Discover more from Passport Stamps
Latest Afghan Earthquake is an Actual Earthquake
One of the many important stories that has been drowned out by six people in Washington over the last week was an earthquake in Afghanistan that may have killed more than 1,000 people and injured another 1,500 or more. It’s yet another tragedy for a country already overwhelmed with humanitarian crises.
You have no doubt seen pictures of Afghan villages where primitive mud houses crawl up hillsides. It doesn’t take degrees in geology or architecture to see the vulnerability to mudslides or earthquakes.
When I was in Kabul during the summer of 2012, one of the things that really struck me was how much the informal construction on the city’s hills had proliferated since my visits to Afghanistan in 2009. I couldn’t help but think that any tremor in the city greater than a 6.0 would level the place (and there is a lot of seismic activity in the region).
That prompted me to report a story about how the crush of people moving to the city had overwhelmed the infrastructure and created dangerous conditions. During my time in Kabul, I experienced at least four small earthquakes. One was significant enough it sent Squeak diving under the kitchen cabinets, and I moved to a doorframe. As the house shook, I wondered whether it was going to escalate into “the big one.” Fortunately, it did not.
During my time in Afghanistan, there were at least a half-dozen natural disasters (mostly landslides, but a few earthquakes) that killed dozens or more. The U.S.-backed government struggled to get emergency workers and equipment to remote villages to rescue people.
Now, the Taliban government is trying to do disaster response with a fraction of the resources, equipment, and workforce available prior to the U.S. withdrawal and collapse of the government. In the short run, it means more suffering for the Afghan people.
The week before the earthquake, there was another Afghanistan “story” that got even less attention. It was a report by Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in D.C.
“The Lessons of the Afghan War that No One Will Want to Learn,” is a deliberately provocative title, but is in-line with Cordesman’s years of critical takes on the war in Afghanistan and the government’s mishandling of the conflict. The general approach of the report is to lay out questions and areas that the U.S. government should explore in any further lessons learned reporting on the war. In some cases he makes direct assertions and critiques and otherwise he points out areas and questions he feels have not received enough focus.
I haven’t always agreed with Cordesman, but we generally share views on Afghanistan, and I think his latest report is accurate on many levels. He rightly puts emphasis on decisions made in the first half of the two-decade campaign that doomed it to fail.
“One real danger,” he writes, “is the tendency to focus on the final phases of the war and the final collapse of the Afghan national government, rather than the entire history of the war.”
Here are some excerpts from his report, which relies heavily on data and reporting from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and to a lesser extent the Lead Inspector General reports (I was lead writer of the Lead IG report from August 2017 until June 2018, and then managing editor of the report until March 2021).
One key issue was why the U.S. intervened so heavily, for so long, and at such high cost in a nation which had served as the springboard for one set of attacks on the United States by what was a Saudi extremist group that had been driven out of Saudi Arabia and whose attacks were not connected in any way to direct support from the Taliban’s government of Afghanistan.
The emotional nature of the U.S. reaction does largely explain what happened, just as much as the U.S. commitment to Vietnam expanded far beyond the strategic value of that conflict to the United States, and just as the invasion of Iraq had led the U.S. to intervene in Iraq and eastern Syria ever since 2003.
A second key lesson the U.S. needs to examine is the impact of the U.S. effort to intervene in Afghanistan by transforming a nation with radically different levels of development and a radically different mix of cultural, sectarian, and ethnic values into an underdeveloped copy of the United States. If one looks at the war from its start in 2001, the most striking failure was the lack of realism in creating an Afghan government that could actually produce an effective degree of unity among the main Afghan factions and power brokers, function effectively in providing a reasonably effective level of both civil governance and security throughout the country, and use military and civil aid effectively with a reasonable degree of honesty and equity – all while doing so on Afghan terms that suited Afghan politics, culture, and the needs and values of the majority of the Afghan people.
In effect, the U.S. was extremely slow to react during the period when the Taliban had been virtually shattered by its initial defeats in . It then built a massive spending effort as it poured U.S. combat troops into Afghanistan. This effort failed to achieve any of its strategic goals, and the U.S. then steadily cut back on spending. The resulting cuts helped the Taliban take over the countryside while also enabling the military and civil collapse of the central Afghan government.
… if the U.S. had focused on a major build-up of Afghan forces that tailored the build-up to Afghan – rather than U.S. – standards early in the war, it might well have won the war for a fraction of the cost of losing. They also warn against focusing on the total cost of the war, rather than on the pattern and allocation of expenditures over time.
Equally important, a review of the ways each department of the U.S. government planned and managed this spending shows that the proforma U.S. efforts to create an integrated plan for the military efforts of the Department of Defense – which dominated total spending – and the civil efforts of the Department of State and USAID were never more than a hollow shell.
Such a review will show that no element of the U.S. government created a coherent planning structure for its efforts that extended over a meaningful period of years, that there were no effective financial controls or efforts to cut off aid on a conditional basis when given efforts failed or were subject to a continuing process of massive corruption, and that far too many claims of effectiveness were never based on actual data or efforts to measure how effective aid really was.
Corruption was the rule, not the exception. Islands of real success were not transformed into success at the national level, and many of the claims made by U.S. officials and public affairs officers were little more than exaggerations that bordered on becoming a liars’ contest.
Accordingly, one of the key lessons of the war is that both civil and military aid efforts need to be integrated, that effective requirements need to be developed and enforced to control the flow of funds and measure the effectiveness with which they are used, and that there needs to be some effective way to find and punish a host country’s corrupt political figures, officials, officers, and contractors – as well as corrupt U.S. and allied officials, officers, and contractors.
This point was a central concern in my time in the Office of Inspector General. I was constantly asking the Defense Department for information on goals and end states, the metrics used to track progress, the level of progress made, and barriers to progress. The problem was, goals were usually unrealistic and not based on reasonable analysis, metrics changed regularly, and therefore it was difficult to do longitudinal tracking.
More often than not, the solution to the lack of progress was to scrap the metrics and tracking process and develop new ones, or change the messaging strategy. What never seemed to take place was an honest reassessment of whether goals were achievable. Instead, it was a constant doubling down.
I think Cordesman’s report is on point and a worthwhile read. I’m not just saying that because he notes that the Lead IG reports go better in substance and analysis around the time I took over. I also recognize my confirmation bias because Cordesman is saying a lot of things I believe about U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
The real question is, what next? Accountability is highly unlikely. People who made many of the bad decisions are retired, dead, or no longer in government. Sadly, many have gone on to have successful careers in the private sector or think tank world. The money is gone and won’t be recovered. That said, there still needs to be a comprehensive accounting of decision-making and spending that went into the failed campaign.
In the meantime, the Afghan people who have been punching bags in one way or another since at least 1979 continue to suffer. Earthquakes, of one kind or another, are going to continue in Afghanistan.