Every few days, the headquarters of the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State militias issues a communique on how the war is going. Monday's report said 27 coalition air attacks on Sunday and Monday struck nine vehicles, 12 troop units, 10 fighting positions (foxholes), 10 buildings, an oil refinery, a rocket launcher, three boats and a tank, among other targets.
The attacks are framed as progress in the fight against extremism and terrorism, although it's difficult to make that link in the aftermath of the violence in France. What we do know, from 13 years of painful experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that one-sided accounts of combat strikes don't necessarily reflect a war that's being won. In Iraq, to take one obvious example, U.S. troops with enormous courage and sacrifice trounced the insurgency. American taxpayers spent perhaps $26 billion building the Iraqi security forces. But the U.S. failed to consolidate those gains, and when the insurgency reappeared in the virulent form of the Islamic State militias, there was no cohesive Iraqi army and no broadly accepted government to oppose it.
Which should remind us to pay more attention to what's happening just off the battlefield, where in the kinds of wars the U.S. now faces, the less glamorous job of building security capacity is critical. Recall that "winning" doesn't mean a continuous stream of air strikes, but building outposts of stability across the tortured landscapes of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
That requires not just pressing costly weapons and fancy training programs on client states like Afghanistan. It requires really acting on the ideas we say are important: helping to build their economy, government and civil society to enable them to stand independently against the tide of radical, ruthless Islam. It means being hard-nosed about corruption and incompetence. It means holding Afghans and Iraqis and "moderate" Syrians to a high standard and helping them achieve it and staying with them. It means holding our own people to high standards of performance and accountability. Where's congressional oversight?
If we are going to use blood and treasure to fight, we should focus more on the broader campaign than on the tactical battle. The record suggests that we have not done that. Instead, the U.S. has left behind a dismal record of failure. Worse, we don't seem to be learning the hard lessons.
Those lessons are detailed in dozens of reports issued over the past decade by the U.S. special inspectors general for Iraq and Afghan reconstruction, whose teams of investigators have swarmed over Iraq and Afghanistan under a broad writ from Congress to track money and results. Under Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq, investigators detailed botched construction jobs, missing weapons, missing money, dubious payments, and fraud and waste, until the office was closed down in 2013. The agency's final report, read in retrospect, signaled an ominous future not just for Iraq but for any place the U.S. might find itself involved. "The United States is not sufficiently structured or prepared for the next SRO (Stability and Reconstruction Operation)," Bowen concluded, using Pentagon jargon for modern military campaigns.
Fast-forward to Afghanistan, where another inspector general, John F. Sopko, has been chronicling a similar and continuing record of failure. His most recent report, released Monday, describes deep problems in the payroll system for the Afghan National Police (ANP), the local security forces that are the critical first line of defense against the Taliban and the face of the Afghan government in villages across the country. American taxpayers provide $300 million a year for police pay and have invested a total of $15 billion in the Afghan National Police.
That pay system is a mess. That's not news: U.S. investigators first warned of fraud and waste in the ANP payroll in 2006. It hasn't gotten better. Sopko and his gumshoes found inflated police rosters, payroll money diverted in some areas, and payroll cash siphoned off by middlemen. The police are given official ID cards for pay purposes, but somehow there are twice as many cards in circulation as there are police. Two separate data systems, one supervised by UN officials and one by the U.S. military, are unable to track all police personnel and are incompatible so records can't be cross-checked. Thousands of personnel records are incorrect or are missing ID numbers, the investigators found.
"There is a significant risk that a large portion of the over $300 million in annual U.S. funding for ANP salaries will be wasted or abused," Sopko wrote.
Of course, it's easy to underestimate the challenge of building a payroll system that depends on top-to-bottom honesty and accountability in a place like Afghanistan, handicapped as it is by a weak central government, a shortage of trained government officials, endemic corruption -- and an ongoing war.
What is hard to understand is the lack of American accountability. That's a disheartening theme that runs through the investigative reports from both Iraq and Afghanistan: Time and again U.S. officials pour money into a program and then walk away. "We have not found people really held accountable for screw-ups," Sopko told reporters last fall. "I think that is the problem: I have not found anybody who lost a job for screwing up."
In short, the hard-won American battlefield victories and costly air strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and perhaps elsewhere may count for little if those gains are not consolidated off the battlefield. So far, at least, the planners at the White House, Pentagon and State have shown little intention of re-engaging in that hard, unglamorous and long-term work from which could come real stability.
The way the U.S. manages wars "isn't working," Sopko warned last fall, "and my concern is the next time we do this -- you know we're going to, we're planning... let's get our ducks in order so we don't waste the taxpayers money and don't have this backfire on us."