Friday, October 21, 2016

Corruption, Realism, and Rebuilding Afghanistan

I've seen several stories like this one over the past two or three years:
American officials received persistent, stark warnings that Afghanistan’s entrenched culture of official corruption would undermine their efforts to rebuild that country after the West’s military invasion 15 years ago, according to recently declassified diplomatic cables and internal government reports.

The diversion of Afghan resources and Western aid for private gain would, the public and private reports all said, drain vitally needed funds from the country’s reconstruction and alienate its citizenry. That would in turn fuel renewed public support for the West’s enemy—the Taliban, whose social brutality notoriously included draconian punishments for official corruption.

But the U.S. officials in charge of rebuilding the country largely failed to heed these alarms, according to their own assessments. “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts,” said Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador from 2011 to 2012, in a newly released interview with a team of official auditors, is Afghanistan’s corruption.
Suppose we all agree that corruption in Hamid Karzai's government and other Afghan power centers ultimately made it impossible to create a stable, more-or-less democratic Afghanistan.

What was any American supposed to do about it? Blaming American decision makers for "ignoring" Afghan corruption seems ridiculous to me. What else could they have done? The US put a huge effort into building Karzai up as Afghanistan's legitimate ruler, partly because there just wasn't anyone else available to fill that role. One reason Karzai had as much success as he did was that he was very much  plugged into the traditional Afghan power structure. And that power structure was and probably always has been corrupt. I have never seen any credible alternate scenario to going all-in with the only Afghan friends we had.

Various American agencies came up with various anti-corruption plans, which were never really implemented. They were never implemented because 1) Karzai refused to cooperate, and 2) implementing them would have meant taking serious action against the very people we needed to fight the Taliban. I am reminded of a point David has made several times in the comments here, that small client countries can be very skilled at manipulating their great power backers. Any time we tried to interfere in the way Karzai and his friends were operating, he went on a nationalist tear, delivering anti-US speeches and making it clear he would rather lose US support than accept American dictates. Maybe he was bluffing, but really our leverage was very limited. Ultimately we cared more about fighting the Taliban than Karzai did; he would be very happy to let them rule the southern half of the country and export as much opium and terrorism as they want in return for control of Kabul and the north.

The notion that we could have simultaneously fought the Taliban, built up an Afghan government friendly to our interests, and completely remade the political culture of Afghanistan is the worst kind of neocolonial hubris. Spare me this sort of armchair moralizing.

7 comments:

JEL said...

On the small scale it did not help, my Marine friends tell me, that the metric used to evaluate US military Public Affairs officers was how much money they spent, and so useful small projects (such as a pump for a well) were often neglected in favor of expensive projects, such as a third school for a village of fifty people.

JEL

G. Verloren said...

"The notion that we could have simultaneously fought the Taliban, built up an Afghan government friendly to our interests, and completely remade the political culture of Afghanistan is the worst kind of neocolonial hubris. Spare me this sort of armchair moralizing."

If we couldn't fight the Taliban, build up the Afghan government of our choice, and remake the political culture of the country - then why did we invade in the first place? What was the point of spending lives and money to destabilize the entire region if we weren't going to be able to restabilize and improve it?

Moreover, I'm not remotely convinced it wasn't within our power. We bombed Germany and Japan to rubble, and then rebuilt them from the ground up, including their political and cultural institutions.

Especially in the case of Japan - we burnt their cities to ash, utterly crushed their military, and forcibly unseated their god. We wrote a constitution for them, forbade them from ever again building an army, clamped down on their religion, and compelled their obedience with a mixture of tanks in the streets and aid workers handing out bread and helping to rebuild their homes and businesses. The post-war occupation even introduced the celebration of Christmas, for crying out loud. Clearly we're perfectly capable of restructuring foreign cultures and politics in the wake of a war.

If we had actually wanted to, we absolutely could have done the same in Afghanistan and Iraq. We simply weren't willing to spend the time, energy, and resources on doing so. We didn't care enough about the issue to see it all the way through.

To be fair, in the case of Germany and Japan, we were afraid of what the Russians and others might do if we didn't step in, so we had a very strong motivation to stick it out and set things right. But in the case of Afghanistan, we never had a real motivation other than acting out our indignant national rage at having been attacked, and reasserting our position and strength through a display of military might - and in the case of Iraq, we didn't even have that: we just hated Saddam and had a grudge from the early 90s we wanted to settle.

