Saving Afghanistan

Something interesting popped up on the cover of Politico this week concerning Afghanistan. The Man who Thought He Could Fix Afghanistan is about  Scott Guggenheim, the most influential development expert that you’ve never heard of.  Apparently Mr. Guggenheim is famous for “pioneering the kind of bottom-up approach that rejects the older, headquarters-oriented style of proffering aid” in Indonesia.

Mr. Guggenheim has a solid track record in the humanitarian aid community. He has the proper credentials  (PhD from John Hopkins), has spent his professional life working for the World Bank and most importantly he has a unique relationship with Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani who he has known since 1981 when both were if grad school. Mr. Guggenheim seems to be a decent, smart, motivated guy and if there is a chance that America can help get Afghanistan develop into a functional state  he would be the linchpin of our effort. From the article:

He has been called “the brain of Dr. Ghani,” but in interviews in the months after the election, he was at constant pains to deflect attention. His business card contains just his name and a Gmail address. This is deliberate. “Ashraf likes having someone who has no political or economic ambition,” Guggenheim told me. He sees his role not as a consigliere but as a kind of a fixer for Ghani, the executor to the president’s blue-skied vision. “Ashraf has a pretty clear agenda. I always thought my job was to help him realize it,” Guggenheim said.

My buddy Boris and I have a lot of experience at implementing bottom up aid and were chatting about the article over the weekend. Here’s his take on Guggenheim:

“…he represents the actual US government-its informal wing. Like there’s a military and paramilitary institutions, there are parts of the government which are technically not governmental. Pure power, no responsibility, but also no clear decision-making authority or processes-rule by committee. In other words, cancer.”

The cancer is in our foreign policy establishment which has proved to be unable to generate positive change in our rapidly changing world. They have no answers for what is plaguing Afghanistan so empowering experts like Mr. Guggenheim is their best option. But it is not going to work because trying to nudge the Afghan President to be more democratic and less authoritarian is not the answer.

Further along in the article our current answer to Afghanistan was presented when ” In the absence of civilian leadership, the generals stepped in.” Again from article:

“McMaster was also good at calling out whoppers. “Our side would try some standard bullshit on how we have great plans to fix everything,” Guggenheim said, “and McMaster would say, ‘I heard all this in 2012. Tell me what’s new.’”

The bluntness of General McMaster is appealing. The current strategy of maintaining a military life line to the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) until they can stand on their own is a reasonable play. But it too is not going to work because of this: sixteen years of fighting in Afghanistan and we are still bombing wedding parties and killing innocents. Last month we dropped more ordnance than we have since 2012 yet the casualties sustained by ANSF  are up by 52%. And that’s not counting the Afghan police we killed in our latest drone attack.

Why would our military shoot a Hellfire missile at a few guys shooting their AK’s off into the air? That’s a rhetorical question, there is no logical answer to that kind of stupid. The guys shooting off their AK’s could have been Taliban instead of off duty Afghan police and it would still be a stupid move coupled to an egregious waste of money.

This is why the only rational course of action was the contractor modeled championed by Eric Prince and poo poohed by all the elites in DC and the media. Contractors don’t shoot Hellfire missiles at random gunmen who are shooting their rifles in the air. Contractors, under the Prince model, would have been working for and at the direction of the ANSF; improving combat performance while realizing billions in savings. Contractors would  not have spent 500 million dollars on planes that could not fly in Afghanistan and were sold for scrap at 6 cents a pound.

And contractors who know how to operate in Afghanistan (meaning they’re armed) and stayed long enough to develop strong relationships (because they were armed) can do bottom up reconstruction work without losing money to bribes or dodgy subcontractors (because they’re armed and thus taken seriously by all the players). Boris and I know this because, being plank owners in Ghost Team, we did it, for years, without drama (because we were armed).

USAID hated us being armed but tolerated it because we delivered. The Karzai government hated us being armed because it allowed us to be successful thus depriving them of another chance to siphon off aid money into their Dubai bank accounts. The provincial governors loved us being armed because it enabled up to travel to every job site and keep people honest while ensuring projects were on track and on spec. The local people loved it too because nothing brought more calm to turbulent lands than a couple (or just one) armed westerner showing up with the monthly pay roll. If you are working in a warrior society it is most helpful that you too are a warrior. Afghans respect men who take responsibility for their own protection and don’t pay other Afghans, from outside the local area, to do it for them.

