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.

What to do now in Kenya?

Old Party Office in Kibera

Solo 7–Kibera

Kenya’s election rerun could be a major setback for African democracy” a new Washington Post editorial was published Monday evening in the United States.  I suspect The Post here has fairly well reflected the general view of the Kenyan situation in Washington.

What to do?  I think the International Crisis Group has a long track record of assessing conflict in Kenya and offering helpful suggestions.  They did good work that I relied on in the 2008 crisis.  The Daily Nation picked up their latest recommendation here:

 

At the same time, a conflict prevention organisation, International Crisis Group, asked the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to go back to the Supreme Court and seek a limited extension of timeline by 30-45 days to allow all parties to take part in the election and avert a crisis.

The group said Kenya’s political leaders should support such an extension and commit to participate.

SUPREME COURT

According to ICG, the precedent for such a delay exists.

“The High Court in 2012 delayed elections by six months, which helped ensure a credible and peaceful vote,” the group said in a statement.

“The Supreme Court should favourably consider such an extension, given the IEBC chairman’s own acknowledgement that the commission cannot guarantee a credible vote within the allotted timeline.”

The ICG said that should it grant a delay, the court ought to state clearly that President Kenyatta would remain in office pending the fresh vote and that Nasa leader Raila Odinga should take part in a delayed poll without additional conditions.

“He should renew the welcome public pledge against violence that he made on October 20.

“He also should rein in and hold accountable supporters who have attacked election officials, made inflammatory threats to disrupt election or otherwise broken the Kenyan law,” the group said.

See my post discussing the International Crisis Group’s March report on “Avoiding another electoral crisis in Kenya”.

And see “World papers and magazines to postpone repeat poll” in the Daily Nation.