And so we blew up both countries, and then when it came time to occupy and rebuild, we got bored and left. And the power vacuums we created and failed to fill ended up sending things from bad to worse, and now we're struggling to clean up THAT mess. And we STILL have to find a way to restabilize once we do. Does anyone actually believe that our Syrian puppet will work out? Or are we just setting ourselves up to be back in the Middle East again in 15 years or less?

John said...

The fact that we succeeded in revolutionizing and rebuilding both Germany and Japan does not mean that we could repeat those successes. The circumstances were unique. First, both countries were defeated after gigantic, crushing wars, and both suffered from a great deal of guilt about what their governments had done. There was next to no terrorism or guerrilla activity in either country after surrender. Also, both had educated populations and modern industrial economies. I do not think we could have created the Germany or Japan of 1955 in Afghanistan no matter how much we had spent.

G. Verloren said...

Aside from the issue of length, how were the defeats of Afghanistan and Iraq not gigantic, crushing wars? From a military standpoint, we obliterated their forces and completely unseated their governments, with plenty of collateral damage and disruption of basic daily life and the economy.

As for the guilt of the common person over the actions of their government, where are you getting that notion? The Germans and Japanese were primarily ashamed of having lost the war effort - not of the various war crimes their governments had committed.

They and the rest of the world may have been shocked by the revelation of the Holocaust, but it was the destruction of their martial cultures and their identities as superior beings that devastated their spirits. (That and the difficulty of finding enough food to not starve to death in the face of total economic collapse, and being fortunate enough not to die in the night to indiscriminate bombs falling on civilian centers by the thousands every night.)
They had been whipped into nationalistic frenzies and given a truly mythological purpose, only to have utter defeat reveal to them that it had all a terrible lie. They were promised glory for their loyalty, and as their reward they received only death and ashes.

The lack of terrorism and guerilla activity in the wake of the war is easy to explain in this light. In addition to having had their spirits broken, there was no food to feed a resistance movement, no factories to manufacture weapons, no infrastructure to rely upon for vital needs, and there was a total military occupation in place that would last for many years to come. Heck, I'd even wager we would have seen the exact same thing in France if the Germans had been able to end the war early: resistance would have been futile under a full occupation unfettered by demands for troops and resources to continue fighting a war elsewhere - and the French would have still had food, weapons, and supplies, since the Germans destroyed so very little in their Blitzkrieg.

As for your point about Afghanistan and Iraq lacking modern industrial economies: so did Germany and Japan, because we'd bombed them to smithereens! It was we who rebuilt the Japanese and German economies from effectively nothing! ...which is why our own economy would go on to lag behind in many respects compared to theirs, as our factories weren't brand new and state of the art like theirs were after the war.

Stability and societal transformation in Afghanistan and Iraq was absolutely possible - it just would have required a huge investment of resources, and a decade or more of full scale military occupation. Our military spending is the highest in the world by an order of magnitude, our manpower pool is more than respectable, and our force multiplication is extremely robust. We absolutely could have accomplished it - it just would have been expensive.

And that's what it all boils down to. Putting a man on the moon wasn't impossible - it just required a whole lot of time, money, and resources; and most importantly the willingness to spend them. We absolutely could have stabilized Afghanistan and Iraq - but we weren't willing to pay the high price that would be required.

Which brings me back to my original point - we had no business starting those wars in the first place, since we had no intention of seeing them through to the end. That'd be like starting the Space Race and then mothballing the program halfway through once people realized the costs involved. Better to never begin a project at all than to go off half-cocked and abandon it halfway through, leaving a giant mess behind in the process which comes back later to bite you in the ass. Either do it right, or not at all - no ridiculous half measures.

David said...

For what it's worth, it seems to me there were a number of factors that helped successful reconstruction in Germany and Japan, and which are arguably absent in the Afghan case: strong traditions of compliance with bureaucratic authority (and is this, perhaps, a large part of what we mean when we say a population is "educated"?); ethnic and linguistic homogeneity; strong traditions of national identity; a cadre of native leaders who had, since before 1930, seen commercialized world engagement as the best policy for their countries (and here's a happy shout-out to you, Konrad Adenauer!); a shared sense that they had been well and truly defeated in a war they had largely started (whether or not this extended to a feeling of guilt for atrocities) and were utterly at the mercy of the victors; and a shared relief that, whatever happened, at least the Americans weren't Communist, and weren't Russian.