As we scan the news of the day we can see the Internet has collapsed the Narrative and laid bare the corruption of Hollywood, politics and the media. This is causing the long-term loss of the progressive elites authority when it comes to lecturing the rest of us from a pretended position of moral superiority. Change is in the air but will not happen fast enough to help the people of Afghanistan. Men like Scott Guggenheim, who has his picture on posters scattered around Kabul with the caption  Ghani ba ehsara-e en shakhs meraqsad: (Ghani dances on the order of this man); are not the answer.

The answer for playing the Great Game in a region full of cut throats involves being a cut throat. Advocating for an independent Pashtun home land and one for the Baluch while staying on to keep an eye on China would be a great example and one Michael Yon just wrote about. That kind of thinking would place American interests first and I know that’s a great idea because John McCain was in Annapolis yesterday lecturing the midshipmen of the folly of putting America first.

Mr. Guggenheim needs to come home and stay home or he will be killed by the players in Kabul who are jockeying for attention from the President. America needs to listen intently to the words of Senator McCain and do the exact opposite of whatever ridiculous prescription he’s selling at the moment.  The man is an idiot as seen by the “plan” he came up with for Afghanistan a few months back. Afghanistan needs to hang tough until they get a leader strong enough to force his will on the various factions that comprise Afghan leadership while understanding a strong central government operating out of Kabul is never going to happen.

For now all we can do is wait, hope that enhanced training and access to American combat enablers keeps the ANSF in the fight and pray that somehow we have learned enough to never repeat the mistakes we made in Afghanistan. Given the recent drone attack that may be expecting too much…but a man can pray.

12 Replies to “Saving Afghanistan”

  1. Afghanistan cannot not be corrupt. It dosn’t matter who is president. He must operate within the system that exists.

    The number of people who really matter makes it possible and necessary to payoff a relatively small handful of people. Since most government revenue and material support comes as gifts from abroad there’s no need for a politician to suck up to the voters by providing effective & efficient government. He just needs USAID, the UN and the EU on board. The president and his cronies can stay in power by paying off the security forces and selling positions which allow the incumbent to profit from bribes, smuggling and narcotics.

    Obviously some people will be on the outs (with no way to get power democratically or wealth legally) and since most will have arms the result will be violence. Having armed foreigners supporting the corrupt government just plays to the jihad narrative.

    Contractors will make no difference. The problem is the nature of Afghan society. A well here or road there are irrelevant to the problem- endemic corruption fueled by foreign aid, military spending and narcotics. For a similar situation consider a US big city “hood”. How’s that going?

    The answer is to leave. Stop the flow of cash which fuels the corruption and take the air of the jihadi balloon by removing the US military. If the country breaks up into pieces so what? It is simply not important enough to waste > $ 12 billion annually and get so much bad PR from the inevitable killing of innocents.

    1. Contractors could make a minor difference while providing some damn employment for Baba T but at the end of the day you’re assessment is correct. Change will happen sooner if we’re not around to enforce a bogus, artificial status quo.

  2. I haven’t seen numbers put to Prince’s plan. How many of what rank, MOS and experience are required? I would think a battalion adviser has to have been at least qualified to command a battalion.
    I also think we can forget about language skills and I’m not sure how many qualified people would sign on for years. I think you’re looking at ~ 300 + majors or Lt Cols just for battalion HQs. Is that possible at any sort of reasonable cost?

  3. In his opeds for NYT and WSJ Eric Prince estimates all contractor force to cost “$10 billion a year or less”.

    I am a community college student writing a paper for English 1A on privatizing the war in Afghanistan, but even I can tell it’s better than $45 billion a year we are spending now. I am a taxpayer. I read SIGAR quarterly reports and I have a feeling that no matter what conditions are attached to the security and development assistance, in the end it will still be ransacked. I mourn over every hundred bucks taken out of my paycheck, and when I read about half a billion dollars in airplanes turned into $32,000 of scrap metal, it makes me sick.

    I am arguing that contractors are more capable to address the trifecta of corruption, insecurity and unemployment, but it’s just a college paper. What I really want to know is where to sign to get this war over with?

    P.S. Those corrupt Afghans who pocket my taxpayer money must think we are either really rich or really stupid, which I am not.

