War Junk: New Book on the Failures of Obama’s Afghan Surge

Foreign Policy is carrying an excerpt from the new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by the Washington Post’s always insightful Rajiv ChandrasekaranIt’s essential reading and does more than anything else I’ve read recently to capture what made the Obama administration’s ‘civilian surge’ in Afghanistan so unfocused, short-sighted and counterproductive. While the focus here is on the flawed American effort, unfortunately, from personal experience I can testify that the pathologies Chandrasekaran identifies were endemic to the international engagement much more broadly and with very few exceptions.

Chandrasekaran raises several factors that defined the lives of many people working on the civilian side. Among them:

  • Restrictive security measures that virtually imprisoned aid workers and political officers in their offices. Getting out to actually meet Afghans and see funding projects was often impossible. The self-imposed fog of war induced bureaucratic narcosis: ever-growing reams of working documents cross-referenced one another with an ever-weakening link to a reality ‘out there.’ Progress, such as it was, became defined by the holding of meetings and the drafting of papers rather than the concrete achievement of real-world objectives.
  • Dysfunctional and sclerotic hiring procedures. Identifying and making use of high-quality people was a perennial challenge, assembling and maintaining a corporate knowledge-base all but impossible. To make matters worse, the personal sacrifices entailed by working in a crisis zone meant that promises of high pay and promotions were used to attract high-quality people. Unfortunately, this often had the effect of attracting people more concerned with high-pay and promotions than the fate of Afghans.

Faced with these frustrations, people grew despondent and often found solace in diversions. At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul,

Some staffers retreated to their trailers to watch movies on their laptops. Others grew homesick and despondent…The most common salve, however, was booze. For those not lucky enough to be invited to a private party in one of the apartments, the Duck and Cover — whose logo featured a duck wearing a combat helmet perched atop sandbags — was the place to go. On Thursday nights, staffers crammed shoulder to shoulder in the pub, downing cans of Heineken, glasses of cheap Australian white wine, and bottles of hard lemonade. The place remained hopping until last call at 2 in the morning, when everyone stumbled back to his or her hooch.

Forget grappling with how to ensure basic security in this war-torn country, even getting right the logistics of the 2010 Mardi Gras celebration on the grounds of its own embassy proved too much for American administrative capabilities:

Hundreds of revelers, including thick-necked security contractors, raggedy aid workers, and suit- wearing diplomats from other countries, packed into a tent next to the main embassy office building. The organizers had procured more than enough liquor, but the partygoers had access to only two restrooms. The queue for the toilets grew so long that inebriated attendees began to relieve themselves elsewhere. The deputy Turkish ambassador urinated on the wall of the chancery building. So did two American men who worked at the embassy. A female staffer pulled off her underwear and squatted on a patch of grass near the flagpole. [U.S. Ambassador] Eikenberry couldn’t do anything about the Turk, but both of the American men were sent home. When the woman was hauled into her supervisor’s office the following day and told she would be disciplined, she claimed to have a small bladder and threatened to lodge an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint. She was allowed to finish her tour in Kabul. The following week, the word came down that there would be no more blow-out parties until the Marine Corps birthday ball that fall, and alcohol purchases at the embassy convenience store would be limited to two bottles of wine or one bottle of spirits per person per day.

Q.E.D.

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