Published: September 6th, 2011
Author: Edward Kenney
For months groups like the Afghanistan Study Group, where I work, have argued that the claims of progress made repeatedly in the American media are not backed by facts and data. Casualty rates are increasing, and security incidents are on the upsurge. Defenders of the U.S. policy would claim violence and attacks are not a good measure of success or failure —an argument, which boiled down amounts to: insecurity is a bad measure of insecurity.
But, whether or not, you believe that violent attacks are a good measure of insecurity, we can judge success or failure of the mission in Afghanistan based on DoD’s own metric—how much strategic territory is controlled by the insurgency. The Pentagon and White House claim that the insurgency has lost “freedom of movement” in the south, often (laughably in my opinion) citing increased IED and assassination attacks to support this claim. (No, this doesn’t make sense to me either).
Now that I am in Kabul, the joke about freedom of movement is even clearer. Ex-pats in Kabul cannot leave their compounds without an escort for fear of kidnapping or terrorist attack. On a tangential note, one of the first lessons you learn here is never ask an Ex-Pat for directions in Kabul. They almost universally don’t know their way around the city at all, a result of the security requirements keeping them off the streets. Early on we asked directions to ISAF from the U.S. embassy and got a blank stare. (ISAF is across the street).
One prominent “expert” in the U.S. claimed earlier this year that a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan would result in “fortress Kabul” with State Department officials unable to leave the embassy compound. My response: Have you been to Afghanistan lately? We already have fortress Kabul!
Mobility in the provinces is even more stark. Consider Bamiyan—a stable province in central Afghanistan dominated by ethnic Hazara (and therefore historically fiercely anti-Taliban); also the province which once held the magnificent Bamiyan Buddhas. Aid workers tell me that five years ago there were two main routes from Kabul west to this province. One went through Wardak Province south-west of Kabul before bending North. This route has been off-limits to Westerners for at least two years due to Taliban resurgence.
Wardak has gotten so bad, according to one Afghan reporter we talked to, the government officials in this province are afraid to move outside of Provincial Reconstruction Team safe-zones. When officials do travel, they are forced to hide any incriminating documents that would tie them to their work for the government. The Taliban have been known to seize cell phones and call a random number to see if the target is indeed a government official, in which case the victim is kidnapped or killed. Wardak Province, incidentally, was also the site of the downed Chinook helicopter earlier this month, which killed 30 Americans
The second route to Bamiyan from Kabul goes north to the capital of Parwan Province (also the site of a recent Taliban attack), before bending west up the Ghorband Valley. In the Ghorband, insecurity has deteriorated markedly in the last couple months, highlighted by the assassination of the Chief of Bamiyan Provincial Council earlier this summer.
According to a representative from development NGO Aga Khan, the insecurity in Ghorband is partly due to criminal gangs feeding off of the money which has poured into the valley for road construction. Criminal gangs may indeed be a factor, but Martine van Bijlert from the Afghan Analysts Network sees a more sinister explanation. The Taliban, she says, are attempting to encircle Kabul. Indeed the pattern of attacks seems to fit this explanation with broad areas North West South West and South East of Kabul now off-limits to Westerners and even most Afghans. Whatever the explanation, the result has been that overland movement for Westerners and even many Afghans to Bamiyan has been sharply curtailed in the last couple of years.
Bottom line: If “freedom of movement” is a good metric to determine success of the counter insurgency, we are the ones who are losing.
Things aren’t going well, granted, but do the Taliban have a realistic shot at taking a major Afghan city? Could they come back to power? Before coming to Afghanistan, I would have dismissed this possibility. Today, I am less certain. If the U.S. pulls out too quickly, more than one person has told me, the Taliban could retake Kabul. Given how emboldened the insurgency appears, this seems possible if still unlikely. Moving forward, the fear of such a massive military setback will guide U.S. policy making and will likely lengthen the timeline for drawdown. This need not be such a terrible outcome, if crucially bold steps are taken to address the governance and international components of the conflict. More on that later.
