CLEAR, HOLD, REPEAT: how civilian institutional failures lost the Afghan War

By early 2002, the pattern had been set for Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Rhetorically, President George W. Bush would hail that effort as a new Marshall plan. Practically, it would be the most poorly resourced American venture into nation-building in more than sixty years.” –James Dobbins


Eleven years on the Afghan War trundles ahead, its conductors toiling dutifully and heroically to reverse the momentum and leave Afghanistan with some semblance of functional nationhood whilst the targets of their efforts increasingly desire an end to foreign involvement in their lands. This is not to say ordinary Afghans do not appreciate the sacrifices made by their coalition interlocutors. Rather, the chasm between what Afghans believed a superpower capable of and its bumbling efforts at reconstruction and political development (RPD) have culminated in a pervasive sense of betrayal or, at the very least, disillusionment. Curiously, a similar feeling does not exist in the U.S. itself. The recently concluded presidential campaign treated the Afghan War as an afterthought, prompting consternation from national security analysts and veterans alike.

Amongst the American populace, U.S. involvement with Afghanistan ostensibly ended with the withdrawal of al-Qaeda through the frosted tunnels of Tora Bora to Peshawar and the concomitant retreat of Mullah Omar and his coterie of Talibs to Quetta. A steady stream of two-paragraph reports from Pentagon press wizards on “mid-level commanders” and “militants” killed by ISAF forces reflects the numbing lack of interest in understanding the war as a whole.

I’ve avoided for the most part personal involvement in this research paper, which argues that the war was lost in Washington, not Kabul, because the U.S. government (USG) did not create lasting policy-making authority or possess a credible civilian nation-building apparatus. Yet these are not simply conclusions about inefficient governmental processes or the necessity of a robust U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). These shortcomings are part and parcel of our national incapability to undertake long-term national efforts in any area. Every American mobilized for World War II. The entirety of civil society engaged itself in Korea and Vietnam, whether offering their time for public service or leading demonstrations against American involvement. Either way, the populace responded to state-level challenges by its involvement in national efforts. No longer is this the case. I cannot recall one casual conversation revolving around the Afghan War in the past two years. When Obama took office and spoke of a civilian surge, analysts believed a reorientation of U.S. war efforts might be taking place–yet the civilian surge never took place. Having spent the four years of Obama’s first term on a college campus, not once did anyone ask the nation’s youth to serve in civilian RPD efforts. Yet hundreds of thousands of recent college graduates in varied fields remain unemployed, and the civil-military divide widens.

The U.S. government has been woefully obstinate and uncreative in addressing the following problems, all the while leaning on its military to take on ever-more-disparate and ill-defined roles to cover civilian sector failures. Colonel Paul Yingling aptly captures the current sad state of affairs: “A decade’s worth of blunders and misrepresentations has exhausted the patience of the American people. For nearly ten years, U.S. officials insisted that their Afghan policy was succeeding. They did not ask the public to fight the war or to pay for it.”ii


A CIA report in the summer of 2011 offered that the Afghan war was “trending to stalemate.”iii Undoubtedly, observers found this depressing. “Even after the surge, we’re still at stalemate? Maybe this was always unwinnable,” read an increasing number of op-eds in the States. Yet the Afghan War could have been won, though never through military means. It was always a nation-building contest.iv

Forgotten almost before it had begun,v the Afghan War was then subsumed by its Iraqi counterpart until 2009. Problems Americans would grow to know and love were obvious from the start,vi yet little has been done to rectify any of them. Paradoxically, the inception of the war in Iraq provided blanket rhetorical cover to those attempting to explain USG failures in Afghanistan, and very little attention was paid to how resources were being used rather than the flow of said resources from Kabul to Baghdad. The focus on this interwar financial and military brain-drain ignored structural explanations for failure in the graveyard of empires. Perhaps no other war has enjoyed in such rich, well-researched and near-instantaneous constructive criticism, but very few of these recommendations have been effected, reflecting a misguided emphasis on individual policy decisions, rather than absences of institutional capability and distortions in the policy-making process.

By contrast, the occupational hazards and RPD failures of Iraq were aptly cataloged and transmitted to the highest levels of government in the year preceding,vii but were ignored or stonewalled by policymakers. Relatively little evidence can be marshaled to argue that these failures were amenable to changes in institutional structure or culture aside from possibly strengthening the National Security Adviser to adequately represent and defend all national security branches.

But on the ground, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan never shared any similarities beyond the fact that the United States prosecuted both. Commentators have reflexively drawn parallels between “the surges” in both wars, but beyond basic nomenclature, the comparisons always fall flat. The Afghan War began abruptly, boasting significant American assets on the ground within a week of the decision to go to war. In these circumstances, drawing up postwar plans necessarily lagged behind warfighting efforts, especially since the mission had been strictly circumscribed to avoid nation-building. At the time, prescient commentators noted that putting Afghanistan policy on autopilot would result in a deteriorating situation, eventually demanding further resources. Yet even many of these worthwhile analyses of the war assumed a U.S. RPD capability that simply does not exist.viii Quipping that “we should have focused more on reconstruction” ignores the fact that we very well might not have been able to engage in credible nation-building efforts in post-Taliban Afghanistan even if the Bush administration had devoted itself to that end.

From 2001-2006, the Afghan War sputtered on, providing the U.S. with a steady string of low-level tactical success stories—a Taliban or AQ commander here, kids in school there—without a coherent permanent strategy. Whatever one believes about the necessity or wisdom of the Afghan venture, very few of the major failures are a result of military inadequacy.