Let me stress that none of these factors made success inevitable, nor did the whole confluence of them. The key limiter, as Verloren says, would be American interest in staying the course. It's worth remembering that it was by no means obvious in 1945 that the United States would take a different course from the isolationist one it had pursued after WWI. Truman faced quite a bit of popular opposition to ideas like massive foreign aid and permanent foreign alliances. My impression is that the Republican Party in the late 1940s was still very much the party of Coolidge: isolationist and fiscally conservative in an obsessive, bean-counting way that makes a joke of today's Republicans. Overall, the impression I get is that it was a close-run thing, getting Americans to agree to a long-term engagement in the world after WWII. I think Eisenhower probably deserves a lot of the credit for legitimizing internationalism in the eyes of American conservatives.

In Afghanistan there were a number of factors that certainly would have hindered a post-WWII-style reconstruction from the beginning, starting with the opposites of the factors I mentioned in the first paragraph. But I would agree with Verloren: the biggest limiter was lack of American seriousness. The ease of our victory in 2001 was partly responsible for this, as is our basic lack of interest in the outside world. But weak leadership at the top was the major factor. Weak in general and--well, already from the evening of 9/11, Bush and his advisors were focused more on Iraq than Afghanistan.

That said, I'm not sure what even strong American leadership could have done about Pakistan. An argument can be made that the Taliban was and is largely a creature of the ISI. We could certainly bully Pakistan into laying off for a time--but the fact is, Pakistan's interest in dominating Afghanistan will always be stronger than ours in keeping them out. A wise foreign policy allows other powers their sphere of influence (and here's a happy shout-out to the much-maligned idea of containment).

John said...

David's formulation of the attitude of Germans and Japanese toward their defeat is better than mine.

But I would still go back to another point I raised: in postwar Germany and Japan there was effectively no terrorism and no guerrilla war against Americans. For an outside power to maintain control in a basically peaceful situation is a thousand times easier than doing so while fighting an insurgency. Because while you fight an insurgency you are inevitably going to kill innocent people and degrade the legitimacy of the government you install, etc. Trying to reconstruct an economy in a violent situation is also vastly more expensive. (Our expenditure on post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan is comparable in inflation-adjusted terms to what we spent in Germany.) And in the Afghan case it fed corruption, since one of the main ways traditional warlords extracted aid money was by charging for protection. Plus the Afghans had an old and robust tradition of guerrilla opposition to central governments and invasions that was completely lacking in Germany and Japan.

If the key issue was whether the US would stay the course, maybe one factor keeping the US from staying the course was the raging insurgencies and the steady drumbeat of US casualties. And that fed a sense in the US that we weren't wanted in Afghanistan and maybe had no business being there, if all we were going to get for our trouble was roadside bombs.

And still: if we were going to insist on non-corrupt Afghan leaders, where were we going to find them? Suppose we followed the recommendations of some of those plans and withdrew protection and funding from governors who were too corrupt. Would that have somehow summoned non-corrupt leaders into existence? Or would it have simply led those governors to switch sides and join the Taliban? What if a non-corrupt, NGO-approved leader emerged and the old governor simply had him or her assassinated? What would we have done then? I feel certain that the reason the Bush and Obama administrations did not pursue strong anti-corruption policies was that they could see them leading inevitably to our walking away, and they weren't ready to walk away.

David said...

I would agree with John about the difficulty of uprooting the culture of corruption among Afghan leaders and officials, particularly in the context of an insurgency. I was sort of trying to allude to that with my references to bureaucratic compliance, which would apply both to civilian obedience and to the sort of modest professionalism we associate with effective bureaucracy, which is the opposite of the aspirations to quasi-feudal big-manism exhibited in a political culture like Afghanistan's.

Perhaps a more relevant model than postwar Germany and Japan would be the Reconstruction-era South. An argument could be made that here the USG allowed its transformative aspirations to be defeated by a local insurgency and an alien political culture, which conceded in turn that it would no longer challenge the authority of the USG directly. This compromise was morally disgraceful but politically effective, and probably the only option available given northern whites' lack of staying power for any project of real southern transformation--which probably couldn't have been achieved anyway, anymore than a transformation of Afghan public morality was truly in the cards. So maybe we should just agree to let Afghans be Afghans, and they can assassinate each other and disfigure their rebellious women all they like, as long as they keep out al-Qaida, ISIS, and their ilk.