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.

A U.S. war with Iran would be a big set back for longterm American interests and values in Africa as well as elsewhere

1. The basic rationale would be a version of the thinking in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2001-03: sanctions do not work forever, we have been in a low grade conflict mode for years against an intransigent regime that is not going to change its mind about willingness to use terror, a desire to threaten regional interests and aspirations for extended regional influence and a refusal to loosen domestic repression to allow any opportunity for “organic normalization”. Ultimately proliferation happens and the regime will get nuclear weapons in addition to the other WMDs it has had/is developing. At the same time, the repression assures a domestic mass constituency for liberalization.

2. In my perch in the defense industry in 2003 (working on Navy shipbuilding on the Gulf Coast) I was unpersuaded personally that the Bush Administration had made its case for the Iraq invasion. It seemed to me that we did not know enough about the situation to know what would happen next after we invaded, especially in the context of the Sunni/Shiite and other divisions within the country. It seemed too risky, too much of a “Hail Mary” so to speak, given what was argued by the Administration’s public diplomacy such as the Colin Powell speech at the UN and domestic speeches in the US, Congressional debates and such about the alleged threat.

3. At that time I was a lifelong Republican, and was by reputation somewhat connected in the Party, although I was not active in partisan politics while I was a lawyer in the shipyard (starting in 2000) because it seemed unrealistic to participate as a citizen “free agent” while being a lawyer with the dominant local industry as opposed to my previous work as a student and lawyer in private practice. I had voted for George W. Bush as the Republican nominee in 2000 although he was not a top choice for the nomination because I thought he was thin on experience and got the top of the field through preemptive fundraising clout rather than comparative merit. Ironically I had been reassured about Bush’s limited experience by Cheney’s performance in the campaign, even though I was unenthused about having essentially an all-Dallas ticket and Cheney’s role in asserting himself as running mate. I did not have an understanding of how contradictory Cheney’s own views were from the messages Bush presented in the campaign. All this is to say that I was not going to automatically support a war because Bush was proposing it–the most salient reason in Washington–but I should have been highly susceptible to being persuaded and they did not succeed in persuading me.

4. I will also note that there were countervailing influences over a period of time. Several years before the start of Fox News I got married and became active again in church having drifted during school years and then we had our first child. Even during the Bill Clinton/Ken Starr years I probably spent more time in church than with cable television, a major fork in the road and ultimately countercultural. The al Qaeda USS Cole bombing hit shortly after I started in shipbuilding and the Cole was brought to our yard for the repair/reconstruction so I was very aware of al Qaeda before being in Washington on business on 9-11. Then I went home and carried on. Yes, things had “changed” but the basic issues, challenges and choices remained.

5. As an orthodox non-fundamentalist Protestant who was not a daily consumer of Fox News, I did not feel a call to cast aside my formative moral orientation of restraint for peace and embrace some new doctrine of “pre-emptive war”.

6. Nonetheless, in the run up to Iraq I continued to read and study and learn but did not actually do anything to act on my lack of persuasion that we should invade.

7. While I was not in a position of influence, ultimately I have concluded that we went to war because hundreds or thousands of people in or around Washington who did know or should have known better went along with it anyway. And in doing so we made collectively as a country a most consequential foreign policy mistake and a moral misjudgment.

8. So now today I want to warn that going to war with Iran as a preemptive policy choice rather than a bona fide necessity would gravely set back our recovery from the 2003 miscalculation in Iraq and jeopardize the hopes of Iraqis for a better future. It would potentially arrogate to ourselves a role and responsibility in Iran that we simply are not prepared for, morally or otherwise. It would potentially kill who knows how many people not given a choice in the matter. And it would sap hope of standing up to outside counter-democratic forces (Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Egypt, Russia and China) in the immediate Sudan crisis which presents an important positive longterm opportunity for us to be who we say we want to be. It would have related impact in Somalia and throughout the Horn of Africa and to an unpredictable extent well beyond on the Continent. We already lack adequate diplomatic bandwidth to do as much as what we could with our “Prosper Africa” policy and are notionally planning military drawdowns even though AFRICOM has seen substantial degradation in overall security versus Islamist terrorist groups during its ten year existence. AFRICOM has yet to become the “different type of combatant command” that it was planned to be in substantial part because of the inevitable institutional inertia associated with a “permanent war” footing in the Middle East and South Asia. Likewise war with Iran could increase Iranian-supported terrorist activity in East and West Africa. And we all know that Donald Trump does not have the experience or moral gravitas to take these decisions.