This paper will argue that two abject failures in institutional capability—the absence of policy continuity and lack of RPD capacity—led to the America’s “fighting not one eleven-year war, but eleven one-year wars,” as Chandrasekaran put it. Fixing the structural defects in Washington’s conflict policy-making and RPD abilities isn’t just about Afghanistan, either. Given the likelihood of continued American global hegemony and the existence of a dozen failed or nearly failed states, the U.S. will likely choose or be asked to undertake nation-building repeatedly in the near future. It must thus make a determination to become competent in this area or else abstain from any such efforts, for poorly carried out nation-building attempts can often do more harm than good, despite beneficent intentions.


The Afghan War has suffered from a startling lack of policy clarity, due in large part to the absence of an institution around which experience and expertise coalesced for extended periods of time. One official visiting Helmand in 2006 might cite basic, brazen Taliban assaults as the key problem. Another in Kabul might cite Karzai’s tolerance of corruption. The same person serving near Gul Agha Shirzai would finger USG support of warlords as “the thing that needed to be fixed.” An NGO worker in Logar might cite inadequate healthcare provisions; a DEA agent in Kandahar poppy production. Likewise, the half-dozen reviews straddling Obama’s inauguration only left observers with the revelation that USG policy should be termed Pak-Af, not Af-Pak, and Islamabad became the causal driver of instability.

With every rotation of individuals and every new review group, new external factors were offered to explain continually horrid metrics in Afghanistan. No attempt to locate problems within the USG itself was ever made, nor was any attempt to bring together persons knowledgeable about relevant areas and willing to serve for extended periods of time. The war effort desperately requires a measure of continuity, given twelve commanders in eleven years, a succession of wildly varied ambassadors, and the presence of ill-defined “special envoys.”

The creation of an NSC-type working group—call it NSC-A(fghanistan), for short—appointed for extended durations and given primary responsibility for overseeing the formation and implementation of policy, could appreciably ameliorate the policy vacuum. Dozens of transitory working groups assessed and critiqued the Afghan War, but none did more than take snapshots of the conditions on the ground before moving on to some other venture. Such an institution would recognize the fact that undertakings of this magnitude require exceptions to normal governmental working channels. Prosecution of any given war does not decrease the number and importance of the myriad issues government must address concomitantly; thus, extra care must be taken to avoid putting conflict policy on autopilot and allowing oneself to be lulled into inattention by the numbing constancy and lack of large achievement that extended wars inevitably devolve into.

With a permanent working group, the policy drift so frustrating to both concerned officials and grunts might be eliminated. Almost every documentary produced on the Afghan and Iraq wars contains some variant on soldiers’ exasperated admissions that “we have no idea what we’re actually doing here,”ix confirming suspicions about lack of purpose. A government that cannot tell its soldiers what they are fighting for beyond local tactical gains is in sore need of policy clarity.

As former diplomat James Dobbins notes in his recounting of the Bonn process, precedent does exist for such a bureaucratic arrangement, which the Clinton administration formalized into a subcabinet-level appointee.x The recent arrangement in which Gen. Doug Lute assumed the amorphous “war czar” position also might prove useful as a foundation for the creation of an NSC-A.

The torturous review process and interagency squabbling chronicled in Obama’s Warsxi was in no way unique to this administration and will reoccur should these procedural problems remain unaddressed. Since the spat between Tenet and Rumsfeld over spearheading of the initial Afghan effort, Washington has been almost completely unable to effectively work together in pursuit of shared objectives. Some of these political rodeos will always exist—the firing of McChrystal, for instance, would not have been prevented—yet the frequency with which these petty sideshows appeared reflects a fundamental lack of leadership and seriousness by White House officials. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran concludes of Obama’s war cabinet: “They could have accomplished so much more if they hadn’t been consumed with one-upping one another.”xii Rather than attempt to change basic human nature with respect to power and decisionmaking, process must be the focal point of any reform efforts.

Policy-making dysfunction does not confine itself to Washington, either: the gulf in understanding between American and Afghan decision-makers simply cannot be overstated. An NSC-A—dedicated to a singular effort and lasting the entirety of the war—could have developed appreciable working relationships with the Afghan NSC, one of the few success stories in the ISAF attempt to create Afghan institutions.xiii It could have avoided episodes like Karzai’s first visit to Obama, wherein he exclaimed to McChrystal: “General, I didn’t even know we were fighting in Uruzgan!”xiv Karzai claimed additionally in Feb. 2010 that McChrystal’s request for permission to launch an operation was the first he had received in eight years.xv

In Washington—prior to the final October 2009 NSC meetings–Obama had spoken to McChrystal once; after leaking this fact, Obama began consulting him twice a month.xvi Similarly, the theatrics surrounding Eikenberry’s leaked cables led to an embassy functioning in a “micromanaged culture of fear” and significantly hampered working relations between Afghan officials, the U.S. military, and civilian representatives.xvii Thus did policy become politicized, personalized, and wholly divorced from strategic objectives and the political advancement of Afghanistan itself.

Foremost amongst recent poor choices in personnel was Obama’s selection of the star-spangled Richard Holbrooke, ensconced as he was in a role that cut across several domains outside his expertise. To some degree, Holbrooke’s selection reflected a desire to find a negotiated end to the war, yet superficial comparisons to Bosnia precluded a frank discussion on how his appointment would affect USG efficacy in wartime prosecution, or whether Taliban leadership could even be negotiated with.

Shortly after Obama’s assuming power, the 2009 Afghan presidential elections rolled around only to find Holbrooke and Amb. Eikenberry working at cross-purposes to official USG policy of neutrality by championing the unelectable Ashraf Ghani.xviii Given the fact that Washington was literally standing Kabul up with financial and military support—thus maintaining significant in-country leverage—should anyone have been surprised Karzai’s support network engaged in ballot-box stuffing in the election?

