I was part of Iraq 2.0, heading two embedded civilian provincial reconstruction teams (ePRTs) 2009-2010 and wrote a book critical of the program, We Meant Well, for which was I was punished into involuntary retirement by my employer the U.S. State Department. The working title for the book was originally “Lessons for Afghanistan from the Failed Reconstruction of Iraq” and was meant to explain how our nation building efforts failed to accomplish anything except setting afire rampant corruption, and how repeating them nearly dollar-for-dollar in the Afghan theatre was just going to yield the same results. After all, isn’t one definition of madness doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results?
The title of my book changed to something less academic sounding, coming out as it did around the tenth anniversary of Iraq War 2.0. It is important to look back accurately; on the tenth anniversary the meme was still that the Surge was going to work, that the final push of soldiers and civilian reconstructors was going to break Al Qaeda in Iraq by coopting their indigenous Sunni partners. “Jury Still Out on Iraq Invasion” wrote Politico. My editor selfishly hoped the war would still be going on in a few months so we might sell some books. I knew we had something to worry about, not that the war would fail to drag on but that the failures would be so obvious no one would see the need to read a whole book about them.
The way it all worked was like this. Washington would determine some broad theme-of-the-month (such as women’s empowerment) aimed at a domestic American audience. The theme would filter down to us at the PRT level and we were to concoct some sort of “project,” something tangible on the ground, preferably something that showed well in the media we’d invite to see our progress. It wasn’t hard because corrupt organizations arose like flowers from the desert to take our money. Usually run by a local Tony Soprano-type warlord, the organization would morph in name alone as needed from local activist group to NGO to entrepreneur incubator depending on the project. We’d give them boxes full of dollars (nobody wanted Iraqi money, a clue) and perhaps some event would occur, or a speaker might be brought in. We funded bakeries on streets without water, paid for plays on getting along with neighbors, and threw money at all this only because no one could find a match to just set fire to it directly. Little was expected in the end outside a nice slideshow celebrating another blow for democracy. In shopping for hearts and minds in Iraq, we made bizarre impulse purchases, described elsewhere as “checkbook diplomacy.”
As Iraq morphed into a subject we were just not going to talk about very much (one journalist who read my early draft opined “So you’re the guy who is going to write the last critical book on Iraq before Petraeus takes a victory lap in his”) attention turned to Afghanistan. I knew this because suddenly I was flooded with requests to write recommendations for the same people who had failed so completely in Iraq to work in Afghanistan. As part of some escalation or another, the military was rehiring most of the civilians who had failed to reconstruct Iraq into exactly the same roles in Afghanistan, presumably to (fail) to reconstruct that sad place.
I dutifully answered each personnel inquiry accurately, fully, and as a patriot, with the hope that someone would see what was going on and put a goddamn stop to it. I was very wrong. The key element of the fantasy was the reconstruction effort, the idea that rebuilding Afghanistan via $141 billion in roads and schools and bridges and hardware stores would gut the Taliban’s own more brutal hearts and minds efforts. That was the same plan as in Iraq only minutes earlier, where between 2003 and 2014, more than $220 billion was spent on rebuilding the country. Nonetheless, the Iraqi failure on full display, the United States believed that economic and social development programming would increase support for the Afghan government and reduce support for the Taliban (the log line for the war script.)
However, as had its sister organization in Iraq, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) wrote “the theory that economic and social development programing could produce such outcomes had weak empirical foundations.” Former Ambassador to Afghanistan Michael McKinley noted, “It wasn’t that everyone, including conservative rural populations, didn’t appreciate services… But that didn’t seem to change their views.” As the Army War College wrote, “This idea that if you build a road or a hospital or a school, people will then come on board and support the government — there’s no evidence of that occurring anywhere since 1945, in any internal conflict. It doesn’t work.” As an American former advisor to President Ghani told SIGAR, “Building latrines does not make you love Ashraf Ghani.” But that was indeed the plan and it failed spectacularly, slow over its own twenty years then all at once last August. SIGAR summed up: “U.S. efforts to build and sustain Afghanistan’s governing institutions were a total, epic, predestined failure on par with the same efforts and outcome in the Vietnam war, and for the same reasons.”
No, wait, nobody said any of those things during the Afghan war, only afterwards when it was time to look around and assign blame to someone other than oneself. The Iraq reconstruction failed to account for the lessons of Vietnam (the CORDS program in particular.) The Afghan reconstruction failed to account for the lessons of Iraq. We now sit and wait to see the coming Ukraine reconstruction fail to remember any of it at all.
“It is obvious that American business can become the locomotive that will once again push forward global economic growth,” President Zelensky said, boasting BlackRock, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs, and others “have already become part of our Ukrainian way.” The NYT calls Ukraine “the world’s largest construction site” and predicts projects there in the multi-billions, as high in some estimates as 750 billion. It will be, says the Times, a “gold rush: the reconstruction of Ukraine once the war is over. Already the staggering rebuilding task is evident. Hundreds of thousands of homes, schools, hospitals and factories have been obliterated along with critical energy facilities and miles of roads, rail tracks and seaports. The profound human tragedy is unavoidably also a huge economic opportunity.”
We did worse than nothing. Iraq before our invasion(s) was a more or less stable place, good enough that Saddam was even an ally of sorts during the Iraq-Iran War. By the time we were finished Iraq was a corrupt client state of Iran. Where once most literate Americans knew the name of the Iraqi Prime Minister, a regular White House guest, unless he’s changed his name to Zelensky nobody cares anymore. And that’s what the sign on the door leading out of Iraq (and perhaps into Ukraine) reads — thousands of lives and billions of dollars later, no one cares, if they even remember.
Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.