The Politics of “Defeat”

17 August 2021, 1654 EDT

A very knowledge person once said to me that we’re never really going to know the full story of the outbreak of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, because too many people are too invested in deflecting blame elsewhere.

I don’t know if that’s true of the Afghanistan War, but I do know that we should view every leaked document and every juicy detail provided by an anonymous source with skepticism. We need to treat them as maneuvers in a struggle –among politicians, agencies, officials, contractors, and analysts – to deflect the damage onto someone else.

there are always plenty of interested parties engaging in damage control

Indeed, whenever you start seeing anonymous government officials warning of some unaddressed problem or imminent screwup, it’s a good bet that they’re taking an internal fight public. The politics of failure go way beyond that: there are always plenty of interested parties engaging in damage control – and perhaps seizing on the moment to settle scores.

As my colleague Chris Fair argues, there are a lot of parties who had a role in how Afghanistan played out. For example:

But Pakistan cannot be blamed alone. U.S. capacity-building efforts were always deeply inadequate. Soviet-controlled Afghanistan was a rentier state nearly completely dependent on Moscow. But Washington built a much larger Afghan state—and one even less capable of paying its bills.

The failure to create a functioning state was particularly catastrophic when it came to the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior Affairs, which controls the police. From the beginning, the United States and NATO partners struggled to develop efficacious training programs. Training concepts and doctrines changed often as different parts of the recruiting and training mission came under different contractors and national oversight. The United States consistently sought shortcuts, such as opting to train “Afghan local police,” which Afghans more accurately called militias. Unlike training Afghan police, which was more resource intensive and provided by contractors, training these militias was still dependent on contractors but less so. Americans tried to justify equipping militias by applying Afghan names to them, such as Arbaki, which implied these latest efforts were rooted in Afghan historical practices rather than a quick and dirty effort to make a reliable and accountable police force.

The United States was adamant the Afghan military use U.S. weapons rather than Russian weapons, which tend to be easier and far more cost effective to use, maintain, and resupply. Chronic illiteracy and innumeracy plagued these efforts. In contrast, Moscow trained thousands of civilian and military personnel either in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Ironically, many of the United States’ most effective Afghan partners were those who trained with the Soviets.

Fair also notes that Afghans weren’t the only ones siphoning money into their own pockets:

Although much of the U.S. expenditures pertained to defense, the United States has ostensibly invested in other sectors of Afghan governance. As of June 30, the United States has spent about $144.98 billion in funds for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan since fiscal year 2002, including $88.61 billion for security (including $4.6 billion for counternarcotic initiatives); $36.29 billion for governance and development (including $4.37 billion for counternarcotic initiatives); $4.18 billion for humanitarian aid; and $15.91 billion for agency operations.

Although these numbers are staggering, much of U.S. investment did not stay in Afghanistan. Because of heavy reliance on a complex ecosystem of defense contractors, Washington banditry, and aid contractors, between 80 and 90 percent of outlays actually returned to the U.S. economy. Of the 10 to 20 percent of the contracts that remained in the country, the United States rarely cared about the efficacy of the initiative. Although corruption is rife in Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction repeatedly identifies bewildering corruption by U.S. firms and individuals working in Afghanistan.

In many cases, U.S. firms even defrauded Afghans. In 2010, one military official with the International Security Assistance Force explained to New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall that “without being too dramatic, American contractors are contributing to fueling the insurgency.” As it neglected to tackle Pakistan and tried to do security on the cheap, Washington also strongarmed the Afghan government it into so-called “peace talks” with the Taliban. More than anyone, the Afghan government understood the Taliban and their Pakistani handlers could not be trusted to honor their commitments, such as they were.

How the politics of failure play out here will have significant downstream implications. The stories that congeal around questions like “was Afghanistan a defeat for the United States?” and “who lost Afghanistan?” and “was Afghanistan winnable?” will likely affect U.S. foreign- and national-security for decades.

It’s not just a matter of which narratives, it’s also a matter of where they take hold. For example, different individuals and organizations came away with different lessons from Vietnam, and in consequential ways.

In my view, the most important thing right now is the fate of vulnerable Afghans. But that doesn’t change the fact that the struggle to win the loss is already underway – and not just in the United States, but also in other countries and in the international arena.