As a whole, the special envoy’s insistence on centralizing authority in his person proved self-defeating without a capable staff and inputs from other branches of government.xix The informal and constantly shifting policy-making authority between the special envoy, ambassadorial, and commander positions never became an effective working arrangement. When these positions did mesh—Barno and Khalilzad worked together famously with few resources until their departure in 2005—they were upended just as they achieved efficacy.xx Political squabbling, like the impromptu sacking of McKiernan,xxi the rift between Galbraith and Eide,xxii and the resignation of Hohxxiii all could have been avoided or at least mitigated with an impartial task-specific group steering Afghan policy.

Dobbins cites, for example, the case of Christina Rocca, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs from 2001-2005. In discussing the failures of her office, Dobbins affirms that she “simply lacked the staff, the budget, and the authority to handle the myriad issues associated with Afghanistan’s invasion and liberation.”xxiv Her role as overseer of the initial phases was complicated by the immediate need to manage the ’01-’02 Indo-Pakistani crisis, a bind in which many other officials with overlapping authority found themselves.

Not only did very few officials have responsibilities confined to Afghan developments, but equally few were attached to the Afghan War for sufficient periods of time, as evidenced by the litany of regurgitated boilerplate we’ve been treated to since ’01. Arguments alleging Afghanistan’s unique complexity are a key recurring symptom of the transitory nature of Afghan War policy-makers. Officials have made a fetish of repeating ad infinitum the bewildering inscrutability of Afghanistan, often hovering somewhere between laziness and condescension in their portrayals of the nation and the war itself. Contrary to their obfuscation, Afghanistan is about as complex as one would expect it to be: ten years as stage for the Cold War’s most vicious combat, its citizens serving as proxy. Three post-jihad years of Muslim-on-Muslim atrocities. Followed by seven years under a regime whose intransigent puritanism so degraded the country it could plausibly said to have “been bombed out of the Stone Age.”xxv Another ten years of ill-defined war that can be equally classified as a theater in the Global War on Terror, a regional proxy war, an anti-occupation uprising, or a narco-religious insurgency.

The pragmatism of such a population appeared obvious from day one, yet U.S. officials would talk about Afghanistan “like it was the Bermuda Triangle of geopolitics, an inexplicable spot on Earth where countries simply vanished.”xxvi “Afghanistan is so confusing that even the Afghans don’t understand Afghanistan,” quipped McChrystal in April 2010.xxvii The inability of Americans to “understand Afghanistan” stemmed not from its inherent complexity, but from the nature of deployment schedules and the failure to create or maintain institutional structures than allowed for familiarity with conditions on the ground.

In fairness, Afghanistan can seem complex to those who come from societies with longstanding and revered institutions. The networks of personal loyalties, blood feuds, and informal economic arrangements appear muddled and impenetrable, yet one would be foolish to assume these capricious and labyrinthine structures exist for any reason other than necessity. Ethnicity does not play a causal role in Afghan decision-making,xxviii and neither were Taliban recruitment efforts organized by tribe; in fact, commanding Talibs made it a point to avoid being seen as tribally influenced.xxix

Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter working as NGO official in 2003, correctly observed that “Afghanistan only uncovers itself with intimacy. And intimacy takes time. It takes a long time to learn to read the signs, to learn how to discover behind people’s words a piece of the truth they dissemble—and begin to grasp the underlying pattern.”xxx The necessity of long-term familiarity with areas of operation also emerges as a central argument of Dan Green’sxxxi The Valley’s Edge and most other ground-level accounts, including those that surveyed the difficulties of working with Afghanistan’s neighbors.

The failure to craft and cement a long-term policy and to install officials with experience in neighboring countries precluded any streamlining of regional strategy. Therefore, “as long as regional powers continued to view their competition as a zero-sum contest, we saw no prospect of ending the civil war.”xxxii Without a set of officials working only on Afghan strategy and implementation, the responsibility for congealing regional efforts devolved into a shoddy patchwork of disparate offices, some regional, some country-specific.

Thus, U.S. policy never imagined or solicited an economic dimension to Pakistani behavior through its interests in halting tax evasion scams through Spin Boldakxxxiii and in counternarcotics, along with Iran, the Central Asian states, and Russia. Because Pakistan has yet to be enrolled in the competitive state-building process, it continues to meddle in Afghan affairs, lately having been implicated in the assassination attempt of NDS chief Asidullah Khalid.xxxiv Whining about Islamabad’s policy priorities does nothing to alleviate their inimical effects on Afghan society. Pakistanis do not view Indian involvement in Afghanistan as Americans do. U.S. officials have largely accepted the premise that Indian involvement comes at the expense of Pakistani national interest; similarly, U.S. officials look at the massive gulf between Pakistani and Indian GDP and assume the latter can disproportionately influence Kabul through sheer financial will, failing to take into account the decades-old familial and commercial ties between Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line.Opportunities existed for pushing regional relationships toward a feedback loop with positive effects on Afghan economic and security prospects. None were credibly integrated into a long-term strategy by U.S. policy-makers.

For his part, Dobbins directly ascribed the inability to broker an agreement for civilian casualty compensation to “the difficulty of trying to run an interagency process from one of the departments involved.”xxxv For example, construction of the Kabul-Kandahar road required personal intervention by Bush to become policy priority.xxxvi Rookie mistakes, like sending British soldiers to Helmand in summer 2006—a region with age-hold righteous Anglophobia—could have been avoided.xxxvii The above represent small, local problems, but when multiplied country-wide over a decade can contribute significantly to the loss of a war without reaching the headlines or even raising red flags within the government.

