The “Keystone Cops” Failure in Afghanistan

by admin

A “China horror story” that takes place in Afghanistan.


Anyone with my kind of experience in China—10 years living there, 20+ years doing business there, managed numerous foreign-invested enterprises, advised 200+ companies on China operations, etc.—could relate a fair number of “China horror stories.”  These are incidents in which foreign companies face significant loss, maybe complete collapse, of their China operations, usually as a result of embezzlement, fraud, gross mismanagement which wastes resources and fails to accomplish anything, a scheming partner, massive turnover, or some other factor which is highly unlikely to occur back in the home country.  I have also given dozens and dozens of public presentations and training sessions intended to help foreigners avoid the mistakes that lead to a “China horror story,” usually drawing upon examples of the mistakes other foreigners have made.


The greatest cross-cultural failure of all time

Now comes the greatest such horror story I’ve ever seen—the US mission in Afghanistan.  Basically, a “China horror story” almost always occurs because the foreigners don’t make the effort to understand the local conditions in China.  As I like to say, they approach China as if it is the same as doing business in Iowa.  In the end their efforts are overwhelmed by the huge cultural and societal differences, including the rule of law and others.  This is exactly what happened in Afghanistan.  America ignored the cultural differences, particularly but not exclusively the rule of law, and everything America tried to accomplish in rebuilding Afghanistan on a democratic foundation vanished and/or disintegrated. Afghanistan returned to its original state, as if America had never been there, only worse as America left an economic collapse in its wake.


The stakes are much higher in war than in business

Of course, the stakes are much larger for the US in Afghanistan than for a business in China.  Twenty years and $1 Trillion were invested over 4 US Presidents (2 Republicans, 2 Democrats).  Lives lost include 2,443 American, 1,144 allies, at least 110,000 Afghan.  American casualties number in the tens of thousands, amputees and others whose physicality will never be the same.  Then there’s the mental duress and resultant psychological harm which will haunt so many of the soldiers and civilians.  The price paid in sacrifice is genuinely impossible to tally.


SIGAR provides a detailed and disturbing account

Yet the mistakes really are quite similar.  The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) was an oversight body created by the US Congress to review and assess the US post-war effort in Afghanistan.  Their reports are comprehensive, detailed, and quite impressive.  From my point of view, the reports read like a business case study but on a bigger scale.


Sadly, there is a “Keystone Cops” element to the failure

Given the human toll, one does not want to make light of the subject.  But I think it is fair to say that there is a “Keystone Cops” element to the US performance in Afghanistan. Virtually everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.  In the wake of the withdrawal, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that “we should never do that again.”  There appears to be less interest in actually understanding why it went so badly.  But those are the important lessons, necessary to not only “never do that again” but to allow us to address future challenges more effectively.  Simply put, one cannot fail so spectacularly unless there is a very serious knowledge gap.  Something is not well understood.  It is imperative to determine what those lessons are.


Economic Development: Corruption got worse, projects failed, the economy collapsed

Of the roughly $1 Trillion spent by the US in Afghanistan, $160 Billion was specifically designated for economic and societal support—infrastructure, schools, agriculture programs, etc.  According to SIGAR reports, a large portion of the spending went to projects that did not succeed.  To quote SIGAR directly,


“In 2021, SIGAR audited a sample of 60 U.S. infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, and it found that $723.8 million, or 91 percent, had gone toward assets that were unused or abandoned, were not used as intended, had deteriorated, were destroyed, or some combination of the above.”


SIGAR also states that US spending made corruption worse in Afghanistan.  As noted in related articles, corruption was one of the main reasons why the US effort failed.  Not only did the US fail to account for corruption, its spending actually made it worse.  Again, to quote SIGAR:


“By spending money faster than it could be accounted for, the U.S. government ultimately achieved the opposite of what it intended: it fueled corruption, delegitimized the Afghan government, and increased insecurity.”


Despite all the spending and effort, immediately upon the US withdrawal, the Afghan economy collapsed.  Food insecurity soared.  Cash grew scarce.  Desperation gripped the country.  Clearly, virtually nothing undertaken by the US was sustainable.  The economy hadn’t really grown or improved.  Rather, US largess was distributed on a temporary basis.  When it was withdrawn, Afghanistan reverted to its past level of poverty via a sudden plummet in economic activity.  Overall, an extremely negative result for Afghanistan and the US.


Narcotics Suppression: Opium production actually increased

The US spend $9 Billion trying to suppress the production of opium in part due to concerns that narcotics funded Taliban activities. Despite the investment, the cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan trended upward for two decades, and insecurity has made it difficult to reverse the growth.


Build a National Afghan Army: Turnover, corruption and collapse

The US committed much effort and military personnel to helping Afghanistan develop a “National Army,” a challenge given that Afghanistan has comprised of a diverse set of religious, tribal and regional groups.  The result was a complete failure.  Over much of the US effort, turnover averaged 2% per month, meaning one-quarter of the army left every year.  SIGAR’s investigation revealed that more than $300 Million per year was lost paying wages to “ghost” soldiers.  Lastly, by providing materials and equipment to some military units over others, the US inadvertently showed bias to some ethnic groups over others which led to increased rivalry.  SIGAR reported that the US approach led to “major social and political imbalances” within the military.  In other words, the US ignored the local social structure and


Democratic Judicial System: Unfamiliar and ignored

The US instituted a court system based on standard democratic principles and practices, apparently thinking a modern judicial system would automatically appeal to the Afghans.  It didn’t.  The courts sat idle while Afghans continued to use the local, tribal, Sharia-based system which they knew and trusted.


US Sponsored Elections: Terror, Assassination, Closed Polls

The US supervised elections as a means of implementing democracy in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, assassination of government officials and candidates was common, in some years averaging one per day.  One result was that recruiting qualified candidates became extremely difficult.  At the same time, terror and violence was used to intimidate voters and keep them away from polling stations.  For example, SIGAR estimated that, for the 2019 Afghan election, 37% of polling places were unable to open.  The result was obviously anything but a fair electoral process.


The Afghan Government: Assassination, Corruption and Extortion

Given all of the above, it only stands to reason that the Afghan government itself was not terribly effective or democratic.  As was mentioned above, both assassination and corruption were rampant.  SIGAR described the overall impact as follows:


“The winners often ran the government for personal gain, and many committed major crimes with impunity, creating a kind of mafia rule.  Some became wealthy off U.S. contracts and used their money to buy immunity from prosecution by paying for seats in parliament.”


In the dark right to the very end

As the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was still in the early stages, President Biden made the following comment:


The jury is still out. But the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.


Of course, Biden was completely wrong and the Taliban overtook the country quickly and easily.  So, right to the very end, the final moment, the US never had a solid understanding as to how Afghanistan functioned.  Simply put, you can’t reach your destination if you don’t understand the terrain you’re crossing.  Americans in general do not well understand LDC’s and, specific to this situation, the US never bothered to try to understand Afghanistan.  The results of operating in ignorance are obvious.