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger
Published: August 15th, 2011
Author: Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group blogger Ed Kenney is in Afghanistan for a few weeks. While he is there we will be featuring his thoughts and experiences.
On Tuesday, I sat down to discuss Afghanistan with the country director of a small but fairly prominent NGO based in Kabul. My goal was to understand both his take on the direction of the war, and what role specifically his NGO was playing on the political level. (To be honest, I was less interested in all the great things he claimed his NGO was accomplishing).
As far as the war was concerned things are going badly, and his message was much in accord with what western media outlets have been reporting. It is very difficult these days to travel outside of a few safe provinces principally Kabul, Parwan, and Panjshir. The NGO which operates in Wardak—the same province where the Chinook chopper was shot down—has to play politics at various levels from local to the government in order to operate. They also have to deal with the Afghan National Police, a force that seem to be universally reviled in Kabul. And, most interest for me, they have to maintain indirect communication with Taliban forces.
Here is how it works: In order to even visit Wardak Province, the NGO seeks the permission of the local Shura, which in this province at least appears to have broad legitimacy. The Shura in turn is communicating with some Afghan Talibs, probably the more moderate commanders. Once communication is established, the NGO presents its project to build a school for boys and girls. In order for the project to move forward the Shura must accept the plan, and this means selling the local Taliban. In the case of the Wardak School, the country director had pledge that Koran studies would be at the center of the curriculum.
Recently the emergence of a U.S. base in the district has further complicated the NGO’s mission, as intense fighting has broken out and more Taliban commanders, some more extreme, have filtered into the area. Fortunately for this NGO, the school is still operating.
One question remained unanswered: To what extent are local agreements with the Taliban sent up the chain of command. The country director’s take was that the leadership in the insurgency are aware of these deals, but because there is minimal command and control, local Talib leaders have autonomy to make these decisions. I continue to believe that continuing this line of research holds excellent possibilities to understand how the insurgency conducts diplomacy
The conversation then moved to religion, a theme around which much Afghan life seems to revolve. The director explained that while non-Muslims were exempt from the moral code, which binds the Islamic community, bad Muslims, which the country director described as those who fail to pray and fast, should be wiped out. This violent message was surprising coming from someone who was dedicated to human development and education—including the education of girls. The country director was also a painter, and was accustomed to being accused himself of being a “bad Muslim” due to his depictions of men in his art…
Later that night I had a wonderful dinner with, an Afghan journalist and intellectual. He believed the war was going badly, due to the incredibly rotten government. All through the dinner (which lasted several hours and included some excellent Afghan fare) he regaled us with stories of land theft, organized crime, and corruption on a massive scale. His solution to the governance problem was not to throw Karzai out, but rather to strengthen “civil society.” Now my eyes tend to roll when analysts talk about civil society—a mostly ill defined term in my opinion. I pressed him to explain what he meant by civil society, and pointed out that this term might be interpreted in the U.S. to favor policies which strengthen the tribal structures, a policy he opposes.
He would strengthen political parties, which are very fragmented in Afghanistan, unions, and other institutions (outside of religion) which mobilize Afghans against the corruption of the State. He also thinks much more emphasis needs to be placed on fixing the judicial sector, where much of the wrong-doing takes place and says the U.S. can play a role mentoring bureaucrats in government, much the way we mentor Afghan military officers. According to him the U.S. made a grave mistake adopting a hands-off government approach out of the fear that we would be seen as taking over the country. Today the U.S. is still seen as the “puppet master”, and thanks to the insecurity, corruption, and land theft, we get blamed.
The following morning we set off (painfully early) on a “tour of the provinces” with an aid group. The trip was supposed to include a workshop discussing the Afghan Constitution and women’s rights. Apparently local Mullahs, (not the Taliban) did not like the contents of the presentation, so this part of the trip was canceled for “security reasons”.
