Why the White House won't win the Afghanistan war

As US drone strikes scuttle Afghanistan-Pakistan peace talks with Taliban, bigger war lessons remain unlearned. Photo: Pakistani protesters/ AP

WASHINGTON, November 7, 2013 — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry desperately needs a win on the Afghanistan war. Unfortunately, however, it appears increasingly unlikely he will get one.

Despite repeated visits and discussions, Kerry has so far failed to secure a clean Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Without an agreement, all U.S. and NATO forces – including the approximately 10,000 that the Pentagon wants to keep in country – would have to leave the country next year. 


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The immediate sticking point is on whether U.S. troops will receive immunity for misdeeds during the deployment, but the larger issue centers on respect, sovereignty and judicial non-interference.

Local populations are overwhelmingly against immunity for U.S. troops. In Afghanistan, most cases currently slide without reprimand or justice. This includes countless stories of abuse accompanying night raids, which Karzai has repeatedly attempted to ban. As is the case in Iraq, the Philippines and elsewhere, local populations want accountability within their own courts for U.S. troops who commit abuses in their countries. Americans would assuredly want the same treatment for foreign troops on U.S. soil.

After 12 years at war with Afghanistan, we continue to miss the mark on four fronts: strategy, cost, accountability and perception.

Take strategy. The Pentagon has pursued new policies in two to three year spurts, each time under different, equally optimistic leadership. First, immediately after the invasion, leaders aided and abetted warlords and corrupt officials in Afghanistan – essentially anyone who would help the U.S. agenda, no matter how much blood was on their hands. Then Defense and State departments tried bolstering Kabul and the central state, figuring that legal and licit state building was wiser. More recently, the Pentagon is experimenting with pilot projects like propping up locals with munitions and monies and calling them the Afghan Local Police, a nonofficial title.


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This latest strategy comes with incredible risk. Flooding villages with financial bribes and bombs is likely to backfire and create more civil war. Those arms will eventually be used against us, as they were in Iraq and Libya. That attacks on U.S. troops rose substantially in recent years is a reflection of how NATO and the United States have focused their efforts.

By primarily pursuing military options for the last 12 years, the United States failed to assist Afghanistan’s socioeconomic security, be it better trade, more jobs, functional markets, schools with teachers, or hospitals with doctors and medicine. For a lot less money, the U.S. could have helped Afghanistan fix problems, like the fact that only 27 percent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water and 5 percent to adequate sanitation, and that only 30 percent of Afghans have access to electricity.

These are devastating realities in light of the hundreds of billions of dollars America has already spent on the country.  The over $325 million spent every single day in Afghanistan, or $120 billion yearly, makes this aforementioned socioeconomic security oversight even more appalling. Keep in mind these are monies that America does not actually have; this war is entirely debt-funded. Politicos in Washington, who are concerned about our burgeoning deficit or our rising debt ceiling, would be wise to trim here first.

Take accountability.  Afghanistan has become a sea of untraceable taxpayer dollars. As an example of the corruption involved and the U.S. officials getting rich off this war, scan the quarterly Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports: last year, a U.S. army staff sergeant was charged with smuggling $1 million in cash inside numerous DVD recorders loaded for shipment to the U.S.  Another U.S. army sergeant pled guilty to smuggling $100,000 in a backpack at the end of her overseas tour, while a former U.S. army chief was convicted of conspiracy for his role in a bribery/kickback scheme, after soliciting a $60,000 bribe.

Afghanistan war profiteering is ubiquitous. A U.S. army sergeant first class stole $225,000 in funds earmarked for reconstruction. A U.S. army 7th Special Forces group sergeant stole tens of thousands of dollars hidden inside a teddy bear. The convictions are constant, the charges are countless, and the monies lost are by now in the billions. These are just a few examples, among many, of U.S. fraud, waste, and abuse. No wonder the Afghans want us out. They see the U.S. corruption all around them.


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Take perception. The United States is about as far from winning Afghan hearts and minds as it has ever been. The U.S. military continues the night house raids and drone and air strikes, which Afghans at all levels of society are vehemently protesting. The only thing strategic about these raids and strikes is their ability to spark furor in the hearts and minds of Afghans. It has now led to a nationwide culture of fear: a majority of Afghans, according to an Asia Foundation poll, fear for their personal safety, hardly something for the Pentagon to write home about after over a decade of war.

As we approach 2014, then, what should America do besides promptly reduce its military footprint? In Asia Foundation’s poll, an overwhelming majority of Afghans, at 82 percent, supported the government’s attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with armed opposition. America’s past support for this must continue, as it’s the only hope for political stability.

Furthermore, if U.S. policymakers do not want to leave Afghanistan in shambles while drawing down the military presence, they should allocate at least one month’s worth of existing funding, or $10 billion, for one of the few national development programs that has been effective in rebuilding Afghanistan these last ten years. This $10 billion would not only fund the National Solidarity Program and its Community Development Councils for the next decade, but also allow them to significantly scale up their laudable reconstruction and stabilization efforts.

Going forward, the White House must face the fact that one, two or ten more years at war won’t bring success.  Nor will Secretary Kerry’s securing of an immunity deal for approximately 10,000 troops post-2014.  America has been at it for over 12 years and to no avail. The only U.S. presence that should remain in Afghanistan post-2014 is not a soldiered one but a socioeconomic one. That is how you win the hearts and minds of Afghans, an effort on which we’ve almost entirely missed the boat.  The time is now to save face and save some lives. Let’s hope the White House learns this lesson at least. 


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Michael Shank, Ph.D.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington DC. Michael is also Adjunct Faculty and a Board Member at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Board Member at Communities Without Boundaries International, Senior Fellow at the French American Global Forum and the Just Jobs Network, and Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict.  Prior to joining FCNL, Michael served for four years as a congressional staffer, working as US Congressman Michael Honda's Senior Policy Advisor and Communications Director.

Michael's career over the past 20 years has involved UN, government and non-governmental organizations in the US, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, as an adviser on diplomatic, economic, energy, and environmental security and policy initiatives.  Michael's Ph.D. from George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution focused on Climate Conflict.

 

Contact Michael Shank, Ph.D.

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