Stronger together?  Scott Gration, Hillary Clinton and the road ahead

I was reading Ambassador Scott Gration’s autobiography, Flight Path: Son of Africa to Warrior-General, and had his experience in mind in some respects in my last post which went a bit further than I have previously in its breadth of frustration with how American policy gets made from Washington for Kenya.

General Gration’s memoir is worth reading and I’m glad I was able to take time for it while waiting for the election here in the U.S. to be over.

If you have read about Ambassador Gration’s alleged email hygene at the time he was forced aside as U.S. Ambassador to Kenya in the summer of 2012, and have read the news dribbling out over the last 22 months over the Secretary of State’s email hygene and the related practices of her key staff in Washington, it becomes unavoidable to recognize that the purge of the Ambassador didn’t really have to do with the email or personal computer use issue asserted prominently in the publication of the report of Acting Inspector General’s review of the Embassy that was the “public”–meaning talked about anonymously to reporters then released afterwards–reason he was forced out.

It may well be that within the State Department bureacracy that General Gration stepped on toes of people who didn’t even know that the Secretary of State herself was operating from her private family server in Chappaqua, New York instead of the State Department’s U.S. Government system.  

Reading the media from the time, it seems, perhaps, that there was concern that he could be promoted (which could make people who didn’t like his management style unhappy).  Who knows?  And who has time for that sort of office politics speculation?  Regardless, when Secretary Clinton’s Cheryl Mills called Ambassador Gration to tell him it looked like he needed to fall on his sword, she obviously knew all about the private email server–just not that it would end up revealed on the front page of the New York Times two-and-a-half years later.
The bottom line for me is General Gration is an American who had a great career in the military, serving in a number of important foreign affairs related roles, who grew up in Africa, including significant time in Kenya, and is fluent in Swahili and other local languages.  He bonded personally with Senator Obama during their professional interactions, agreed that we needed to do some things differently in our interactions in the world, and did a lot to help President Obama get elected.  As an Obama ex-Republican, and recently retired General,  in a Clinton State Department he may have been a bit of a “fish out of water”, especially in a job that is most frequently a top plum for the career Foreign Service.

Secretary Clinton will be President-elect shortly.  This has been a foregone conclusion for quite a long time as the Republicans essentially defaulted on an election that would have been very winnable by almost any conventionally qualified or even broadly likeable candidate.  Secretary Clinton will come into office facing a range of difficult security and international affairs challenges, but with a lot of accumulated experience.  It seems to me she would be a smart leader not to leave someone like General Gration with a figurative knife sticking out of his back but rather find a way to use his accumulated talents and experience to serve the country.

Reading Graton’s book, I have an appreciation for his perspective, his courage, his work ethic, his faith–even if I have not personally warmed to some of the diplomatic language regarding “partnership” between our government and Kenya’s that he, like other officials, frequently used.  We are at war and have been for a long time, and it is not going as well as we need it to.  We have to find solutions beyond war to bring security for our interests and freedoms for others.  

“Stronger together” is a great slogan against Trump in this campaign, but it also reflects were we need to go as a country after the election to become the kind of global leaders we want to be.  Gration may be the kind of person that could help us avoid mistakes and build relationships (whether he was the best person to run a particular embassy at a particular time).  [I update to correct the Hillary Clinton campaign slogan from “Better Together” to “Stronger Together”]

My Memorial Day post: If a President Al Gore had invaded Iraq in 2003 with the support of Sen. Hillary Clinton . . .

all the current GOP presidential candidates would agree now that it was a foolish act of hubris given that the administration had in hindsight clearly been shown to have simply not known what they were doing.

I am not now nor have I even been a member of the Democratic party.  I worked in the defense industry throughout the whole bloody course of the Iraq war.  I even voted for George W Bush that first time in 2000 even though I knew deep down he had very thin, maybe too thin, experience on foreign and national security policy.  (In my defense I will say that I don’t think I should have been expected to know how strongly opposed many of his most senior advisers and subsequent appointees would turn out to be to the values he expressed in seeking our votes in his campaign that year.)