In fact, the decision to execute a strategy of counterinsurgency (COIN) itself represented a failure in centralized authority. While acknowledging the fact that COIN-like tactics were being preached by military commanders as early as Lt. Gen. David Barno’s tenure,xxxviii the decision to fully resource the campaign in 2009 represented a clear break from the past. Yet the frequent referencing to a “fully-sourced” COIN strategy elided crucial failures in the civilian sector obvious to men in uniform:

“Brigadier General Ken Dahl came to believe the military had set itself an impossible task by conceiving a COIN strategy that the State Department could not fulfill. ‘The main effort in COIN is civilians, but they never signed up for it.’”xxxix

Thus, even with multiple reviews over a period of nine months did the Obama administration end up committing avoidable strategic errors, as in the focus on Helmand rather than Kandahar. Partly a result of Jim Conway’s insistence,xl roughly 10,000 Marines were sent to secure under 1% of Afghanistan’s population. But no high-level civilian official even blinked, and nor did the conviction of observers noting the centrality of Kandahar find purchase in the policy process.

Without a stable American policy, coalition-building never became more than a catchword. Even if a more robust U.S. presence hadn’t convinced any NATO ally to remove its national caveats, the NSC-A might have made suggestions to match capabilities with needs, so that contingents ill-equipped for fighting weren’t sent to front lines while groups with no interest in reconstruction sat on their haunches in the north.

Hence, we hear endless bloviating about perceived “over-militarization” of the Afghan War, but an objective rendering of force levels does not bear this out. If anything, the war was under-resourced in military personnel and materiel until 2009. Even then, the addition of 40,000 new troops did not represent an overabundance of military strength, made obvious by McChrystal’s inclusion of the 80,000-troops option. The war only ever appeared over-militarized because so little civilian capacity had been brought to bear, a failure that invited the Taliban’s constant return.

Taliban expert Antonio Giustozzi’s research support the notion that the neo-Taliban primarily represented a local insurgency: “On average, by 2006 village jihadists might have accounted for perhaps 15-25% of the active fighting strength of the Taliban at any given time, with madrasa recruits accounting for around 25%, local allies for 40-50% and mercenaries for another 10-15%xli, [and] by the time the insurgency returned with a vengeance in 2006, Taliban leaders had already softened their image and appeal.”xlii What had once been a war of ideology no longer qualified as such. The Taliban had accepted that ideology could not stand on its own, so they adapted and committed themselves to competitive state-building, knowing they only had to outlast the American presence and deliver basic provisions as a shadow government.

The correct response to the Taliban’s strategic re-orientation was rather simple to those who spent extended periods of time in Afghanistan. State official Kael Weston, while advising Col. Larry Nicholson in his Helmand tour, almost effortlessly described the policy arc needed for Afghanistan: “The answer was neither the go-big approach favored by the generals nor the narrow counterterrorism model advocated by some in the war cabinet…he wanted to go long.”xliii To commit for a decade or more, spread out the foreign aid, and train the ANSF at a cautious pace. Yet without a credible RPD component, officials naturally shied away from this proposition. Weston was correct, but even if his policy views had been made dogma in 2009, the USG might not have been able to implement it.


“This is what happens when you eviscerate a federal agency. There’s a consequence. You may not see it right away. In this case, we’re seeing it a generation later, when we need AID to help us win a war—and it can’t.” —former USAID official Mark Wardxliv

The single greatest failure in Afghanistan did not result solely from poor decision-making or a broken and inconsistent policy process. Simply put, State and USAID do not possess the requisite capital, whether human or financial, to successfully carry out large-scale reconstruction efforts. Even if the Bush administration had proffered a go-long nation-building effort, the capability to do so would have needed to be built first. While primarily driven by disillusionment with Clinton-era multilateral interventions, Bush’s pledge not to use the military in nation-building also represented a tacit admission that sufficient civilian-side capabilities did not exist. The administration could have airlifted the entire clunky USAID HQ from D.C. to Kabul, and little would have changed in reconstruction efforts.

It is worthwhile to reiterate that specific causal drivers of insecurity are not self-generating and derive in large part from RPD failure. The local-level dissatisfaction with inadequate electricity, employment, water and basic infrastructure drive the insurgency–or at least the part of the insurgency we can address. Core Talibs are driven by ideology can always return to Quetta, but mercenaries and local villagers are simply responding to problematic environmental conditions. If these conditions are not remedied, the security circle drifts into a positive feedback cycle of deteriorating conditions across every metric. The above represents essential framework of the US COIN strategy, captured in the vernacular by repeated mention of the “clear, hold, build” pyramid. Yet very little attention has been paid to the critical third component of this plan, fostering an environment in which the already overly prioritized military must clear the same population centers time and time again. Critical metrics of success in “building”—electricity, roads, employment opportunities—still lag far behind goals set a decade ago, wholly reflected in surveys of Afghans themselves.

The initial RPD efforts should have reflected what Dobbins calls a civilian version of Powell’s overwhelming force doctrine, which states that “it is always easier to withdraw unnecessary assets than to reinforce a faltering enterprise.”xlv The Bush administration did not endorse RPD efforts, but what credible capabilities could have been brought to bear had they done so? Certainly, no civilian equivalent of the Marines or the Special Forces exist.

With furious celerity, the USM genuinely whipped Taliban forces in the first few months, leading observers to believe that the root cause of Afghan instability had been removed. Yet a cursory reading of Taliban,xlvi available at the time, would have convinced policymakers that Taliban would not have gained traction without a complete absence of government authority and delivery of basic services. It was always less a war of ideas than a war of reconstruction ability.

