corruption and lack of capacity in the Afghan government—will be interpreted by some in partisan terms. But Republicans ought to take it to heart, rather than going down with their intellectual ship. It was, after all, President Eisenhower who condemned “costly small wars” in his 1954 State of the Union address.
This advice has obviously been ignored lately. In fact, spending money became the measure of activity and even success in the Iraq counterinsurgency. Craig A. Collier, a former cavalry squadron commander in Iraq, wrote a scathing attack on the American way of executing a counterinsurgency strategy in Armed Forces Journal last fall:
In 2006 and 2008, we defined “success” in the economic development line of effort as the amount of money spent and number of projects completed. These two measures of performance were the only ones tracked. We did not track measures of effectiveness, such as whether the project was actually completed to standard, was used for its intended purpose, resulted in an increase in tips, a drop in violence or long-term job creation. We would not accept this lack of evidence of success for any lethal operation. We don’t claim that our lethal missions were successful based on the number of patrols sent out or the number of rounds fired.
The portions of the Senate report divulged so far match exactly with what I have seen over 18 visits to Afghanistan. The report says the “single most important step” we should take is to stop paying Afghans bloated salaries to work for us. Well, on my fourth embed to Zabul province a few weeks ago, I learned that the young woman I’d met in November who was getting $350 a month to do a weekly radio program of 40 minutes was still on the U.S. teat. In a province with no defense attorneys for criminal defendants, much less for indigent defendants, we are funding a woman’s radio show at close to $100 an hour.
The senate report also noted the waste often resulting from the “Performance-Based Governors Fund,” which can give out up to $100,000 a month to Afghanistan’s 34 provincial governors.
This pales compared to the bucks available to those who, with various degrees of sincerity, reduce poppy cultivation in their provinces. Governor Mangal of Helmand has been awarded $10 million in development funds for his province for reducing poppy cultivation by 33% in 2009 and 7% in 2010. According to his 24-year-old development advisor, Wahedullah Ulfat, he will use that money for a sanitarium to treat 1000 of Helmand’s estimated 80,000 opiate addicts—20% of the male population—and to build a new mosque and a women’s bazaar, including a women’s mosque. There are already two cathedral-sized mosques and one smaller one within a mile of the governor’s palace, but in Helmand, as in many provinces, building gargantuan (and hideous) mosques is a favorite gubernatorial activity. An Afghan-American who’s a former Member of Parliament, Daoud Sultanzoy, once told me, “There are mosques next to mosques next to other mosques.”
I have previously questioned whether using American taxpayer money to build or re-furbish mosques is even constitutional (see my piece “Madrasses Built With Your Taxes”) and received lots of negative feedback from the American military about it, as though I were single-handedly losing the war by questioning whether building mosques does anything for the Afghan people, much less for the American people.
We have been through a period of what can only be called national madness in our spending in Afghanistan. Much of it has been in the grip of an ideology that held that the way to win in Afghanistan was to try to create a connection between Afghans and their ridiculous government of gangsters by convincing them that it provided the people with valuable services. So the local ministry of religious affairs would give out blankets to men in the fall – paid for by the U.S., but never marked as such. Of course, we were the ones funding and in most cases delivering the services—and we weren’t even reaping the benefit of goodwill. Meanwhile the Afghans knew their government was corrupt and incompetent and wondered why we backed so many thieves.
Perhaps we are awakening now from this bad dream.