‘Nation-building on superstructure of kleptocracy’: Newly released documents detail Afghanistan failure


Lawmakers, veterans and experts have expressed shock and resignation after a Washington Post report Monday unveiled 18 years of distortion by U.S. officials over the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. The documents involved — more than 2,000 pages of confidential notes and interviews from more than 400 people, from ambassadors to troops on the ground — exposed a constant parade of failures while three presidential administrations insisted the war was moving in the right direction, The Post reports:

Defense officials, commanders and government staffers from the start underestimated the complexities of the fight, the documents revealed, and it spiraled out of control when the mission to dislodge al-Qaeda fighters and Taliban militants morphed into something else. The mission became nation-building on top of a superstructure of “kleptocracy” and mind-bending corruption, even down to the police patrolman level

“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich,” said James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat who served as a special envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama. “We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”


The war has cost American taxpayers more than $1 trillion, but has produced at best a faltering democracy and — most tragically — resulted in the deaths of nearly 115,000 civilians, military forces, humanitarian aid workers and journalists, The New York Times reports:

New documents reveal extraordinarily detailed warnings of failure from officials at the highest levels of the United States government about the 18-year war. Obtained by The Washington Post, the documents are part of an investigation by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that sought to identify lessons learned in the war so that they might not be repeated in future American conflicts.

Since 2001, the United States has spent more on nation-building in Afghanistan than in any country ever, allocating $133 billion for reconstruction, aid programs and the Afghan security forces. Adjusted for inflation, that is more than the United States spent in Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II, The Washington Post’s reports:

Unlike the Marshall Plan, however, the exorbitant nation-building project for Afghanistan went awry from the start and grew worse as the war dragged on, according to a trove of confidential government interviews with diplomats, military officials and aid workers who played a direct role in the conflict.

Richard Kraemer, a former senior program officer for Afghanistan at the National Endowment for Democracy, told government interviewers that Afghan bureaucrats “were in favor of a socialist or communist approach because that’s how they remembered things the last time the system worked.” Afghanistan was run by communists from 1978 until 1992. But Kraemer said U.S. officials suffered from an equally narrow mind-set.

“We had all good intentions,” he added, “. . . but we had plenty of hubris. Dogmatic adherence to free-market principles led to our inability to adopt a nuanced, balanced approach to what Afghanistan needed.”

Some estimates put the spending total in Afghanistan by the United States since 2001 at approximately $2 trillion. The bloated bottom line was in part caused by what one official at the United States Agency for International Development described as “lost objectivity,” The Times adds:

With that much money flowing into Afghanistan, it was perhaps inevitable that some of it would line local leaders’ pockets. The documents describe American officials ignoring widespread skimming by the Afghan government that, ultimately, undermined the war strategy. One retired Army colonel who advised three American generals said that the problem persisted not just among judges and security officials, but became a “kleptocracy” throughout the government of former President Hamid Karzai.

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By allowing corruption to fester, U.S. officials told interviewers, they helped destroy the popular legitimacy of the wobbly Afghan government they were fighting to prop up. With judges and police chiefs and bureaucrats extorting bribes, many Afghans soured on democracy and turned to the Taliban to enforce order, the Philadelphia Inquirer notes:

The Lessons Learned interviews show the grandiose nation-building project was marred from the start. U.S. officials tried to create — from scratch — a democratic government in Kabul modeled after their own in Washington. It was a foreign concept to the Afghans, who were accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law.

“Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government,” an unidentified former State Department official told government interviewers in 2015. “The time frame for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”


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