The last few weeks have seen an unusual surge in Taliban operations in at least 10 Afghan provinces. The embattled provinces are all over the country — north, south, west and east — raising questions as to whether the Afghan government and army can repel the threat. Iraq offers a similar story, where the Islamic State (IS) appears to be on a rampage. The situation in both countries, as well as in and around Syria and Libya, are telling examples of disastrous adventures undertaken in the name of the war on terror and nation-building. Though raised on billions of dollars, these projects fell far short of the stated objectives due to strategic policy blunders and short-sightedness — hence failing to create durable institutions.
The total annual cost for the combined 352,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces — comprising the ministries of defence and interior — is $5.5 billion a year, but despite having invested billions in the Afghan security apparatus since 2003, the US Department of Defense has no direct oversight of the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) personnel data. Neither does the Afghan defence ministry have an electronic payroll data system. Instead, it calculates salaries by hand, leaving limited assurances that personnel receive accurate salaries. In its April 2015 quarterly report to Congress, the office of John F Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, concluded that the absence of electronic records means minimal oversight of US funding for ANA salaries, making it difficult to ensure the funds are being used to pay authorised ANA personnel their correct salaries. Despite over 13 years of engagement with US-led coalition forces, the ANA attendance data, upon which US funding for salaries relies, is minimally controlled and inconsistently collected.
Emma Sky, a British citizen, who volunteered to help rebuild Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, has similar tales to tell in her book, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. Ms Sky details how and why the Iraq adventure failed. In a brilliant recap of her years of volunteerism in Iraq, she exposes the failures of the policies of both American Republicans and Democrats, and the lessons that must be learnt about the limitations of power. She also explains how the West-favoured corrupt political elite used sectarianism to mobilise external support for themselves in the name of ‘nation-building’.
Afghanistan and Iraq exemplify the downsides of the hard power used by external forces. They prove that military interventions and/or forced regime changes in the name of nation-building are subjective undertakings. Secondly, tinkering with existing sociopolitical structures without enough sensitivity for local culture can throw up unforeseen dynamics such as the emergence of the monstrous IS and reinforcement of al Qaeda. Thirdly, geopolitically-driven military interventions give birth to a war economy that opens the floodgates to corruption, both by foreign and local security and logistics contractors.
Fourth, such interventions often help further strengthen the status quo; they offer a perverse incentive both to the invaders as well as the ruling elite of the target country. The former do it out of geopolitical and national security considerations. The latter — often dictators or a compromised self-serving elite — lap up this opportunity as a boon for self-enrichment and power perpetuation. All of this happens at the cost of the very values that the US and its European allies champion — in other words, the rule of law, fundamental human rights and transparency.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 20th, 2015.