When I was at the university I studied philosophy. One night, I think I was reading Plato, it dawned on me that at root what philosophers do is take one core insight, one moment of clarity, and then build a system around it; thereby transmogrifying truth into error.
After yesterday reading James Risen's "Afghans See Taliban as a Key to U.S. Aid Projects, Study Finds," and then this morning seeing the headlines about a Navy SEALs detainee abuse scandal in Kalach, Afghanistan (the SEALs were in Kalach on a training mission for the Afghan Local Police), I thought again about my college epiphany. And what I thought about was history. If philosophy is truth transmogrified into error, then history is error transmogrified into truth.
The error I am thinking about here is the recent Western love affair with counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. COIN was known as "Hearts and Minds" in Vietnam. The idea is that a military campaign in order to be effective must compel the allegiance of the conquered population. In theory, this allegiance is won by building schools and other infrastructure and by providing excellent social services; in reality, allegiance is extracted by means of terror and propaganda.
David Petraeus managed to rehabilitate COIN after it was thoroughly discredited in Vietnam. In a spectacular feat of propaganda, COIN got wrapped in with the 2007 troop surge in Iraq and Petraeus was granted credit for defeating the insurgency in Iraq. What really happened is that the neighborhoods of Baghdad were largely ethnically cleansed, and the Shiites won the sectarian civil war.
Nonetheless, when Obama entered office he adopted Petraeus' COIN doctrine and decided to apply it to Afghanistan in a troop surge of his own. The USAID stabilization programs that Risen writes about were created to augment military objectives by providing the infrastructure that would win the hearts and minds of the Afghans in areas were the U.S. troops had beaten back the Taliban:
The stabilization projects were part of an ambitious aid program started by President Obama in December 2009 as part of the “civilian surge” he announced along with an increase in American troop levels in Afghanistan. Two of the new stabilization aid programs were created by the aid agency, which spent $304 million through one, called Stability in Key Areas, and $113.9 million through another, the Community Cohesion Initiative, relying on contractors to set up the projects.
The programs provide a case study of the kind of problems that have plagued the effort to aid Afghanistan in what is now America’s longest war. Since the United States’ invasion of the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it has spent nearly $110 billion on assistance programs there, for military training and equipment for the Afghan Army as well as for other security services and civilian aid projects like the construction of schools, hospitals and highways, according to a recent report by John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
Critics say that the United States has poured so much money into Afghanistan with so little supervision that the assistance programs have distorted the Afghan economy and have had unintended consequences. Corruption has been rampant.
“We spent too much money too fast in too small a country with too little oversight,” said Mr. Sopko, who has issued a series of scathing reports about waste, fraud and abuse in aid projects.
Like many other aid programs in Afghanistan, the stabilization programs suffered from basic problems. Many current and former aid officials and contractors had examples of those problems, but agreed to describe them only if they could remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about them.
For instance, several said, U.S.A.I.D. officials, who could not visit the project sites for security reasons, sometimes did not know whether the projects had even been completed.
“U.S.A.I.D. came to us and said, ‘We can’t find our projects,’” said one person involved with the study evaluating the two stabilization programs. “And they asked us to help find them. We realized that there was a lot of ghosting in the data. We would go through the data they would give us on the location of a project and try to find where there really was a project, whether it was in a nearby village. And sometimes we couldn’t find anything.”
Another American official who was involved with the evaluation of the aid agency’s programs said, “Oversight is really tough when you can’t get out to the project sites.”None of this should come as any surprise. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) publishes one report after another outlining the failed, corrupt nature of the U.S. occupation there. Yet the U.S. remains in Afghanistan despite its manifest failure. We do not live in an open society.
At least now COIN cannot be so easily peddled to a gullible press as a rationale for occupation. COIN is discredited. Now war has to be accepted for what it is: destruction.