The rest of the trip ,to a university and an orphanage, left a bad taste in my mouth. The university, with its shiny new facilities was clearly not a development priority, yet they got the resources. The university has supposedly made strides to educate women, and the director claimed that 150 women were housed in the women’s dormitory. When I asked about this impressively high number, I was told candidly that the number of women in the dormitory was likely highly inflated. Because of cultures mores—of course—we could not verify any of the director’s claims.
Similarly, the orphanage that we visited was not really an orphanage. Most, if not all of the children, had at least one parent still alive. The facility might be better described as a school for children who have lost a parent. I am sure some of the charity—six or seven boxes of clothes and supplies—made a difference for these children, but the whole demonstration, with the requisite photo-ops, had the feel of propaganda to sell to donors back in the States so that the money would continue to roll in. As I said the whole event left a bad taste in my mouth.
Afghansitan Study Group Blogger
Published: June 20th, 2011
Author: Will Keola Thomas
Will Keola Thomas – Afghanistan Study Group
A few weeks ago, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned a gathering of NATO defense ministers that a “rush to the exits” in Afghanistan would put military gains there at risk.
“We are making substantial military progress on the ground…these gains could be threatened if we do not proceed with the transition to Afghan security lead in a deliberate, organized, and coordinated manner.
Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers that there will be no rush to exits on our part, and we expect the same from our allies.”
Leave aside the broken-record, and patently false, claim of substantial military progress.
Also, please disregard the assertion that there is anything deliberate, organized and coordinated about the game of “whack-a-mole” international forces are playing in their fight against the Taliban.
Why is Sec. Gates questioning the commitment of countries that have stuck by a failed and counterproductive military strategy for almost ten years at enormous risk to citizens in uniform and their families back home?
Many of the coalition members (…looking at you, Tonga) would be at a total loss if they were asked to define the vital strategic interest that had brought them to commit troops to a civil war in a landlocked Central Asian republic.
And in the past, Sec. Gates has suggested that the leaders of any country considering such a mission should have their heads examined.
Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper took Gates’ advice and decided it was time for some reflection on the national interests and collective fears that were driving his country’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan. In doing so, Harper realized that there was little to be afraid of except another decade of bloodletting in pursuit of imagined enemies.
This realization has led Canada towards a new approach in Afghanistan which the U.S. would do well to emulate.
Prime Minister Harper marked the taming of the Canadian id on a recent trip to visit the troops in Kandahar:
“This country does not represent a geostrategic risk to the world. It is no longer a source of global terrorism.”
After nearly a decade of war, including five years spent in a bloody struggle for the volatile southern province of Kandahar, Canada is ending its combat role in Afghanistan. The commitment of the Canadian troops should be unquestioned. With 156 troops killed and 1,500 wounded, Canada has the highest per capita casualty rate of any coalition member. Moreover, the Canadians’ focus on training Afghan security forces and sustaining their commitment to development support, while not without problems and limitations, holds out the possibility of long term benefits to the security and well-being of Afghans that whack-a-mole night raids and air strikes clearly do not.
Canada is setting an example for all coalition countries to follow: steadfast commitment to supporting the people of Afghanistan in their struggle for self-determination while at the same time refusing to let the imagined bogeyman of Afghan-born international terrorism force them into a stubborn allegiance to a counterproductive and failed military strategy.
The Canadian example makes the question explicit: What is the United States afraid of?
Published: June 9th, 2011
Author: Will Keola Thomas
Will Keola Thomas – Afghanistan Study Group
From “Col. YYY,” described by former Air Force officer and Dept. of Defense military analyst Chuck Spinney as, “an active duty colonel who travels all over Afghanistan…This colonel, unlike many of his peers, actually goes on foot patrols with troops to see things for himself.” The anonymous colonel’s letter is a must read:
“The mendacity is getting so egregious that I am fast losing the ability to remain quiet; these yarns of ‘significant progress’ are being covered up by the blood and limbs of hundreds – HUNDREDS – of American uniformed service members each and every month, and you know the rest of this summer is going to see the peak of that bloodshed.
