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Archive for May, 2009

Using proxies

I’ve been reading Descent Into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid and what most stood out was the U.S.’s default reliance on others to accomplish its goals without ever having any real success.  I wonder when or if any change will come from this failure to acknowledge what role we should ultimately occupy.  First, when invading Afghanistan, the U.S. armed the Northern Alliance and various warlords and used them to weaken the Taliban. So far, so good.  But then, with the Taliban and al-Qaeda severely weakened and fleeing for various borders, the U.S. still relied on mercenaries to prevent the Taliban and al-Qaeda from escaping.  Naturally, this didn’t go so well.  The motivation seems worthy – prevent loss of U.S. life – but that cautiousness likely allowed Bin Laden to escape as well as numerous other members of al-Qaeda.

Next, rather than establishing a strong U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the U.S., mostly through the CIA-SOF (special operations forces) funneled money – per Rashid, $1B – to the warlords to have them act as de facto guardians of U.S. interests, which were narrowly defined to encompass catching members of al-Qaeda.  Again, didn’t work out so well.  Especially considering that it was the warlords barbarism that led to the Afghan population initially accepting the Taliban.

Using proxies extends beyond fighting and “maintaining” the peace.  Also, the U.S., specifically the basically neutered USAID, funneled funding for the inadequate aid and reconstruction projects to private contractors.  USAID no longer had any institutional capacity to do so itself.  These contractors, having no knowledge of Afghanistan, often had projects that were vastly more expensive and less practical than similar projects funded through NGO’s that worked with local citizens and organizations.

I’m not saying that using proxies for projects is inherently bad.  But when doing so, the U.S. hasn’t seemed to understand what it’s ultimate goal was, and this lack of knowledge led to disastrous results. Additionally, it appears to be government policy that operations are best done or more efficiently done by private entities.  This mindset seems to lead to the lack of knowledge because the very government agencies that used to carry out the activities have been gutted, which in turn leads to bad decision making.  Private entities can provide very valuable expertise when they actually have it to give.  Having an office within the beltway and a Board staffed with former generals does not axiomatically bestow expertise for every foreign situation.

Additionally, this post over at Wronging Rights (just about the best blog on the internets), magical thinking, Amanda lists five questions that governments should answer when looking to intervene. I think it also applies when the government has already started a war and needs to help reconstruct the country afterwards.  In that, I believe she’s right about #3 & 4 getting minimal attention compared to the others.  All too often, the U.S. doesn’t know how to do it, but believes that others do. Often times, others do know how.  Unfortunately, those private citizens rarely have offices within the beltway.

This gets to another point made highlighted by Amanda: poor people aren’t stupid.  There were numerous Afghans who could have told you what they wanted – e.g. no warlords, actual reconstruction – but the U.S. never listened.  When it did decide to send aid money, it still didn’t listen. When it fought al-Qaeda, the government’s myopic view of the region led it to believe that solely going after al-Qaeda leaders was sufficient, though I’m guessing engaging the citizenry post-conflict would have revealed that to be a mistake.

So, basically, I don’t have a problem relying on proxies when you do so with knowledge of what your goals are and working with proxies that are knowledgeable.  Apparently, these two requirements are much more difficult than would seem to be.

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