And a war it has been, with over 2,000 civilian contractors killed since 2001. The national discourse surrounding the successes, failures, and costs of the Afghan War almost never remarks upon these lost lives. Often, civilians involved in reconstruction and political development appeared as a sideshow, as something happening after the real war had been won by ISAF. Because no one ever challenged these assumptions, the USG has failed to internalize, much less institutionalize, these lessons. NGO worker Chayes followed closely the feelings within the humanitarian community, many of whom paralleled USAID and State efforts. After the Taliban ambushed an ICRC convoy in March 2003, killing aid worker Ricardo Munguia,xlvii the argument for abandoning Afghanistan began to metastasize: “For the unconscious belief persists: if humanitarian workers are being targeted, there must be some mistake.”xlviii

Unfortunately, the targeting of civilian contractors, humanitarian workers, and political officials—both foreign and Afghan—was never an aberration. The Taliban recognized almost immediately that calculations of risk by nonmilitary organizations are wholly separate from and much more responsive to losses than those of the armed forces. Whereas inflicting losses on an ISAF unit almost always resulted in wholesale retribution, the assassination of one USAID, ICRC, or State official often prompted a full withdrawal from that area of operations. The murder of five Medicins sans Frontieres in June 2004 forced its withdrawal of that organization, for instance.xlix

This is not to paper over the numerous qualitative differences in intent or mission objective between the USG and international aid organizations. But we must recognize that our enemies are not obligated to allow us the luxury of these distinctions, and should they target international aid workers, the USG must have capability ready to replace them.

In the same vein, restrictive embassy practices immortalized in Baghdad’s Green Zone applied in Afghanistan, though they never received similar attention. Despite the fact that Afghanistan was a far safer environment than pre-surge Iraq, the same cloistering occurred, squandering what little oversight ability State and USAID might have brought to bear.l At the same time, those Afghan officials whom the USG relied on could not withdrawal. Afghan officials face even more threats now than they did during the height of the insurgency, as anti-government forces have refocused their efforts on assassination rather than brigade-level

As a whole, the national discourse does not include criticism of RPD efforts for several reasons. One explanation remains that we cloak our nonmilitary efforts in moral superiority to “cover everything from excessive salaries to an utter lack of accountability, as they mount the steps, measured off in one-year assignments, of their careers in the burgeoning aid industry.”lii For instance, a plethora of stories from ’02 to the present reported on the success in school construction–no one ever asked, when officials plied this line, if these schools were staffed, or what the children were learning.

For USAID, manpower shortages manifested in the agency’s inability to both initiate projects, monitor progress, and respond to Afghan needs. Too little imagination was given to exactly what Afghans had gone through. Chayes laid out the symptoms of Afghan malaise in 2003: “an inability to bond emotionally, inability to plan for the future, inability to think beyond one’s own needs toward a collective good, excessive guile.”liii Afghan reconstruction would not have overwhelming cooperation from the public, thus requiring even greater numbers of civilian workers. In these conditions, State assigned one official to collaborate with 5,000 uniformed soldiers in 2003 Kandahar.liv What’s worse, the ample reconstruction capabilities Europe possessed were dismissed or

Even those in recognition of abject failure in RPD who found a chance to correct these inadequacies with administrative change in 2009 could not muster any serious RPD capacity. The civilian surge never happened. In both rhetoric and action, additional civilian capacity was tacked onto the 2009 surge as an afterthought. Even those civilian personnel that made it to Kabul did not in real terms expand reconstruction and political development capabilities. Extra, useless staffers arrived at the embassy to replicate bureaucratic work so they could be counted as a part of the 1,100-strong surge.lvi Most staffers “stayed for only a year, and 90 percent of them arrived and departed over the summer.” 40 percent of USG civilian officials assigned to Helmand in the first year of the surge left within six months.lvii Even when personnel were available, State failed to use them wisely, as recounted by State official Matthew Hoh, who was sent to Kabul as part of the civilian surge: “[The embassy] is completely dysfunctional.” He had no assignment.lviii

Additionally, draconian rules governing the application of American funds constantly impeded agricultural progress. In one case, USAID officials refused to fund cotton production in Helmand because the gin was owned by the Afghan government;lix in others, they cited the Bumpers Amendment—a restriction on using foreign aid to fund competition in cotton production–as legally prohibiting funding for cotton. For instance, when private agricultural expert Mir ran up against USAID overseer Frank Stoddard, the chain of command prevented Mir’s pro-cotton views from ever reaching beyond the confined spaces of Stoddard’s authority. Yet no one questioned whether applying peacetime operating procedures to a war was appropriate.

The nixing of an vineyard initiative by Roots for Peace and a massive egg-production effort, employing women, by Stoddard represented another example of the breakdown in command. Desiring “buyer-led development,”lx Stoddard approached the centuries-old subsistence farmers of southern Afghanistan as if they were agribusiness clients in Idaho. While his theoretical basis might have been sound, he failed to realize that simple, sustainable agricultural projects were all that Afghans needed while living through a war. Had Stoddard’s decisions and USAID policy been subject to higher authority, their programs could have been made consonant with American strategic aims in the war as a whole. We never needed shiny, high-tech or esoteric agricultural programs—only for employment to rise and remove a prime feeder of the insurgency.

Holbrooke, on the other hand, championed a massive infusion of cash upon Obama’s inauguration, failing to consult ground-level operatorslxi who might have cautioned that too much, too fast would result in eventual resentment when the handouts dried up and exacerbation of already problematic informal cashflows. As USAID’s own Mark Ward concluded, oversight of and from USAID did not exist: “nobody—nobody at the White House, nobody at USAID HQ, nobody at State—really understood agriculture.”lxii

Furthermore, a gutted USAID found itself forced to turn to contractors, swinging open the doors of fraud, shoddy workmanship, and simple waste. Notwithstanding the sacrifices contractors have made, their presence in-country never supported USG policy, only the bottom line of their employer. Sometimes objectives will coincide, but it reflects uncompromising naivete to believe private development firms will compromise profit out of some vague sense of civic duty. Plus, the prosecutorial record (or lack thereof) of the USG against lawbreaking firms gives them every reason to look for shortcuts.