It’s sheer madness…”
“I can confirm this. 2 months in Kandahar, Helmand, almost no one I talked to below the rank of LTC (Lieutenant Colonel) thinks we’re winning”
“#Afghanistan spin Rule 1: ‘Progress’ is ALWAYS to be referred to as ‘fragile and reversible’. Rule applies to ISAF, policymakers and media.
“#Afghanistan spin Rule 2: Refer to anticipated and/or imaginative progress as being ‘around the corner’. The corner is always 6 months ahead
“#Afghanistan spin Rule 3: To prove doubters wrong, tell about planned clearing operation that will deliver ‘decisive blow’ to enemy.”
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates plays according to the aforementioned rules. In a speech to coalition officers on his farewell tour of Afghanistan he almost managed to squeeze them all into a single sentence:
“I leave Afghanistan today with the belief that if we keep this momentum up, we will deliver a decisive blow to the enemy and turn the corner on this conflict.”
Lots of momentum, decisive blows, and corner-turning. But neither Secretary Gates, nor General Petraeus, would tell ABC’s Diane Sawyer that the U.S. is winning in Afghanistan:
“We’re really loathed to use this very loaded term of winning or losing.”
And CIA Director Leon Panetta hasn’t been confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense, but on Thursday he showed the Senate’s Armed Service Committee that he’s as well-versed in the rules as Gates:
“Important gains have been made over the past 18 months, establishing security and Afghan government authority in former Taliban strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar, as well as building the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces. Although the gains are fragile and reversible, momentum has shifted to the Afghan government, and they are on track to begin the transition process by assuming lead security responsibilities in several areas of the country this summer.”
Panetta felt confident in declaring all those successes, but he wasn’t about to go out on a limb and say when, and in what numbers, our troops will be able to leave Afghanistan. That will be determined by “conditions on the ground.”
And, of course, hope:
“…I think if we stick with it, if we continue to provide help and assistance to them then I think there is going to be a point where Afghanistan can control its own future. We have to operate on that hope.”
Published: June 9th, 2011
Author: Matthew Hoh
Matthew Hoh – Director of the Afghanistan Study Group
In the Autumn of 2006, in the western part of Iraq’s Anbar Province, US Marine and Army units were taking dozens of attacks a day. Leaving one of the many bases we occupied in the Euphrates River Valley seemingly guaranteed a firefight, attack by a sniper or, more likely, a strike from an IED. Cooperation and coordination with local Anbaris, was, to put euphemistically, difficult. When we came on the streets, the people left the streets. Tom Ricks’ prize winning account of our war in Iraq, Fiasco, could not have had a better title to account for what we were enduring.
However, visible and evident change in the conflict occurred because of the Anbar Awakening and the transformation of “Anti-Iraqi Forces” into “Sons of Iraq”. Those Iraqis that had formed the core of the insurgency in Anbar changed sides. The Anbaris that had been putting bombs in the sides of roads and providing safe shelter for snipers turned on the bomb makers and shooters. Politically, the tribal leaders of Anbar abandoned their previous hospitality towards al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, and reversed their previous rejection of cooperation with the Shia dominated government in Baghdad. For those present, what was most important was that attacks against us, against US Marine and Army units that were operating in the hell that was Anbar Province, were, by early Spring 2007, down to merely a handful. The presence of this change was meaningful and concrete. It was not limited to just certain locations, its rapidity was spooky and the very dramatic drop in our casualties was real proof of its existence.
The change in the Iraq War that began in Anbar in late 2006 was sincere and lasting. In April 2007, one of my replacements lamented his deployment into “a boring area”, while by September, General David Petraeus, backed by clearly understandable data and evidence, was testifying to Congress that progress in Iraq, again, best underscored by a very real drop in violence and casualties, was well underway.
