In December of 2006, in the midst of ongoing struggles in the Iraq war, the US Army and US Marine Corps published a new field manual (FM 3-24) on the subject of counterinsurgency – or COIN, as it is known in the acronym-laden world of defense policy. The product of an intense effort at the Army’s Doctrine Division at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the new manual provided a detailed and sophisticated analysis of the character and requirements of that difficult mission. Championed by the Army’s most visible and respected senior officer, General David Petraeus, the COIN field manual was received with acclaim and subsequently it was given credit for helping to improve a terrible situation when it was applied in Iraq.
FM 3-24 covers a lot of ground in its 280 pages, but certain passages leap out as particularly important. In its articulation of the principles of counterinsurgency, it has a clear statement of what is essential: “The primary objective of any COIN campaign is to foster effective governance by a legitimate government.” (p. 1-21) A few paragraphs on, the COIN field manual is similarly bold and stark about the consequences if this “primary objective” is not achieved: “A COIN effort cannot achieve lasting success without the host nation government achieving legitimacy.” Here then, in the carefully considered judgment of the US military, is the core concern and the key metric in waging counterinsurgency campaigns.
If effective legitimate government in the host nation is the decisively important prerequisite for successful counterinsurgency, then Dexter Filkins’s latest account in The New Yorker (February 14 & 21) of corruption and incompetence in Afghanistan is devastating in its implications. Filkins lays out in enormous detail evidence of massive and pervasive corruption, which proceeds with almost total impunity.
Corruption in Afghanistan is hardly a new story, of course, but Filkins shows that it pervades the highest levels and the furthest reaches of Afghan society. “Graft,” he writes, “infests nearly every interaction between the Afghan state and its citizens….The Afghan government does not so much serve the people as prey upon them.” Among the elites, with billions of American dollars sloshing around, hundreds of millions go missing — $900 million in the biggest scandal so far discovered, the Kabul Bank “heist” (as Filkins describes it). Among other things, this money goes to bankroll lush lifestyles for Afghan elites in Dubai. Filkins quotes an unnamed America official describing the Afghan government as “a vertically integrated criminal enterprise.” The corruption, in short, seems as bad as ever – in fact, worse than ever. What this means is that years of American efforts in Afghanistan to promote good government and stifle corruption have failed – failed utterly and catastrophically, if Filkins’s account is remotely correct.
Moreover, the enterprise of siphoning off the hard-earned monies of the American taxpayer seems to bring Afghans together, to integrate the good guys and the bad guys, the criminals and the officials, the Taliban and the government. Everyone, it seems, has an interest in getting their share of Uncle Sam’s loot. The ironic and deeply unfortunate result, Filkins notes, is that the United States is funding all sides of this conflict. And the clear line between friend and foe that animates US behavior in Afghanistan does not seem to exist to any significant extent among Afghans themselves. As Filkins concludes, “Politics and business in Kabul are increasingly dominated by criminal networks and their patrons in the Afghan government.”
Filkins’s essay is the latest, longest and most vivid account of the deeply troubled state of internal affairs in Afghanistan, but it squares with other reporting from that tortured land. The fundamental question for American policymakers is how it is possible to reconcile the reality Filkins describes with the requirements for successful counterinsurgency specified in the US government’s own field manual. If the picture Filkins paints is even roughly right, then there are abundant indications of corruption, lawlessness and illegitimacy and precious little evidence of effective governance. Years of American investment in this project seem to have produced little progress toward the necessary improvements in the performance of Afghan institutions. The “primary objective” of the US counterinsurgency effort is not being achieved.
And yet under these circumstances, according to the US Army’s own logic as spelled out in its own much-invoked and widely respected field manual, American policy cannot succeed. FM 3-24 has not been repudiated. Counterinsurgency is still the centerpiece of the US approach to Afghanistan. But the conditions required for success are not being met and there is no sign that they will be met in any foreseeable future. Viewed in this context, President Obama’s decision to recommit to and expand this war seems odd, to say the least. Even more puzzling is General David Petraeus’s relentless advocacy of escalation in Afghanistan (detailed in Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s War); has he forgotten the plain and powerful conclusions of his own field manual?
Nearly a decade into America’s long-running war in Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurgent, the insurgency persists, the drug trade is robust, the Afghan government remains ineffectual and corrupt (as well as not reliably cooperative), and the Afghan army and security services require further training. A happy ending to this story is not in sight. Yet at a time when leading figures in Washington are portentously proclaiming that the Federal Government is broke, the new Obama budget has requested more than $100 billion of additional funding for the coming year in Afghanistan (adding, of course, to the hundreds of billions already spent.) This would seem like a better, wiser, more justifiable expenditure of American tax dollars if the fundamental conditions for success as defined by the Army itself were being met. Perhaps American taxpayers, now being told that their retirement and health care benefits must be cut because the government can no longer afford to take care of them as in the past, will draw some comfort from the fact that they were able to underwrite the opulent Dubai lifestyles of the Afghan elite while also indirectly subsidizing the Taliban insurgency. But somehow I doubt it.