Because State, USAID, and OMB oversight capabilities were low-to-nonexistent, development firms were essentially free to do whatever they liked without referencing U.S. policy. Contractors were deemed so necessary they received second chances even after they’d been discredited, as happened with the USAID-IRD relationship in Oct. 2010.lxiii USG officials would only find out about abuses months after the fact. Contractor caveats granted by USAID assured that US strategic objectives were subsumed by the balance sheets of these firms.lxiv Chronicling the $166m contract given Chemonics for agricultural development in Helmand, Chandrasekaran offers a typical example of contractor ineptitude. When farmers receiving wheat seed and fertilizer simply sold the seed at windfall profit in Pakistan and fertilized their poppy fields—boasting greater market value in 2007 than wheat—Chemonics refrained from notifying USAID project managers for fear of jeopardizing future contracts.lxv

Nor did USAID frequently consult its other partner—Afghans themselves—its decision-making,lxvi an odd elision considering the stated goal of fostering a credible and competent Afghan government. Routing billions in aid through private development firms rather the Afghan government robbed Karzai of crucial legitimacy and redistributive authority.lxvii Advocates of private firms often cited the lack of absorptive capacity and endemic corruption within Afghan institutions, but ignored the fact that similar conditions existed in the private sector. Give the choice between fraud in the Afghan government and fraud in the industrial districts of Virginia, partnering with Karzai in reconstruction would have at least directed USG efforts toward honing Afghan relationships rather than ignoring them.

On the other side of the equation, capable Afghan institutions might have precluded the need to launch a serious civilian surge. Yet this capability did not exist at the onset of war and had not miraculously appeared by 2010. Amb. Eikenberry, sending a NODIS report back to State in 2010, admitted as much: “Establishing services requires trained and honest Afghan officials to replace our own personnel…that cadre of Afghan civilians does not now exist and would take years to build.”lxviii

Without Afghan partners, those USAID officials actually working in the field did not possess the capability to tell friend from foe. They saw willing partners in regional strongmen well-versed in the art of securing international aid, like Haji Abdul Jabar, district governor of Arghandab, and threw cash at them. Jabar was killed by local residents in 2010 in a brutally clear expression of Afghani disapproval of corruption. USAID officials had no idea he had been skimming cash.lxix

The lack of State and USAID capability eventually left the U.S. unable to account for $18bn in reconstruction funds and to know with certainty how dozens of billions more were used.lxx Inability to oversee the financial flows was made clear by recent confirmation of a $2bn Ponzi scheme at Kabul Banklxxi and, as of late 2012, hundreds of millions of dollars continued to be skimmed from RPD efforts.lxxii

In attempting to create popular groundswell for a complete overhaul of U.S. RPD institutions, the abuse of taxpayer dollars by private development firms represents fertile ground in which to begin the public argument.


The cultivation of poppy and production of opium, concentrated in Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Farah provinces, rose sharply from 2001 to 2008 before briefly dipping and beginning its current return. Recognition of the poppy problem in late 2004 resulted in the Bush administration’s earmarking $775m for counternarcotics the following year,lxxiii and implementers like Ambassador William “Chemical Bill” Woodlxxiv prioritized elimination of the crop.

Of perhaps all the strategic mistakes made in the past ten years, the U.S. counternarcotics stance has been the most baffling and least amenable to procedural fixes. It is not clear that improved monitoring and oversight ability would have enabled a sound drug policy, though a task-specific NSC might have been able to identify the problem and convince typically poppy-phobic high-level policymakers that change was necessary. Analysts and officials have been proposing preposterous “silver bullets” for the Afghan War for several years without mentioning the one strategic switch that might actually qualify.

After the historic highs of 2007, when Afghanistan accounted for 82% of world poppy cultivation and 92% of global opium production, the transformation of Helmand into a constant warzone resulted in a dramatic decrease in both metrics. Since 2008, poppy cultivation has risen every year,lxxv and at an alarming rate in Uruzgan. The truly iniquitous result of USG poppy policy is its zero-sum nature. Any failure on the pro-government side of the equation translates into direct support for the Taliban. Whether Talibs receive the lion’s share of funding from narcotics sales or foreign funding, the hundreds of millions of dollars generated, when added to population support (sheltering, nutrition, tactical intelligence on ISAF movements) is unacceptable given USG ability to prevent it. In other areas of RPD, coalition failures do not necessarily translate in this way.

When southern Afghan farmers plant poppy, they do so because they’ve calculated it represents their optimal profit potential. No amount of moralizing or disbelief can change this simple fact. Given that state of affairs, coalition policy should have focused on co-opting poppy production rather than eliminating it. The implementation of such policy would not have required large-scale civilian mobilizations; since a plurality of poppy cultivation occurs in low security areas where the U.S. military already operates, soldiers could have carried out the mission themselves, garnering local support and tactical intelligence while they worked.

Not only are eradication efforts strategically self-defeating, but they couldn’t succeed anyway. In 2012, the Afghan government plowed under twice as many fields of vermilion flowers as it ruined last year. This represents only 6% of total hectares cultivated.lxxvi Lastly, narcotics policy changes represent almost the only significant move that the coalition could make before its withdrawal in 2014.


“I’m part of a machine that always wins. There’s no worse enemy than a United States Marine. We’re masters of controlled chaos and violence.” –Capt. Sparks, CO, Bravo Company, 1B6R; February 2010, Camp Dwyer, Helmand Provincelxxvii

“General Dahl, the civilians are at the high-water mark right now,” Eikenberry said.

“That’s great, Dahl responded. “I can feel it lapping at my ankles.”lxxviii

For the largest institution ever assembled for a single purpose, the U.S. military has responded remarkably well to changes in the nature of its mission. The past decade saw a drastic expansion in nonmilitary roles for soldiers out of necessity, for no civilian capability existed. Though blame for inefficiency in civil-military relations runs both ways, it is reassuring that neither side particularly enjoys the extant state of affairs. Accusations of military intransigence ignore the near-constant uniformed demands for civilian capability, most recently by McChrystal’s strategic COIN plan.lxxix In other words, soldiers do not particularly enjoy aping USAID.