Now, similar claims of progress in Afghanistan are being pronounced and accepted despite an absence of evidence to demonstrate such progress. Statements from officials, military or civilian, are swallowed without question and even stalwart critics of the war in Afghanistan caveat their assessments and recommendations with assertions of military progress.
But progress, militarily and on a strategic level, is just not there.
If General Petraeus were to testify today and to use the same forms of data he used in 2007 it would show this past May to have been the deadliest May ever for US and NATO troops; with April and March achieving the same dubious titles. He would note wounded totals on pace for 600 a month, while IED attacks occur over 50 times a day. The General would show that from January-March 2010, the insurgency launched roughly 1800 attacks in Afghanistan, while from January-Mach 2011 they were able to launch nearly 2700. General Petraeus would highlight that attrition in the Afghan Security Forces is so bad that we must recruit three Afghans to fill each space and would acknowledge that currently eight in ten Afghan men believe our operations are bad for their country. All this following 2010, which was the deadliest year of the war for all sides.
Against this, and nearly all other data and evidence, it is clear that the insurgency’s momentum and tempo of operations has not been adversely affected by our surge in Afghanistan. Against a great input of American troops and money over the last two years, and by any measurable standard, the insurgency has only gained in its effectiveness and strength, which translates into an increased reluctance to negotiate.
In 2009, the United States had the opportunity to disengage itself from an internal Afghan conflict and to transition its role from one of belligerent to one of mediator. Rather than de-escalate the conflict in an attempt to stabilize Afghanistan and the broader region, we chose to escalate the conflict. We now must accept we have gone from being waist deep to chest deep in someone else’s quicksand.
We expect our service members in Afghanistan to do the hard, brutal and savage fighting our policies ask of them without question. They do. Their expectation of those of us in Washington, those of us in air conditioned offices, wearing ties and high heels, who wake each day safe with our families, is that we ask hard questions, examine the reality of the conflict and not accept assertions of success without fact. As we reach an opportunity in July to transition our role in Afghanistan, we must recognize our current policies have proven counter-productive and shift to a policy of de-escalation and negotiation.
Similar to Henry Kissinger’s recommendation yesterday, the Afghanistan Study Group recommends ceasefires, large troop reductions (30,000 this year, 40,000 in 2012), reformation of the Afghan government, and political negotiations within Afghanistan and amongst its neighbors to stabilize Afghanistan and the region, and to begin to get the United States out of Afghanistan’s quicksand.
You can help by calling your Senators’ offices and tell them to sign onto the bi-partisan Merkley-Lee-Udall letter urging President Obama to begin significant and substantial troop reductions from Afghanistan next month. Click here to locate your representative www.contactingthecongress.org
This article was originally posted on Huffington Post on 6-9-11
Published: May 10th, 2011
Edward Kenney – Afghanistan Study Group
In my post on the Defense Department’s unrealistic depiction of security gains, I argued that the improvements in Kandahar City were “cherry picked” data points, not representative of Kandahar Province as a whole. Shrewd observers could point to the Sarposa prison break as an indication that the security in Kandahar City was never as solid as the DoD claimed. Now that Kandahar has suffered a forty hour siege by the Taliban, the Pentagon’s security picture seems even more divorced from reality.
I stand corrected. Kandahar City is not a cherry-picked data point.
Published: May 4th, 2011
Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group
Amidst the coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death, little attention has been paid to the latest Department of Defense Progress Report. From the Pentagon’s perspective, this may not be a bad thing, as their claims of progress are not borne out by the facts.
The Department of Defense (DoD) depicts an insurgency in its death throes:
“The increased pace and scope of operations, and the expansion of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) program and Village Stability Operations have, together, placed unprecedented pressure on the insurgency. Together these efforts have driven insurgents out of key population centers in the south, cleared safe havens that the enemy possessed for years, and disrupted its networks and plans.”
This analysis is shallow. Its conclusions elicit a response of “sounds great, but…” from even those with the most basic understanding of Afghanistan.
