Richard North, 18/08/2021  

It was nearly two weeks ago that I wrote a piece ruminating on the reasons for the failure of the coalition adventure in Afghanistan, which I then expanded upon a few days ago.

What particularly intrigues me is the question, which I introduced in my second piece, as to why things go wrong. We are in many ways familiar with some of the things that have gone wrong, but knowing those is the easy bit.

However, in the context of a pacification and reconstruction project that extended over twenty years, the pivotal issue must not just be why things went wrong, but why they continued to go wrong even after continued evidence of failure.

That, to me was and is one of the main areas for exploration: so many intelligent people, many in a position of some power and influence, could see the system going off the rails but, neither individually nor collectively, seemed to be able to do anything about it.

What is it about failure, I asked, that this seems not only the preferred course of action in an institutional setting, but the inevitable outcome of collective action?

Inevitably, this is not going to be an easy question to answer and much of the media attention to the theme is devoted to lightweight dross of such banal superficiality that you wonder why anyone bothers publishing it.

As always, though, the devil lies in the detail – and detail is not something the legacy media does at all well. Even this attempt by the Guardian's Julian Borger founders under the weight of prestige farming, as the author relies on a succession of comfort quotes from "important" people.

One thing Borger does do, though, is introduce us to the latest report from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), issued last Tuesday.

Headed, "What we need to learn: lessons from twenty years of Afghanistan reconstruction", this is a gold mine of information to which Borger might have been advised to devote his while piece, rather than a few vague paragraphs. From it, we learn, that the core failure lies in the hubris of those undertaking the venture.

When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, the report says, they embarked on an ambitious effort to encourage or even impose broad reforms that touched essentially all aspects of Afghan society, including politics, economics, education, defence, rule of law, and the societal roles and relations between men and women.

The US government pursued these reforms while simultaneously attempting to quell multiple security threats, including a burgeoning Taleban insurgency, a powerful narcotics industry, warlords entrenched in the Afghan government, and a nascent local affiliate of the Islamic State. Yet, SIGAR says, "rarely did US officials have even a mediocre understanding of the environment, much less how it was responding to US interventions".

However, blaming mistakes on a simple lack of information may be charitable, it says. Many mistakes were borne from a wilful disregard for information that may have been available. After all, in many cases, the US government's very purpose was to usher in an orderly revolution that would replace existing Afghan social systems with western or "modern" systems.

And there indeed is the heart of the failure. If the intention was to build institutions from scratch, understanding and working within the country's traditional systems was unnecessary. One former senior US aid official admitted: "We wanted to give them something they had never had before".

But instead of being a society deconstructed to its foundation by conflict and primed for the introduction of western political, economic, and judicial systems, it turned out Afghanistan was a complex society with ingrained traditions and an incorrigible political economy. These traditions were neither easy to uproot and replace, nor could they be shoehorned into a Western institutional framework.

This ignorance of the Afghan context not only pervaded the highest strategic levels but was mirrored by officials and implementers at all levels. One provincial governor confided that "in the majority of districts, we never even heard the real problems of the people". "We made assumptions, conducted military operations, brought in government staff, and assumed it would lead to security and stability", he said.

As practitioners followed the counterinsurgency script with insufficient attention to local context, SIGAR says, they implemented projects that sometimes unwittingly supported one powerbroker or interest group at the expense of another, thereby stoking local conflicts and creating an opportunity for insurgents to form an alliance with the disaffected party.

Blunders like these were partially a result of insufficient information, which was difficult to obtain in an active conflict environment like Afghanistan. On the other hand, it is unclear that policymakers and practitioners could have developed a sufficiently detailed and accurate understanding of the complex social environment in Afghanistan even under the best of circumstances.

A member of General Stanley McChrystal's assessment team observed, implementing an effective counterinsurgency campaign requires "a level of local knowledge that I don't have about my own hometown".

American advisors, practitioners, and coalition partners confronted by the opaque social and political environment became reliant on local partners for information and insights, which made them vulnerable to their manipulation and exploitation.

One US official, admitted that his team had been "played all the time by the Afghans". The most damaging form of manipulation had local Afghan "allies" exploit US agencies for financial gain and share a portion of the proceeds with insurgents, who were paid to refrain from attacking convoys and project sites.

For example, private security contractors who were paid to protect DOD and USAID assets diverted a substantial percentage of their contract awards to insurgents to buy their cooperation - making the insurgents in effect unofficial subcontractors to the US government.

Likewise, widespread corruption in the Afghan government meant US money flowed to the insurgency through a web of corruption that encompassed Afghan officials, drug traffickers, transnational criminals, and insurgent and terrorist groups. Thus, US misunderstanding of the incentives and behaviour of "local allies" had a direct, countervailing effect on efforts to secure and stabilise the country.

When it came to the building of the Afghan security forces, similar levels of error were to be found. US policymakers overlooked the human capital constraints of the Afghan population.

Advanced weapons systems, vehicles, and logistics used by Western militaries were beyond the capabilities of the largely illiterate and uneducated Afghan force, which led Western advisors to intervene and perform the tasks at hand themselves, rather than see them done poorly or not at all.

Rather then developing a force with the organic capability to carry out autonomous operations, the result was to create long-term dependencies. Although SIGAR does not say so directly, this was undoubtedly one of the main reasons why the Afghan security forces folded so quickly. Without direct coalition support, they were incapable of functioning as a cohesive force.

The problem, though – as SIGAR points out – was not easily solved. It was not, for instance, simply a matter of redoubling the military training effort. The Afghan population's low levels of education and literacy meant that trainees actually required a customized training regimen tailored to their low baseline, rather than a replication of training that was offered in other contexts.

Furthermore, the limited number of educated, literate, and professional members of the security forces who did not require remedial training were likely to be syphoned off by specialised units, the civil service, or the private sector, which afforded higher pay and a less dangerous occupation.

In effect, to expand the capability of the security forces, the coalition forces were finding that they needed to train not just the recruits, but the whole nation.

In Afghanistan, says SIGAR, the United States seems to have laboured to develop an ANDSF that could not be derived from the extant Afghan population without significant cultural shifts, including the erosion of factionalism, the development of a stronger education system and, as it turns out, altered gender norms.

As to the actual conduct of the training, however, SIGAR notes that US personnel in Afghanistan were often unqualified and poorly trained themselves. Those who were qualified were difficult to retain.

Department of Defence police advisors watched American TV shows to learn about policing, civil affairs teams were mass-produced via PowerPoint presentations, and every agency experienced annual lobotomies as staff constantly rotated out, leaving successors to start from scratch and make similar mistakes all over again.

This, though, is but a small sample of the 140-page report which carries lessons which should be writ large in every newspaper in the land. But the central question is left unanswered. The SIGAR lessons learned programme started in 2014 and has issued multiple reports. Very little in this current report is new. That central question, therefore, is why no-one seems to have taken any notice.

To this, I will need to return.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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