Episodes like failure to provide replace Canadian officials in the Kandahar reconstruction office in 2011lxxx are all too common, leaving commanders holding the bag without a “build” component to cement their tactical gains. Efforts to use military personnel in a reconstructive capacity, e.g. CERP fund disbursement, have succeeded in some situations, but were designed for extraordinary circumstances. Not only does CERP funding fall far short of what would be required monetarily, but soldiers cannot adequately carry out two disparate objectives at once. Every hour spent digging a well or monitoring reconstruction is an hour that hemorrhages opportunity costs for military personnel.

For instance, when Marines secured Nawa in 2010, they had no idea whether reconstruction aid would be following.lxxxi Brigadier Gen. Ken Dahl experienced new levels of disillusionment with the civil-military relationship as he waited for USAID to follow up the securitization of Kandahar with a long-promised agricultural program. It never arrived.lxxxii Even military civil affairs teams felt the effects of an over-militarized policy. Tactically, brigade-level development, reconstruction and governance teams often found themselves last on the list to receive transportation.lxxxiii

An improvement in civilian capability has been somewhat realized in the Nov. 2011 creation of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Efforts,lxxxiv a result of the decades-long fight for a Civilian Stabilization Initiative. EO 13434, proposed by President Bush in Jan. 07, has been followed up on, first through a band-aid provision that allowed SECDEF to transfer $100m/year to State authority, a pilot program so far gaining merit. BCSO has partnered with USAID,lxxxv but has yet to integrate efforts substantially in the Afghan theater.

Overall, the Obama administration plans to draw down even further the thousand-strong civilian contingent in Afghanistan post-2014.lxxxvi Likewise, Marc Grossman has stepped down after a two-year tenure, leaving his successor to enter a de-escalation, transfer and withdrawal process fraught with uncertainty.lxxxvii Yet Grossman isn’t personally at fault. The idea of creating a permanent task-specific NSC working group does not imagine that officials’ behavior will change simply by virtue of its existence. It recognizes the need for career flexibility and counteracts the attendant loss in expertise and local knowledge by maintaining a staff large and senior enough to stagger brain drain.

Lastly, the absence of a robust RPD capability encourages the rhetorical and emotional civil-military divide. McChrystal had trouble understanding the usefulness of civilians.lxxxviii Why shouldn’t he? The military has done, on balance, almost everything asked of it since 2001. Most of the failures attributed to the military have been a result of its being asked to take on nonmilitary responsibilities. The U.S. no longer has difficulties in winning conventional military conflicts; rather, the wars we now fight and likely will fight require more civilian capability than we possess. Overhauling the extant process between State, NSC, and DoD will be painful, time-consuming and costly. It cannot occur in time to have an appreciable effect on the conclusion of the Afghan War. Yet we would be remiss to ignore its necessity in the coming decades.


The above institutional inadequacies not only jeopardize the ongoing operation in Afghanistan, but threaten to severely hamstring further attempts at U.S. power projection and credibility. A great deal of breathless palaver has been directed to answering whether or not America is in decline. Though outlining the “declinism debate” courts prolixity, doing so serves well to highlight the lasting effects of an impotent RPD capability and skewed civil-military relations. Former SECDEF Robert Gates’ exhortation against land wars in Asia and possible incoming SECDEFChuck Hagel’s aversion to nation-buildinglxxxix both reflect the recognition by military officials of lack of civilian capability.

For the Afghan War, little time remains to effect change on the civilian side of the equation. Reports indicate that Wali-ur-Rehman may replace the intransigent Hakimullah Mehsud for the TTP, promising a cooling of tensions with Islamabad and renewed focus on operations north of the Durand Line.xc For ISAF, offensive drone-led sorties have markedly increased along with total surveillance sorties, suggesting an already initiated transition to a counter-terrorism focus in the war.xci All these indicators promise an ostensibly less secure environment for civilian reconstruction efforts. Very little can now be done, save a transformation in counternarcotics policy.

U.S. military leaders are currently pressing for the slowest possible drawdownxcii to continue operations in eastern provinces and bolster a heretofore half-hearted ANSF effort,xciii but Karzai and his constituencies do not particularly desire an extended U.S. mission if its scope is undefined and its duration subject to Washington’s caprice.xciv Recent reports suggest only 6,000-9,000 U.S. soldiers will be left post-2014 in recognition of this fact.xcv Clearly, U.S. officials have they have given up on RPD in Afghanistan, for seeing it through might take until 2020.

If the US is to retain relative global hegemony throughout the 21st century, its nation-building efforts will have to become more efficient. One of the strongest arguments against American decline centers around the lack of possible legitimate global leaders. Russia and China are both in varying degrees unwilling or unable to replace U.S. in its role. Numerous extant failed states present challenges for the international order, and contingencies will inevitably appear. If the U.S. is to avoid the same failures that characterized its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it must begin to improve its RPD capability and task-specific policy processes or circumscribe its interventionist objectives.

iDobbins, James. After the Taliban. (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2008), viii.

iiYingling, Paul. “An absence of strategic thinking.” Foreign Afffairs. December 16, 2011. <>

iiiChandrasekaran, Rajiv. Little America: The War Within the War For Afghanistan. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 330.

ivJones, Seth G. In The Graveyard of Empires. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 154.

vRobertson, Lori. “Whatever Happened to Afghanistan?” American Journalism Review. June 2003. <>

viHaqqani, Husain. “Think Again: A Forgotten War.” Center for American Progress. December 12, 2003. <>

viiFallows, James. “Blind Into Baghdad.” The Atlantic. January 2004. The extensive prewar planning for Iraq’s occupation is covered in several book-length treatments of the war, including Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

viiiYingling, Paul L. “An Absence of Strategic Thinking.” Foreign Affairs. December 16, 2011. <>

ixSeveral notable examples include Restrepo, To Hell and Back Again, The Battle for Marjah, Armadillo, Frontline: Behind Taliban Lines. Worthwhile documentaries about the Iraq War carry similar sentiments.