According to the DoD we should:
Celebrate that “Kabul has continued to enjoy a relatively high level of security.” True, but Kabul was never the epicenter of the insurgency, and violence has always been low there.
Be happy that Kandahar City has made “noticeable security gains.” True, but Kandahar Province as a whole has seen violence spiral upwards. This is cherry picked data at its finest.
Not worry about the increase in violence because it is “to be expected” with the increase in troops. True, but the surge is scheduled to be ramped down in two months time. When does the Pentagon envision security gains to actually materialize?
Assume the surge is working because the Taliban is incredibly unpopular. True, but the Taliban was really unpopular before the 2009 surge. A 2006 poll showed that less than 20% of Afghans supported the insurgents.
Tout the Afghan National Army’s 36,000 man increase in the Afghan National Security forces over the last six months. True, but the ANA is almost entirely dependent on U.S. funding, and cannot be sustained by the Afghan government. In fact in order to rectify this dependency problem, Karzai is considering a military draft.
Luckily for the DoD, bin Laden’s death has completely overshadowed the release of this report.
Published: April 26th, 2011
Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group
Jackson Diehl’s Op-Ed Sunday morning deserves a comprehensive critique, but for now let us focus on his opening statement:
“As warmer weather brings back both the war and the debate over policy in Washington, the starting point could be summarized this way: Thanks to the U.S. military, the Taliban has been driven out of most of its southern strongholds since last summer.”
It is absolutely astonishing that the media continues to trumpet this Defense Department sound bite. The reality is that the security situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate over the last 12 months. This April is on pace to be the most violent in terms of coalition fatalities since the war began. Civilian casualties—what many experts consider the most important metric for counter-insurgency—were highest in 2010, and increasingly Taliban are able to attack government and civilians with impunity.
What’s going on here? Partly, the pro-surge “Coinistas” have done a good job hoodwinking members of the media with selective data points. A village in Helmand that used to be controlled the Taliban and is now controlled by international forces. Naturally these are the places where the military takes members of the media who then extrapolate the security situation for Afghanistan from this one data point. Basically, the equivalent would be to claim global warming is a myth by pointing to below average temperatures last winter in Duluth. Does this make sense? No. Does it happen? All the time.
The second problem with coverage on Afghanistan has to do with journalistic bias. By this, I don’t mean the media has a liberal or conservative bent. The entire profession has a bias towards sexy sources (usually unnamed Military, Pakistani or Afghan officials) over working with tedious data points or laboriously analyzing publicly available documents. This approach produces more exciting stories, but human sources have their own agenda and can’t be easily fact checked. Data and analysis on the other hand doesn’t lie, and can be easily verifiable by independent sources.
Taking this analysis a step deeper, take a look at the New York Times article that Diehl cites. First, the article doesn’t say what Mr. Diehl claims it does; that the “Taliban has been driven out of most of its southern strongholds”. The article contends that insurgents have been forced “underground” due to sustained casualties in the past year. The focus of the article is on body-counts not territory controlled. In fact, if anything the news article suggests the opposite: “[The Taliban] still control a number a remote districts and in those areas the insurgents can still muster forces to storm government positions”. Very bad, Mr. Diehl!
Second, notice how the “experts” reconcile the apparent security gains with increased violence:
“Insurgents have already switched tactics to suicide attacks on soft targets – such as recent attacks on a bank, an army recruitment center and a construction company that all caused high casualties – because they are not capable of confronting American and NATO forces in conventional battles, said Samina Ahmed, director of the International Crisis Group”
So Counter-Insurgency, whose principal aim is to protect populations, is succeeding based on evidence that it has failed to protect civilians? To be fair to Samina Ahmed, this same argument was used in the White House Progress Report published two weeks ago: “With more limited influence and freedom of movement, the Taliban increased the use of IED attacks and high profile attack such as suicide bombings”. Maybe there is some logic here that I just don’t get, but at the very least it is incumbent on our press corps including opinion writers like Diehl to ask these seemingly obvious questions. The failure of the press corps to do its basic job, in my opinion, says a lot about the sorry state of journalism today.
