Building a House in Afghanistan

I want to avoid being a one-issue blogger, but I have received several requests for more details about my pessimism in Marjah, and Afghanistan more generally.

Let's say you want to build a house. You have the funds to hire everyone you need, and you're a lucky person, because you happen to know the very best carpenter on earth -- Norm Abram. Norm agrees to work on your house, but after erecting a few frame pieces you immediately have him switch to painting unfinished rooms. After a delay, you finally allow him to return to carpentry -- but only on one single bedroom. Meanwhile, in all the debate about Norm's role, you neglected to hire a real contractor to lay the foundation. Instead, you just poured some concrete that you had lying around and called it a day.

This is clearly not the way to build a house. Anyone who has ever picked up a hammer can predict how this project will end, and it won't be a pretty sight. Unfortunately, if you'll forgive the somewhat strained Friedman-esque analogy, this is exactly what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan.

Norm, our master carpenter, is the U.S. military. Just like Norm, they are the best in the world at what they do -- fighting. But in Afghanistan they have been engaging in nation-building (even though nobody in Washington is willing to use that term). And as good as the military is at fighting, it is not trained or equipped for development work. Having troops do nation-building is akin to taking your master carpenter and asking him to paint. Not only is it outside his core competencies, there are other people who specialize is doing it the right way. Instead of professional painters, consider professional aid workers -- the people who work for international NGOs or government organizations like USAID. They have spent their lives studying and practicing development, and are clearly more qualified to undertake those tasks in Afghanistan. Yet instead of utilizing our aid workers, or professional painters, we are letting the military and Norm do unfamiliar work.

The foundation is the Afghan government in Kabul. As I have written previously, President Karzai is a corrupt, illegitimate leader who appears more interested in consolidating his own power than improving the country -- witness his recent takeover of the Election Complaint Commission. I refer to his government as the foundation because the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is entirely predicated on creating a functioning central government. Every aspect of COIN doctrine emphasizes the need to provide security and governance to the population, but by pinning all hopes for governance on Karzai the U.S. is dooming itself to failure.

Which brings us to Operation Moshtarak in Marjah. The U.S. is finally using the military properly -- as a blunt fighting tool. I have no doubt that the Marines will be able to defeat their Taliban foes, either directly in battle or by forcing them to flee. Here, Norm is finally allowed to build. However, Norm is only allowed to build one room. I understand that the military is eventually scheduled to conduct similar operations in Kandahar and elsewhere, but for now all efforts are focused on Marjah -- just one small room in a very large house. Furthermore, Norm is not getting the help he needs. He can build the room himself, but to finish it correctly he requires help -- electricians, painters, and heating experts. Just like Norm, the military needs additional expertise from aid practitioners, rule of law specialists, and others from the development community. But they are not receiving that help. Instead, they are being asked to do the job themselves, and everything else will be trusted to the foundation.

The result of the Operation Moshtarak will be one extremely well-constructed room with faulty wiring, streaky painting, and undependable radiators in an unfinished house resting on a creaky, hollow foundation.

In short, this is an example of getting the tactics mostly right but the grand strategy wrong. You can win the battles but lose the war, as the U.S. once discovered in Vietnam, and this happens when your grand strategy is misguided. All the technological superiority in the world cannot overcome a faulty strategic base.

The foundation in Afghanistan continues to show cracks. The U.S. must reconstruct it, using the proper methods, or bear the consequences. A house built on an insecure foundation will inevitably collapse.