I certainly did not wish him to fail, nor did I wish the harm experienced by my country or by Iraq and its region from that decision but I cannot pretend it away.  It seems to me to be deeply misconceived for citizens of a democratic republic to create an “identity politics” around the competition of parties to the point of transcending a larger patriotism, moral and spiritual values, even the ability to observe and process basic facts.  Over 4000 Americans and over 100000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the Iraq war and the pre-ISIS aftermath and no one who wants to be the “leader of the free world” can plausibly duck an assessment of this war, of our choice, because of the identify of the party of the Commander in Chief at the time.

Part of the reason I took leave from my job and moved my family to East Africa in 2007 to work on democracy assistance is that I had seen how badly we were screwing up our relationships in the world by having embraced a doctrine of “preemptive war” that traditionally might have been seen as unworthy of our national ethos by both “hawks” and “doves” of other generations.  And how our biggest democracy assistance program, by far, was going in Iraq were it was in many respects too late in the wake of the invasion, as opposed to places like Kenya and Somaliland that were not at war where we had a bona fide opportunity to make a positive contribution.  The suspicions and damaged credibility of our country made the work more challenging even among those inclined to a positive view of our aspirations.

Other than the “moral injury” to our country as a whole, the Iraq war did me no personal harm–my taxes didn’t go up so my kids presumably get stuck with the bill, although it might cramp my Social Security and Medicare down the road.  I worked primarily in Navy shipbuilding, on which going to war or not going to war had relatively little business impact; we didn’t build more or less ships than we would have if we had not gone into Iraq from 2003-11.  Before we launched the invasion I was convinced by a senior friend in the industry who had been a naval officer that the sectarian situation in Iraq was beyond our grasp and I did not see the decision to launch the war as anything other than a huge risk that would have been warranted only by an extreme immediate threat which the Iraqi regime simply did not pose by any reasoned assessment.

But here at home now my dry cleaner is an Iraqi Christian.  Before we invaded, he was a medical doctor, a specialist, in his country, as was his wife.  He runs the cleaners himself six days a week, but will be closed and with his family for Memorial Day.  I’ll think of him with gratitude that he was able to get here and for the relative safety and freedom he has here, but with sadness that we elected to reach for the war hammer rather than have the patience to continue to turn the diplomatic screw in 2003 and in so doing upended his life, that of his family and community and his country.  (See Waiting for An Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq by Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi, excerpted here.  A must read, to accompany all the war and political reporting, on life for middle class Iraqis following the invasion, for those who want to learn from the war.)

I will mourn those Americans who gave their lives for the endeavor, especially those young people who volunteered out of patriotism to protect our country in the wake of the 9-11 attacks.  The rest of us collectively let them down and the very least that is required of us now is to learn from their sacrifice and do better together whatever our preferences of party or domestic ideology.

I will also be thinking with gratitude of my uncle who volunteered for the Navy in World War II as a 17 year old on the family farm after Pearl Harbor, made it home from the Pacific and is still with us at 90.  He he told me years ago that he did not believe we had any business taking it on ourselves to invade Iraq to change the regime without the support of the United Nations that we created with our allies in the wake of that war that he and his “greatest generation” fought at high but shared cost.  And his grandson, serving in the Air Force now, with his own young son.  Let us use his service wisely, with a judicious and open debate over what we ask him to do for us, being honest enough with ourselves to learn from the experiences that have cost the lives of others.
 

 

 

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.

Special Inspector General on Iraq Democracy Grants to IRI and NDI

“During our review of the costs for seven grants, we found that only 41% of
the grant funds were actually spent on direct program activities. More than
60% of IRI’s expenditures and almost 50% of NDI’s expenditures were for
security and overhead costs; mostly security. NDI spent almost one third of
its funds on security, and IRI spent more than one half of its funds on
security. Thus, only approximately $47 million of the approximately
$114 million was spent on direct program activities.”

The overall subject of the audit was almost $250M in grants to have been supervised by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor.  Hugely dislocating sums relative to what the US spends on democracy work in places like Kenya.  Sudan was number two while I was at IRI, but Iraq was by far the largest dollar program, and surely the “bill payer” for Washington overhead.

On The Cable blog at Foreign Policy Josh Rogin reported the release, and was promptly insulted by a commenter, in much the same terms used to insult New York Times reporters Mike McIntire and Jeffrey Gettleman for writing about IRI’s Kenya exit poll fiasco (see Page “The Kenyan Election and the US Exit Poll” above, and Documents and Stories links on your right). The personal insults were immediately preceded by “IRI” posting a link to IRI’s  response to the audit.

The whole report is here: SIGIR: DOS Grant Management–Limited Oversight of IRI, NDI Grants