the imaginative conservative logo

afghanistanThe Pentagon’s $800 million spent on Afghan economic development has “accomplished nothing,” says the intrepid gumshoe hunting down waste, corruption and inefficiency. Meanwhile, he has 322 investigations still underway, across the US government’s similar $120 billion spent there so far.

An official who does not mince words, Mr. John Sopko, who heads the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), called America’s overall economic developmental work there “an abysmal failure.” He cited $486m spent on transport planes, which were grounded in Kabul lacking spare parts and were ultimately scrapped for $32,000, or six cents a pound. Working since 2008, SIGAR still has far to go.

Admitting America’s bureaucratic failures, Mr. Sopko also cites rampant Afghan corruption, poor security, technical incompetence and economic weakness as impediments, and rightly so. After my more than 20 years there, Afghan friends are often deeply ashamed of their countrymen. But we need some background.

Pakistan’s military intelligence service (ISI) had officers in the field commanding the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s; they sheltered Talib leaders in well-known homes from Quetta to Islamabad, and still do. The US failed to confront them adequately, due to: (a) fear of their nuclear weapons; (b) needing their roads to supply American forts over the border; and (c) worries that fragile Pakistan may collapse and be replaced by something worse. The implications were obvious to Afghans. Former President Hamid Karzai warned, repeatedly and in public, that by concentrating on border skirmishes with the Taliban, the US was fighting the wrong war and the wrong enemy. It is as if, in WW2, America relied on Nazi Germany to help defeat Fascist Italy.

During the long debacle, Afghanistan’s few skilled administrators and technocrats recognised this strategic non sequitur, and many emigrated to safer places. Remembering America pledging eternal brotherhood just before it abandoned the field when the Soviet Union collapsed, many foresaw it happening again. Then President Obama pledged to stay until victory, and the next week promised America to get out fast, over and over. So, logically enough, many Afghans lined their pockets, preparing to support their families over dark decades ahead. This is not to justify, but to explain much corruption, and lack of skill and commitment.

Once the Allies landed at Normandy and surged into Europe, would you have kept going to work as a Vichy French official? Had you done so, the Resistance would have noticed you, just as the Taliban keep lists of America’s “collaborators.” In either case, retribution was/is possible. With Pakistan likely to support a resurgent Taliban, many Afghans think it better to steal what you can and keep your head down until it is time to quit. That so many Afghan officials remain honest is admirable, but astonishing.

An Old Afghan Hand writes: “Today, Afghanistan’s economy is a house of cards. It will likely collapse when foreign combat troops leave and as aid continues to fall.” Meanwhile, Mr. Sopko accuses, “You, the development experts, should have had a plan to develop the economy and you haven’t, so now we’re stuck.” This requires what is fashionably called “unpacking.”

Prince Metternich said “we are all sophists of our passions,” and America’s Big Government officials believe deeply in Big Government. Mr. Sopko is certain that we have suffered a planning failure; just as his colleagues must have myriad excuses for why the Soviet planned economy failed while theirs will succeed. Rich America has schools and so poor Afghanistan must have them too; ignoring that Plato, Christ and Mohammad taught effectively under trees. Any centrally-planned, foreign-aid economy replicates the well-observed components of Mommy going to the ball, but ends with Little Suzie clumping around in her mother’s high-heels and falling on her face.

Hayek said that planned economies fail because one bureaucrat can never know as much as millions of consumers conveying their preferences through a complex marketplace. There is another reason, namely that of focus. A dirt-poor Afghan salt-dealer has enough worries buying salt, moving it, selling it and turning a profit; the foreign civil servant has too many other considerations. Instead of merely pleasing customers, there is overseas office politics, home office politics, political and diplomatic considerations among other departments and allied countries, legitimate priorities that are often mutually exclusive, allocating finances for this instead of that, media implications, paperwork, projections and much more affecting work. My limited experience with NATO and US forces in Afghan development, and much more with USAID, suggest that they are as confounded as the hapless Soviet manager of The People’s Underpants Factory No. 23 in Nizhny Novgorod.

This is not to deny that many American officials live overseas in a nationalist, bureaucratic cocoon, distaining and even despising foreigners, as most overseas Americans do. Also, many in any public sector hate the public. Nevertheless, I found most to be intelligent and earnest, but given impossibly complicated tasks. A short drive out of their fortified offices required migraine-inducing levels of planning just for the internal permissions, constant communications while travelling, embassy or military transport and what they refer to as, disconcertingly, “the shooters.” Many preferred to take short urban trips in taxis, as I did, but their masters forbade them, mindful of the political implications of even an unlikely casualty. All of that distraction did not address developmental content, which Afghans to meet, the finances, cash-flow, reporting, etc.

But there is more to failure besides Big Government biting off more than it can chew, even in a potentially dangerous place. I saw it first-hand, in an Afghan government ministry led by the brightest and most diligent, honest and patriotic man you could imagine.