xDobbins, After the Taliban, 19.

xiWoodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).

xiiChandrasekaran, Little America, 330.

xiiiJones, In The Graveyard of Empires, 138.

xivHastings, Michael. The Operators. (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 285.

xvIbid, 230.

xviIbid, 130-131.

xviiIbid, 357.

xviiiChandrasekaran, Little America, 91.

xixIbid, 225.

xxJones, In The Graveyard of Empires, 150.

xxiChandrasekaran, Little America, 53.

xxiiHastings, The Operators, 119.

xxiiiIbid, 119.

xxivDobbins, After The Taliban, 18.

xxvHitchens, Christopher. “The Ends of War.” Love, Poverty, and War. (New York: Nation Books, 2004), 433. Originally published in The Nation, November 29, 2001.

xxviHastings, The Operators, 53.

xxviiIbid, 137.

xxviiiJones, In The Graveyard of Empires, 160.

xxixGiustozzi, Antonio. Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 47.

xxxChayes, Sarah. The Punishment of Virtue. (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 26, 169.

xxxiGreen, Daniel, H.R. McMaster, and Ronald Neumann. The Valley’s Edge. (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012).

xxxiiDobbins, After The Taliban, 40.

xxxiiiChandrasekaran, Little America, 257.

xxxivBowley, Graham and Sangar Rahimi. “Karzai Implicates Pakistan in Suicide Bombing That Hurt Afghan Spy Chief.” The New York Times. December 8,2012.

xxxvDobbins, After The Taliban, 142.

xxxviChayes, The Punishment of Virtue, 155.

xxxviiChandrasekaran, Little America, 49.

xxxviiiJones, In The Graveyard of Empires, 142.

xxxixChandrasekaran, Little America, 330.

xlIbid, 65.

xliGiustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, 43.

xliiIbid, 72.

xliiiChandrasekaran, Little America, 122.

xlivIbid, 106.

xlvDobbins, After The Taliban, 140.

xlviRashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. (New York: Yale University Press, 2000).

xlviiChayes, The Punishment of Virtue, 233.

xlviiiIbid, 238.

xlixJones, In The Graveyard of Empires, 148-9.

lChandrasekaran, Little America, 101.

liAhmed, Azam. “For Afghan Officials, Facing Prospect of Death Is in the Job Description.” The New York Times. December 8, 2012. <>

liiChayes, The Punishment of Virtue, 282.

liiiIbid, 148.

livIbid, 284.

lvDobbins, After The Taliban, 45.

lviChandrasekaran, Little America, 175

lviiIbid, 179-189.

lviiiHastings, The Operators, 97.

lixChandrasekaran, Little America, 97.

lxIbid, 104.

lxiIbid, 108.

lxiiIbid, 106.

lxiiiIbid, 309.

lxivIbid, 194.

lxvIbid, 101.

lxviIbid, 310.

lxviiIbid, 86.

lxviiiIbid, 124.

lxixIbid, 169

lxx“Billions in Afghan aid dollars unaccounted for: audit.” Agence France-Presse. October 28, 2010. <>

lxxiRosenberg, Matthew. “Audit Says Kabul Bank Began as ‘Ponzi Scheme.’” The New York Times. November 26, 2012. <>

lxxiiMurphy, Dan. “Vast sums of aid continue to be stolen in Afghanistan.” Christian Science Monitor. December 11, 2012. <>

lxxiii Chandrasekaran, Little America, 99.

lxxivHastings, The Operators, 33.

lxxv Afghanistan Index, Nov. 2012. Brookings Insitution, 20.

lxxvi Grahan-Harrison, Emma. “Rise in Afghan poppy farming fuelled by high opium prices.” The Guardian. November 20, 2012. <>

lxxvii The Battle for Marjah.

lxxviiiChandrasekaran, Little America, 308.

lxxix Hastings, The Operators, 133.

lxxx Chandrasekaran, Little America, 308.

lxxxiIbid, 73.

lxxxiiIbid, 309.

lxxxiiiIbid, 157.

lxxxiv“U.S. State Department Launches Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.” November 22, 2011. <>

lxxxvLindborg, Nancy. “USAID to work with New Department of State Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.” <>

lxxxviDeYoung, Karen. “U.S. reducing plans for large civilian force in post-2014 Afghanistan.” Washington Post. December 5, 2012. <>

lxxxviii Hastings, The Operators, 75.

lxxxixGearan, Anne, And Karen DeYoung. “Chuck Hagel and John Kerry share similar experiences as expected Obama cabinet nominess.”Washington Post. December 15, 2012.

< obama-cabinet-nominees/2012/12/15/4e93565e-4630-11e2-9648-a2c323a991d6_print.html>

xc Zahra-Malik, Mehreen. “Emerging Pakistan Taliban chief to focus on Afghan war.” Reuters. December 6, 2012. <>

xciAckerman, Spencer. “Year of the drone in Afghanistan. Wired Danger Room. December 6, 2012. <>

xciiGordon, Michael R. “Time slipping, U.S. ponders Afghan role after 2012.” The New York Times. November 25, 2012. <>

xciiiBumiller, Elisabeth. “Pentagon says Afghan forces still need assistance.” The New York Times. December 10, 2012. <>

xcvCloud, David S. “U.S. force in Afghanistan may be smaller than expected after 2014.” Los Angeles Times. December 11, 2012. <,0,6043156.story?cid=nlc-dailybrief-daily_news_brief-link11-20121212>


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