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Afghanistan, Total Failure. Who to Blame? All Part

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    Posted: 25-Sep-2018 at 2:21pm

Afghanistan, Total Failure. Who to Blame? All Parties. Lessons Learned? Few. But the War Must Go On.

Afghanistan, Total Failure. Who to Blame? All Parties. Lessons Learned? Few. But the War Must Go On.

“The poor results of Afghanistan stabilization may make it tempting to conclude that stabilization should never be undertaken again. However, given the security challenges we face in today’s world, that simply may not be a realistic choice.” —Inspector General John Sopko. 

Promoting stability in another country can encompass a variety of actions, including military, political, and developmental. In fragile or con- flict-ridden countries, the approach can also include stabilization programs, which U.S. agencies have defined as “a political endeavor involving an integrated civilian-military process to create conditions where locally legiti- mate authorities and systems can peaceably manage conflict and prevent a resurgence of violence.” That definition, adopted by the Secretaries of State and Defense, and by the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), further explains that stabilization is “transitional in nature,” and “may include efforts to establish civil security, provide access to dispute resolution, deliver targeted basic services, and establish a foun- dation for the return of displaced people and longer term development.”

Until that point, however, the United States was spending significant amounts on stabilization. USAID, the principal conduit for nonmilitary assistance in Afghanistan, has recorded total disbursements of $2.4 billion under the heading of stabilization. Only infrastructure ($4.3 billion) and gov- ernance programs ($2.7 billion) accounted for more USAID spending, while other categories trailed behind.

Unfortunately, these efforts did not generally succeed—perhaps unsur- prisingly, given the country’s long history of violence, poverty, illiteracy, active insurgent and terrorist groups, pervasive corruption, weak institu- tions, and other problems documented in SIGAR reports.

Afghanistan has been at war almost continuously since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded to install a client regime, then through civil war,
then during the U.S.-led Coalition overthrow of the Taliban regime that harbored al-Qaeda terrorists, and since then through the Coalition and the Afghan government’s struggle against stubborn and resilient insurgents and terror organizations.

With the rise of the Islamic State and its affiliates, making poorly gov- erned spaces inhospitable to transnational terrorist groups remains a vital U.S. national security priority. Civil and military stabilization programs can theoretically be a means to achieve that goal, but as SIGAR’s new report concludes, the experience in Afghanistan illustrates the need for new think- ing: “The U.S. government overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of the stabilization strategy,” and “under immense pressure to quickly stabilize insecure districts, U.S. government agencies spent far too much money, far too quickly, and in a country woefully unprepared to absorb it.” For these and other reasons, the stabilization efforts “mostly failed.”

From 2003 to 2005, the U.S. military executed a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in the east and south of Afghanistan. “Having ousted the Taliban regime,” a 2003 DOD policy paper said, “the [U.S.-led] Coalition is now working to help the Afghans create a stable government and society that will prevent Afghanistan from serving as a base for ter- rorists.” Part of the overall strategy was stabilizing the south and east
of Afghanistan—the north was largely controlled by the forces of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance—through a political-military strategy “to prevent a Taliban resurgence and to build support for the Coalition and the central government.”

In 2008–2009, the numbers of suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices skyrocketed. Many policymakers, seeing COIN and stabilization programs as yielding big gains in security for Iraq, determined to use the same methods to help the Afghan government secure territory and out-gov- ern the Taliban in rural communities.

An explicit stabilization strategy unfolded in 2009–2010 as the United States surged more than 50,000 troops to clear insurgents from the most dangerous and contested districts in Afghanistan’s south and east, and deployed hundreds of civilians to use stabilization programming to hold and build those areas so the Taliban would be unwelcome and unable to return.

SIGAR’s report concludes, however, that prioritizing the most dangerous parts of the country while planning to withdraw surge forces in 18 months regardless of conditions on the ground had a profound, negative impact on stabilization planning, staffing, and programming. The report documents friction between military and civilian priorities. Policy called for civilian- military coordination, but military planners made or heavily influenced most of the key decisions on which districts to focus on, deciding when communities were ready for civilian stabilization programming, and decid- ing what kind of projects should be implemented to win popular support.

KEY FINDINGS

1. The U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of its stabilization strategy.

2. The stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context.

3. The large sums of stabilization dollars the United States devoted to Afghanistan in search of quick gains often exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption, and bolstered support for insurgents.

Stabilization efforts in Afghanistan have been difficult and all too often disappointing failures. But the goals remain pertinent and essential: even comprehensive battlefield success cannot guarantee popular cooperation and support for the host-country government, or eliminate the doubts and grievances that can fuel future insurgencies.

SIGAR’s Lessons Learned Program report offers evidence-backed find- ings, lessons, and recommendations that, if adopted, can improve outcomes for local populations as well as for U.S. interests in other countries. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Frances Brown said at the Brookings event, “I think a key recommendation of mine is, do read the report.”

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