There the massive Western development effort had two negative effects. First, the foreign paperwork and bureaucracy swamped the ministry’s few foreign advisors. Somewhere between half and three-quarters of our time was spent in preparing for donor round-tables and bigger meetings, attending the meetings, and writing the minutes and putative action plans afterwards. This did not include work reports in various formats, and spurious impact evaluations; or work for the Afghan ministry, our raison d’être.

It was hugely counter-productive for us and our ministry, for Afghanistan overall and for somebody’s taxpayers far away. But it was essential for embassy-workers keen to bombard their home-based bureaucrats and politicians with dubious proof of their weekly achievements. All up the line everyone was earnest, diligent and overworked; the immediate donor employees, the embassy bigwigs, the ministerial bigger-wigs back home, the sincere politicians being transparent to taxpayers, etc. But it required very expensive foreigners because no Afghan could do the complex, idiosyncratic job, and it deprived the Afghan ministry of much of our counsel. In other words the bureaucratic requirements hurt the country we had come to help.

Next, the biggest bureaucratic sin is failing to spend every last cent in your budget, so we were awash in donor money—far more than our ministry could handle. The noble minister had, as my grandmother would have said, “eyes bigger than his stomach.” So, dreaming of what he could accomplish for his country, he never refused a grant. Thus, no sooner had his deputy-ministers, all as overworked, honest and competent, hired an assistant who could manage to answer the telephone, than the minister spirited him off to head yet another multi-million dollar project that the lad was woefully unready to manage. So, Western generosity kept even the most admirable young Afghans incompetent, and their institutions crippled.

Often I suggested to the minister that he just say no, refusing to accept more money until his juniors could manage the tasks at hand. But he would wince; knowing how poor his countrymen were; imagining what another project could achieve; and fearing that today’s funding could easily evaporate tomorrow. Moreover, he knew that turning down even a tiny sum would infuriate “foreign friends” desperate to empty their budgets on time. So he would work late into every night, and on holidays and weekends, with his identically-inspired deputies alongside.

Maybe he still does. It is the same for the admirable and intrepid Mr. Sopko and his sleuths. It is no different for thousands of Americans in and out of uniform, their foreign allies and many Afghans. But largely they “accomplish nothing.” Volume and complexity overload the system’s capacity.

soldier_silhouette_1897510bSoldiers and bureaucrats are accustomed to it and will move on, following orders in Iraq or Syria or the Ukraine or elsewhere. Some will turn jaded and just go through the motions; but most will keep hoping, struggling, and still “accomplish nothing.” The problem for the Afghans is that, once their friends go away again and the insurgents return, the collaborators’ names will remain on the Taliban lists.

Apart from impending lethality, it is really no different in America or anywhere across the West. Democracies grow rich, voter-blocs subdivide in order to get more benefits, and government grows so big that it cannot fulfil such complicated tasks, much less pay the bills. Then the multitudes blame one another. Sic transit gloria Obamacare, and much else besides.

Call her Carlotta, dutiful and faultless as she could be (apart from a minor weight-problem that affects many middle-aged ladies). An attentive mom, she followed all the rules; doing everything just as she was taught. She raised her kids to be vegetarians, as was she, because that helped to guarantee them long, healthy, active lives. They loved one another so much that she would romp with her grandchildren and her adult children too, ensuring that everyone had enough exercise amid the fun. Then one day it just got harder to get around. “I really must slim down,” she told herself. Her kids felt the same, but it was too late. Around 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period, Carlotta and every other brontosaurus died out. They had evolved into something too big to survive. Those who remembered her said it was all so very unfair, and certainly not her fault. They were right.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
4 replies to this post
  1. Mr. Masty–thank you for this “update” (what a stupid term) on the now-unfashionable Afghan situation, and for introducing this reader to Mr. Sopko–one from the inner circle unafraid, it appears, to blow the whistle on the inner sanctum.

    And at last (?–to my knowledge) someone calling out the “development experts”–so shielded by the shroud of humanitarianism, they are. I will be re-reading essay this a couple of times to get it all in. Thanks again.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Mr Häupl. The problem is that the brave Mr Sopko still believes that overcomplexity can be forced to work. As the Soviets said, “if all you have is a hammer, treat everything like a nail.” Sometimes even the Triumph of the Will cannot triumph.

    On an earlier matter, I do indeed know of the honour attched to the title of engineer in Germany – it is another of so many reasons to love and respect the Germans.

  3. One of the reasons government fails is that it has no incentive to succeed. It matters not to the government employees, same salary and perks, same iron clad job protection.

    • Mr Trainor, yes to a point. I asked if visa-line dips were graded on how many visitors went AWOL, if that justified the arrogance and arbitrariness of some officers. I was told no, the unhelpfulness was due to other reasons. But among the State Dept people i knew best, their motivations were pure and their diligence impressive – but the system was Chaos incarnate.

Leave a Reply