Good news and bad news on the effectiveness of American “democracy assistance”: we spent most of the money where war precluded meaningful opportunity

The conjunction of war and democracy assistance has been brought back to the fore for me the publication by The Washington Post of its “Afghanistan Papers” series.

The bottom line on the Afghanistan war for me is that those who warned that we were risking losing Afghanistan to invade Iraq (who seemed persuasive to me at the time) turned out to be right:

Drawing partly on the interviews but largely on other government documents, SIGAR [the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction] published two Lessons Learned reports in 2017 and 2019 that highlighted an array of problems with the Afghan security forces. The reports followed several SIGAR audits and investigations that had pinpointed similar troubles with the Afghan army and police. 

But the Lessons Learned reports omitted the names of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project, as well as their most biting critiques. The Post obtained notes and transcripts of the interviews under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) after a three-year legal battle. 

“We got the [Afghan forces] we deserve,” Douglas Lute, an Army lieutenant general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. 

If the U.S. government had ramped up training between 2002 and 2006, “when the Taliban was weak and disorganized, things may have been different,” Lute added. “Instead, we went to Iraq. If we committed money deliberately and sooner, we could have a different outcome.”

It may be that we never really had a chance to achieve a desirable outcome but we made an alternative choice that appears to have precluded what chance there was.

Of course I cannot truly be surprised by pervasive “spin” about Afghanistan because of my experience in Kenya in 2007-2008 and the lack of response from the government and the official democracy assistance fraternity to the my disclosure of dishonesty in how we (the U.S. Government) addressed election fraud in Kenya and how we handled the inconvenient exit poll showing an opposition win and some of the inconvenient things we witnessed as election observers at the polls. [Not to mention what we all knew about Iraq by 2007.]

Even though most “name brand” experts and U.S. Government funded institutions seem to agree that globally democracy is in some form of recession, it is hard to know whether serious and purposeful United States-funded democracy assistance programming might have potential benefits because most of the money and effort has gone to war adjunct “nation building” as in Afghanistan where it turns out that nearly everyone has “privately” been admitting that we do not know what we are doing or should be doing and thus have no real chance of genuine success.

During my time with the International Republican Institute in the late Bush Administration the dominant “democracy promotion” or “democracy assistance” programs were Iraq followed by Sudan. Shortly after I finished my time in the barrel in Kenya in mid-2008 the venerable Center for Strategic and International Studies convened a blue ribbon panel to look at the reputation problem of the term “democracy promotion” due to the association with experimental “expeditionary warfare” in Iraq. Thus the pivot from “democracy promotion” to “democracy assistance”.

By the later Obama years Afghanistan, followed by Iraq and newly severed but but failing South Sudan were getting most of the democracy assistance dollars.

A Government Accountability Office report on Democracy Assistance, GAO-18-136, notes “Total USAID democracy assistance funding for projects in Afghanistan was greater than for any other country, amounting to almost 39 percent of USAID’s total democracy assistance obligations during fiscal years 2012 through 2015.” Here are the totals for the top fourteen USAID democracy assistance FY 2012-16 “places of performance”:

Afghanistan 1,650M

Iraq 238M

Regional/Global 201M

South Sudan 159M

Mexico 102M

Columbia 86M

Honduras 81M

Pakistan 79M

Bangladesh 76M

Haiti 73M

Liberia 68M

Egypt 65M

Kenya 60M

Indonesia 60M

*Note this is just USAID and does not encompass the separate Department of Defense and State programs, and much smaller amounts from the National Endowment for Democracy.

Back in 2007 in Kenya, a country on the brink of crisis, but supposedly of vital interest to the United States, most of the democracy assistance money being spent in the country was the “back office” operations for the vast (as measured in dollars anyway) pre-independence Southern Sudan operation.

People in Washington paid so little attention to democratization in Kenya in 2007 as to fail to realize or at least act on the risks of having the Ambassador “looking and pointing the other way” as Kibaki rather openly stole re-election (even though the opposition was also pro-Western and friendly to the United States so there was no bona fide nation interest served by those Americans who subverted our own meagre democracy assistance program).

