Magical thinking in America's Afghanistan

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According to a 2012 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report, the Department of Defense is actually the primary aid donor agency in Afghanistan, making up 65% of the budgeted aid expenditure for 2011. While there are many problems related to how USAID and the Department of State have administered infrastructure development projects, good governance programs, and humanitarian assistance, those projects pale in comparison next to the military’s non-combat assistance spending.

To put this into perspective, consider the outcry over a 2011 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report that estimated the Department of State and USAID were spending $320 million per month in Afghanistan. That money “pales beside the overall $10 billion monthly price tag for U.S. military operations,” according to a 2011 report in the Washington Post.

It is difficult to believe that a poor country like Afghanistan can absorb the nearly $90 billion in aid that the U.S. spends each year when its GDP was only $20 billion in 2011. When almost three fourths of Afghanistan’s economy is driven by foreign aid expenditure, we should expect there to be fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption in the Afghan government.

The U.S. government has relied on what it calls “burn rate” to measure its success in rebuilding Afghanistan. It is a measurement of how much it spent – not what it accomplished, or how the country was changing, but how much money it spent. The assumption behind this measurement was that more is better, and if the government spent a lot of money, then it was clearly accomplishing something.

Such an assumption has no basis in fact. Assuming the connection between an action and an outcome is called, in psychology, “magical thinking.” It’s like making policy with a rain dance. For the last ten years, policymakers have promised that if only enough money were spent, then many of the war’s objectives (a strong central government chief among them) would appear and make victory possible.

Examples of magical thinking abound, and they mostly take the form of spending incredible amounts of money for projects that go nowhere and help no one. The Kajaki Dam in Helmand province is one example – the U.S. has spent eight years and more than $500 million trying to rebuild it, and it does not work and has not helped southern Afghanistan. Another power plant near Kabul has cost almost as much, and it runs on diesel fuel the Afghan government cannot afford to supply it with.

Similarly, the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars paving Afghanistan’s highways on the assumption that doing so would bring security. But over the last four years, the insurgency has instead concentrated its attacks on those same paved highways – the opposite effect policymakers wanted.

The American Security Project is publishing this week a report that examines magical thinking in Afghanistan. It also examines other lessons policymakers need to learn about how the war has been conducted: the need to understand the country, the lack of politics for a war that is mostly political, a failure to plan, and an inability to cope with the long term consequences of decisions.

There are some ways the U.S. government is moving past these lessons: the Strategic Partnership Agreement at least references the long term in Afghanistan. But overall there are critical lessons about the war that just don’t seem to be getting acknowledged in the public discourse.

Such a discussion is vital – it is only by understanding what went wrong that we can ever hope to avoid those mistakes in the future. If nothing else, the lesson we should take away from Afghanistan is the need to constantly revisit our assumptions.
 
Foust is the fellow for asymmetric operations at the American Security Proejct.

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