 We clearly have not stopped the Taliban’s freedom of movement from even inside Kandahar prison. Who are we kidding here?
Published: April 25th, 2011
Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group
So the Blogosphere is atwitter over the escape of almost 500 prisoners from a Kandahar prison. Naturally this has led to a lot of finger pointing. How could prisoners tunnel out in such massive numbers without being caught? How did the prisoners hide the entrance of the tunnel? My theory is that the tunnel was hidden under posters of burqa clad starlets.
But joking aside, pro-surge coinistas always claim that the Taliban has increasingly limited “freedom of movement”. If these people had any credibility at all, it’s gone now. This latest episode has shown that we can’t even limit freedom of movement for Taliban inside a prison, let alone in the rugged countryside.
 go to 12:45.
Published: April 19th, 2011
Author: Edward Kennery
Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group
The most influential book on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan may well be three cups of tea co-authored by Greg Mortenson. The story is by now familiar to even those of us who haven’t read it. A sick climber retreats off of K2 and is nursed back to health by villagers in a remote region of Pakistan; touched by their kindness, he resolves to return to village and set up schools for girls.
When the book was first published, Mortenson was virtually unknown, but three cups of tea soon became a mainstay for book clubs around the country. When senior military officers’ spouses told their husbands about the book, Mortenson’s project to build schools began to be seen as a useful extension of the military counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine predicated on winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Three Cups of Tea quickly became “required reading” for senior commanders in Afghanistan trying to win over the Afghans.
But the book played perhaps an even greater role influencing hearts and minds here in the U.S. For an American public increasingly skeptical about the war, the book was a reminder of the morality of the mission. As Afghanistan Study Group Director Matthew Hoh points out, this phenomenon was deeply troubling. It helped “put blinders on our troops, political officers and development advisers by providing a motif of US forces and government personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq wearing “white hats” and doing “good”, while ignoring the complex and deep political causes and realities of the conflict.”
Yesterday, a segment on CBS’s 60 minutes may have begun to remove these blinders. The report examined crucial aspects of Mortenson’s story, including whether he actually visited Korphe, a small village where much of the drama takes place; whether he was kidnapped by the Taliban as his subsequent book claimed, and most damaging whether Central Asia Institute (CAI) is fulfilling its mandate. The report suggested that instead of building schools, the CAI was being used as a personal ATM for Mortenson; almost half the schools the CAI claimed to have were “empty, built by someone else or not receiving help at all.”
No one knows how this saga will play out, and Mr. Mortenson certainly deserves to defend himself, but bigger issues are at stake than one man’s reputation. Over the long-run, improving access to education—particularly girls’ education—is probably the single most important tool to develop Afghanistan and combat extremism. It would be a shame if the 60 Minutes piece undermines some of the good work that is being done to help the Afghan people. But it is also high time Americans confronted some uncomfortable facts about development work.
When money and prestige are on the line, there will be always be an incentive to paint a rosy picture in order to keep the gravy train rolling. Inflating the number of projects and beneficiaries a program supports is just one example of how these perverse incentives can play out. Aid and development can also exacerbate existing local rivalries. My own personal foray into development in Nicaragua ended when two leading village families’ fight over development money became increasingly violent. In Afghanistan, the process has been somewhat different. Development money has increasingly found its way into corrupt public officials, who in turn pay off the insurgents. The end result is the same: Instead of lessening the conflict, aid and development has exacerbated it.
Ideally, the Mortenson saga will drive development organizations and governments to think harder about how aid can be delivered more effectively. If this happens, some good may yet come out of this scandal, but don’t bet on it. More likely the story will blow over, and the same detrimental practices will continue as before. After all, the mission in Afghanistan depends on selling the notion that the military can effectively provide development assistance. A real re-examining of development might well lead to opposite conclusion.