In 2013, even after the disaster of 2007, we deliberately chose the path of non-transparency when our funded purchasing of the Results Transmission System for the election was botched and the system failed to work. Kenya’s Supreme Court shut down a partial recount that showed serious problems and affirmed the questionable tally of the Electoral Commission (litigating with undisclosed American-funded assistance) to avoiding by a whisker the runoff that the pre-election polls predicted. The Supreme Court ordered an investigation into the procurement fraud cases, but the Kenyan executive authorities simply ignored the order. My FOIA research so far documents discussion among the donors involved in the UNDP “basket fund” including the United States, whether to cooperate with a subsequent investigation by Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, but I do not know the outcome as I continue awaiting processing of remaining documents from my 2015 request to USAID.

In hindsight, I should have read more into the decision of my late friend Joel Barkan to stay home and “watch” that election from Washington. By 2017, the incumbent Kenyan government was clearly not committed to providing a level playing field and I stayed home myself. No incumbent Kenyan president has been found by a Kenyan election commission to have failed to “win” his re-election. The misfeasance on the technology for 2017 was blatant enough in that instance for the Supreme Court to annul the presidential vote, in spite of diplomatic and observer support for the announced outcome. The environment was too fraught with mistrust at that point to provide a mutually acceptable platform for a re-vote and Kenyatta was re-inaugurated after an opposition boycott.

Kenya’s political class is now focussed primarily on the 2022 campaign. The joint “Building Bridges Initiative” report released this month proposes that the remants of the Electoral Commission of Kenya from the 2017 vote be “bought out” and a new commission constituted, as was done following the problems in 2007 and 2013, but no action to implement this is yet pending.

In the meantime, much our policy in Somalia has been a variable secretive melange of counterterrorism, war and nation building with a sprinkling of democracy assistance. There is no Special Inspector General for the war in Somalia so we will not have created the kind of record that the Washington Post has been able to obtain on Afghanistan, but perhaps someday we will all know more. By May 2006 the Post did report: “U.S. Secretly Backing Warlords in Somalia” and by that December we secretly supported the Ethiopian military invasion to re-instate the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu.

Memorial Day

I don’t want to let today go by without saying something in recognition of Memorial Day.  Our holiday honoring America’s war dead seemed for a time to be fading into more of a celebration of “the first day of summer” with less remembrance of sacrifices, but this year we seem to be a bit somber for a variety of reasons.

More than 1,000 Americans have died in the war in Afghanistan now, and for the first time since 2003 we have more soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen there in total than in Iraq, where we continue.  The campaign in Afghanistan is now America’s longest war–ever.   It started in the first year of the first George W. Bush administration and is now “Obama’s war” in his second year.  My son is in middle school–this war started when he was four years old.  I wonder if he will have to decide whether or not to go himself in just a few more years.

I am left with the feeling that while we are doing a better job recognizing and appreciating our men and women in the service, and honoring those who have given their lives, than at some times in the past, we are simply asking, and expecting, too much from them.  The effort in Afghanistan since late 2001 has really been more about nation building–the mission of taking out the Taliban was accomplished.  Likewise, in Iraq, the mission of taking Saddam Hussein out of power–what had not been done in 1991 that some were waiting out the Clinton years to pick back up on–was accomplished.  Since then, the real task has been building a substitute system.  These nation building tasks fall to the military because no one else knows what to do or is willing or has the resources.  In Iraq, the general in charge of the immediate post-Saddam effort was replaced by a civilian viceroy who eventually did a quick handoff to a not yet formed Iraqi government and left the military to pick up the pieces and carry on.

I pray for the success of the great projects of creating a new Afghanistan and a new Iraq, both for the men and women of these countries and for the men and women of the armed services (American and those from other countries) who have given so much to the effort–and especially for my old friend, a reservist, who is just now leaving his wife and young son to deploy to Iraq for a year.

It is in Africa that America has had very little military experience and has lost very few soldiers.  When I was in Kenya a survey came out noting that the United States was more popular in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world–including within the United States itself.  I think we have a good bit to lose by dumping our diplomacy and development efforts onto the shoulders of AFRICOM now–the military has already been tasked with too much by our civilian leadership in the past several years and is still stretched too thin.  If we need to do more in the areas of development and diplomacy, then we need to step up to the plate and do it–not make it one more assignment for the military.  It is an extraordinary thing to see the Secretary of Defense, and especially the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually lobbying Congress for funding for the State Department, including USAID.  This is where the responsibility should rest.