According to its official website, the U.S. Department of State seeks to help promote “a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.” That is a praiseworthy objective to be sure. Unfortunately, when it comes to the U.S.’s government’s effort in Afghanistan, it has failed to achieve this. Spectacularly.
Instead of acknowledging its shortcomings in appropriate humility and making necessary changes to repair the damage, the U.S. government chooses to shape public opinion by tirelessly spinning the mission to appear as a success. This fact-spinning has resulted in keeping Afghanistan unstable.
For example, the Afghan governing institutions set up by the U.S.-led Bonn Agreement in December 2001 and the political deal brokered by the Secretary of State for a Unity Government in 2014, have unwittingly served to keep the state weak and dysfunctional. The resulting high levels of corruption are having a destructive effect on Kabul’s ability to govern.
Yet senior U.S. administration officials continue to claim the Afghan government is doing well. Ambassador Samantha Powers lauded the Unity Government a little over a year ago in a speech at the U.N. Security Council, saying it had “set out a compelling reform agenda, committing to improve governance, limit corruption, reintegrate refugees, promote sustainable development, and defend and promote human rights of all Afghans, with a special focus on women’s rights. ”
In 2002 a joint U.S./Northern Alliance military operation utterly annihilated the Taliban government. Instead of working hard to ensure initial leaders were representative of the country following this meaningful tactical success, Washington took the easy way out and simply put Northern Alliance leading figures in power—ignoring the fact that many of the key leaders selected had committed unspeakable atrocities during the civil war. Many of these warlords remain in power today, wielding a destructive influence on effective governance.
Yet in congressional testimony several months ago Richard Olson, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, argued that although the results of the administration’s policies were less than stellar, the policies have nevertheless “created a foundation for a more stable future in Afghanistan that will not only benefit the Afghan people, but will advance U.S. national security interests in a more peaceful region.” There is scant evidence to support Olson’s optimism.
And after 15 years of direct U.S. combat actions and $60 billion spent training the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), the insurgency is stronger now than at any time since 2001, Afghan civilians continuing dying at record pace, and the ANDSF remains deficient in key capabilities such as aviation, intelligence and special operations. Without these abilities it is extremely difficult for the Afghan military to succeed on the battlefield.
The Department of Defense’s assessment of this 15-year investment? In testimony earlier this year before the House Armed Services Committee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia Christine Abizaid conceded the security situation was “fragile” and admitted the Afghan forces were still seeking “to improve their capacity.” She nevertheless insisted the ANDSF had made “remarkable advancements” and despite a long list of major strategic shortcomings, said they “are developing into a modern security force with many of the systems and processes of an advanced military.”
If senior leaders admitted early on that major U.S. policies and strategies had failed, they might have been able to check the slide, devise new and more effective plans and preserve the lives of many U.S. service members. Instead, they choose to conduct messaging strategies to convince the American people that things are going well, even if “uneven.” If the U.S. is ever to reverse this downward slide and repair the damage, immediate and substantive changes are necessary.
1. Stop the spin.
U.S. senior leaders must begin leveling with the American people. The situations in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East are highly complex, involving the interests of many and competing neighboring countries, filled with corrupt and criminal elements within, and facing attacks by a vicious, barbaric enemy. There’s nothing easy about it. The American people understand that and do not expect perfection. They can handle the truth and will support policies that have a chance, even if success isn’t guaranteed.
2. Understand local dynamics.
Before determining strategies, U.S. foreign and defense policymakers must make a far greater effort to understand local and regional dynamics, recent and ancient histories, cultural nuance, and racial and ethnic factors. The U.S. has valid interests around the globe, and it is incumbent on our leaders to find and enact policies that can plausibly succeed in the environments where our interests are at stake.
3. Refocus objectives.
Washington must abandon its penchant to set policies designed to achieve desired outcomes, irrespective of whether the objectives are even attainable. Too often U.S. leaders select strategic objectives they feel are beneficial to American interests, and then try to force square-peg solutions onto round-hole problems. For example, senior American diplomats may prefer to ease a voter-fraud crisis in Afghanistan by simply creating two heads of state. But if doing so violates their constitution, forces together political philosophies that are hostile to each other, and has no cultural precedent in Afghanistan, the chances of success are almost nonexistent.
For our own self-interest, it is time to craft foreign policy based on a sober analysis of conditions as they actually exist, a willingness to recognize our every wish isn’t always attainable, and the courage and intelligence to admit when things aren’t going well and make necessary changes. So long as Washington continues its stubborn refusal to admit when policies or strategies have failed, U.S. foreign policy will continue to suffer as many setbacks as it does successes, stunting or even damaging U.S. interests abroad.