Friday, May 24, 2013

Another rung down for "Afghan good enough"

If it's possible to define success in Afghanistan down any further, Obama may have done so in his speech seeking an end to perpetual war yesterday:
In Afghanistan, we will complete our transition to Afghan responsibility for that country’s security.  Our troops will come home.  Our combat mission will come to an end.  And we will work with the Afghan government to train security forces, and sustain a counterterrorism force, which ensures that al Qaeda can never again establish a safe haven to launch attacks against us or our allies.
Not, "we'll work with the Afghan government to train security forces to support and sustain a democratic government that serves its people." Not even a force to fend off the Taliban. Keeping al Qaeda out is thesole goal. [5/28 update: I believe I misread this a bit, helped by an ambiguous pronoun. It's the U.S. counterterrorism force that "ensures that al Qaeda can never again establish a safe have." Not clear what the Afghan security forces will "ensure," if anything.]

That went along with a retroactive redefinition of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in the Obama years:

So after I took office, we stepped up the war against al Qaeda but we also sought to change its course.  We relentlessly targeted al Qaeda’s leadership.  We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home.  We pursued a new strategy in Afghanistan, and increased our training of Afghan forces.
Well yes, but that was not the sole focus of the original strategy.  Remember when we had a "government in a box, ready to roll in"?

When I heard these stripped-down aims, I flashed back to one of the Obama speech passages in 2008 that helped convince me of the remarkable quality of his mind -- delivered March 19 (the day after his landmark speech on race), in a speech titled The World Beyond Iraq:
What lies in the heart of a child in Pakistan matters as much as the airplanes we sell her government. What's in the head of a scientist from Russia can be as lethal as a plutonium reactor in Yongbyon. What's whispered in refugee camps in Chad can be as dangerous as a dictator's bluster. These are the neglected landscapes of the 21st century, where technology and extremism empower individuals just as they give governments the ability to repress them; where the ancient divides of region and religion wash into the swift currents of globalization.
For Afghanistan, that perspective led him to propose in that speech boosting nonmilitary spending by $1 billion per year. That wasn't saying much. A January 2013 retrospective on U.S. aid to Afghanistan by Joel Brinkley notes the amounts sunk:
In a recent quarterly report, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said that, when security for aid workers is figured in, the total amount of nonmilitary funds Washington has appropriated since 2002 “is approximately $100 billion”—more than the US has ever spent to rebuild a country. That estimate came out in July. Since then, Congress has appropriated another $16.5 billion for “reconstruction.”

And all of that has not bought the United States or the Afghans a single sustainable institution or program. What has all that spending accomplished? “The short answer is not so much,” said Masood Farivar, a senior Afghan journalist. Or, as the International Crisis Group put it, “despite billions of dollars in aid, state institutions remain fragile and unable to provide good governance, deliver basic services to the majority of the population or guarantee human security.”
And that's not counting the billions in unconditional cash that the CIA showered on Karzai and favored warlords -- fueling, as Matthew Rosenberg recently reported in the Times, one of the world's most notorious kleptocracies:
there is little evidence that the payments bought the influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords, undermining Washington’s exit strategy from Afghanistan. 

“The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” one American official said, “was the United States.”
Whether or not better statecraft could have generated better outcomes in Afghanistan, Obama has apparently had it.  Keep al Qaeda out and he is satisfied.

He has not, however, given up on the global battle to win hearts and minds.  His speech yesterday had its echo of the passage -- with a hat-tip to some perhaps hard-won humility about means and goals --  that so impressed me in 2008:
I believe, however, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy — because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe.  We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways. 

So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism — from North Africa to South Asia.  As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking.  We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred.  Moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better.  But our security and our values demand that we make the effort. 

This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya — because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists.  We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements — because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism.  We are actively working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians — because it is right and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region.
And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship — because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with people’s hopes, and not simply their fears. 

And success on all these fronts requires sustained engagement, but it will also require resources.  I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures that there is.  That’s true for Democrats and Republicans — I’ve seen the polling — even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget.  In fact, a lot of folks think it’s 25 percent, if you ask people on the streets.  Less than one percent — still wildly unpopular.  But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity.  It is fundamental to our national security.  

And it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. 

Moreover, foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent. For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists.  That has to be part of our strategy.
Americans may be deluded about amounts spent on foreign aid. But tales of the colossal waste and corruption of that aid in Afghanistan -- and in Iraq -- trickle into public consciousness too. The cynicism about its value is not without foundation.

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