    1. The Afghans didn’t know how to play us when we first showed up. Their prior experience with the Soviets had taught them how to be a low morale/low proficiency military but the Soviets did not have lose purse strings. They were also better at training Afghans – they even put one up in space while we, to this day, don’t have one Afghan certified to call in Tac Air. We did field a high morale/high proficiency military but not in enough numbers to mean much or with a strategic vision that would employ them correctly. I share your frustration Tim; I like the Afghans, love my country as much I love my Corps but it is beyond frustrating to see us continually flail about wasting billions of dollars we don’t have while losing good men who have been asked to buy time for politicians who have no clue about what they are doing.

  4. We are a almost trillion dollars in, and according to Eric Prince about one more trillion in veterans’ healthcare costs we haven’t experienced yet. So the two trillion dollar question is how do we get out?

    When Donald Trump said, “Let’s get out of Afghanistan… Rebuild the USA!” I thought he was the man for the job, but then he became President and sent 3,000 more troops. I don’t get it –
    what happens if we just drop Afghanistan like a bad habit? Taliban will take over, well the way I see it they are already in control. Opium production will grow, it’s already more than 50% of Afghan GDP. US will get a bad rep, that’s nothing new either.

    I got injured at work recently (no benefits), and the bill from the hospital for eight stitches was almost $1500. Luckily I have savings, but an average American is completely defenseless against even minor medical emergency. That’s the real threat we are facing every day! I don’t understand why we have to spend in Afghanistan a quarter of our domestic infrastructure spending. What is the return on that investment?

    1. War brings a massive “return on investment” for certain people. Politics has never been about helping everyone. If you’re a senior military or intelligence officer, policy wonk, think tank denizen, war reporter, or defence contractor these have been the happy times.

      In the big scheme of things your opinion- unless you are thought to have great influence via celebrity or bundles of cash- is irrelevant. The truth is that the GOP and Dems represent sides of the same coin. The differences between them are exaggerated for show. It’s all theatre. One reason Trump is attacked so much by the media is that he gives the appearance of being different. We’ll see if that was just show. The reinforcement of Afghanistan is a sign it’s the same game.

      1. Great point J and I too think that opinions that influence are directly tied to cash in campaign coffers.

  5. J Harlan, read the Newsroom at the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction website ( – it’s a snapshot of waste and abuse. The problem is that we can only prosecute US service members, and not the “another local Afghans” who are always involved in such schemes.

    And it scales up, from soliciting bribes for reconstruction contracts, to giving out fraudulent loans, to inflating the numbers of the Afghan National Army and National Police, our Afghan partners pilfer our money with great enthusiasm. From what I understand, this pillage is going on at every level. There is no way it’s beneficial for any interest group in US.

    We wire money to Afghan ministries, and we don’t control the spending. I read about one case of a fuel supply contract, where 4 bidders price fixed and overcharged US taxpayers by over $200 million dollars. SIGAR had to plead with the Afghan President personally to stop it. It’s ridiculous.

    We have to admit, no matter what conditions are attached to security and development assistance, it will be ransacked. Afghans do not care about their own country, why should we.

    1. I agree.

      As I’ve written before Afghanistan can’t not be corrupt. No leader who refused to pay off his cronies could survive. Governors and police chiefs have made serious investments in buying their jobs and they need the latitude to reap the rewards they so clearly deserve.

      For an Afghan it really makes little sense not to rip off the Americans. They’ve obviously got more cash than they know what to do with. They can’t speak the language. They are in for short tours. Most can’t go check stuff out without three MRAPs and half a rifle platoon in tow after two days of prep time. Then they’re in a hurray to leave before an ambush gets set up. The US Gov is the perfect mark- to be ripped off by Afghans and Americans.

      I should note that I don’t think the Afghans are more or less honest than Americans. It’s just the opportunities for dishonest behavior are different.

      The most remarkable sign of US gov incompetence was the Human Terrain Teams. The hubris to think that you should get your explanations of how local Afghan society works from a PhD in Plains Indians (!) who couldn’t speak Pashtu or Dari is remarkable. It’s such a goofy idea that I assume the program was dreamed up as a scam on the US tax payer.

      The Afghan equivalent is less sophisticated. You sell gravel to the PRT for 10x retail and then steal the gravel off the roads it was poured on. Local leaders then report to the next unit to rotate through that the road needs repair ( the jobs will stop the young men from joining the Taliban !) and you sell them the same gravel. Gravel like cash is fungible.

Comments are closed.

Verified by MonsterInsights