U.S. nation-building in the wrong place?

June 10, 2011

America’s costly efforts at nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq came under intense scrutiny this month in critical reports and a gloomy Senate hearing that prompted a memorable assertion. “If there is any nation in the world that really needs nation-building right now, it is the United States.”

That came from a Democratic Senator, Jim Webb, who continued: “When we are putting hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure in another country, it should only be done if we can articulate a vital national interest because we quite frankly need to be doing a lot more of that here.”

Webb spoke at the confirmation hearing of the veteran diplomat President Barack Obama nominated to be his next ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, who faced questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that left no doubt over the growing impatience of U.S. lawmakers with a military and financial commitment that is producing limited progress.

Webb’s juxtaposition of spending on Afghanistan and the state of things in the United States – a stalled economy, stubborn unemployment, an aging infrastructure – is made more often in online debates and private conversations than in official hearings. But it is a subtext for a debate likely to grow in the campaign for the 2012 elections and feature both Afghanistan and Iraq as money pits, object lessons for ill-conceived development projects, and lack of foresighted planning.

A report by the bi-partisan Commission on Wartime Contracting issued early in June set the tone. “U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan are scheduled to begin in July 2011, and the U.S. military presence in Iraq is scheduled to end by December 31, 2011. But America will leave many legacies in both countries carrying large sustainment costs long into the future.”

The commission, the report said, saw no sign that the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development were making plans to make sure that the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan could operate and maintain, on their own, the vast array of projects built under U.S. government contracts, from schools and clinics to hospitals and power plants.

An examination of a decade’s wartime contracting in the two countries, says the report, had identified tens of billions of dollars of waste. Unless the U.S. paid prompt attention to the “how to” of maintaining, operating and paying for the projects it will leave behind, “the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

One example of money already wasted, and beginning to waste even more: the Kabul Power Plant, built with $300 million in American taxpayer money. “It is little used and the cost to operate and maintain it is too great for the Afghan government to sustain from its own resources.”

That raises a question: what resources? According to a World Bank estimate, 97 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from “spending related to the international military and donor community presence.” Annual government revenues run to around $2.5 billion, funding the Afghan security forces costs more than twice as much.

The word “sustainability” sounds very much out of place in this context though it is sprinkled liberally through the Contracting Commission’s report as well as a report issued a week later by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It focused solely on Afghanistan and questioned the long-held theory that development projects in conflict zones helps to stabilize them.

That report pointed out that Afghanistan now receives more U.S. civilian assistance ($320 million a month) than any other country and it addressed a problem which looks more difficult to solve than any other: “Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption …”

No doubt about that. Both in Afghanistan and Iraq corruption is the stuff of legend, featuring tales of government officials becoming multi-millionaires, warlords getting kickbacks for allowing development projects to go forward, contractors for the U.S. government over-billing to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, suitcases stuffed with $100 notes being shipped out of Kabul airport, newly-rich Iraqis and Afghans buying extravagant mansions in Dubai. In Kabul, the word for this is “Afghaniscam”

Things are not getting better, notwithstanding dire warnings about the corrosive effect of badly-spent aid. In 2008, the year the Commission on Wartime Contracting was set up in response to reports on vast misappropriations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two countries ranked 176th and 178th out of 180 on a widely-respected corruption index. It is put out annually by the Berlin-based watchdog group Transparency International.

On the 2010 list (of 178 countries), Iraq ranks 175th and Afghanistan 176th. Myanmar and Somalia occupy the bottom slots.

Which helps explain the frustration about nation-building priorities Senator Webb expressed at the Senate hearing. He was one of the two senators who introduced a bill, in 2007, that led to the establishment of the Commission on Wartime Contracting.

Its members need not fear running out of work.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Maybe should get out of Afghanistan taking our money and military with us and let the Afghanistan government solve its own problems. Like it would last a weak, maybe. But if that’s what they really want. Why not. Or maybe the government of Afghanistan should protest as much when the Taliban kills Afghanistani women and children with their terrorist bombs. Or is it ok when Afghans kill Afghans.

Posted by Myche | Report as abusive

These facts and a bit of basic analysis seem to not get through to the US public due to the control of the mass media propaganda. People should read Sec Def Gates as well re US spending on European defense.
It seems safer to write “military industrial complex” if one is not an American, and not in the USA, and don’t intend to visit.
Some analyst somewhere must have drawn the parallels between the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the USA now:
– unproductive vested interests like cancer tumors, with dangerous consequences if attempt surgery, but sucking all the blood and blocking the breathing;
– imperial overreach from conflicts past;
– ideological confusion and conflict as all is cynicism behind the tattered facade;
– relative economic decline and obsolete industrial plant and infrastructure;
– more depressive/pathetic stuff if I could be bothered.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Thanks, I enjoyed the article.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

Our mission for invading these countries keeps changing. Do our troops even know why they are fighting there? Get our kids out of Afghanistan and Iraq, now. We’ve got big problems in this country. The danger of terrorists walking into this country through our porous southern border is greater than the danger terrorists pose overseas. Take our boys and position them on our Southern border, so we can get immigration under control. Seems no one else in NATO is much interested in fighting terrorism overseas. We have to go it alone.

Posted by Viaphacops | Report as abusive

It looks pretty much like the old USA is much like the old USSR. Pretty soon the mafia (congressmen and CEOs) will rule everything and the rest of AmeriKa will be rotted out buildings of glory days gone by. Just the new Apple building Steve Jobs wants to build will stand with rotted slums around it. Way to go AmeriKa.

Posted by my2cents_jgeoff | Report as abusive

While the US crumbles and our infrastructure decays, we mindlessly go to war on the word of liars. Yes, the Iraq War was based on lies. Ten years ago, the Afghanistan War was supposed to be about getting Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. Iraq and Afghanistan now seem like the shadow of the mission creep of Viet Nam. The majority of Americans don’t remember why or who led us into the national tragedies that have bankrupted us as a nation and killed thousands of brave soldiers. Those who made those fateful decisions now live their lives in the comfort of luxurious retirement hiding in the bushes. The cabal of bad actors who brought us this national tragedy are still among us, hiding in the bushes.

Posted by libertadormg | Report as abusive

And, the Empire wanes…

Posted by StopRunning | Report as abusive

It would be good to get out of Afghanistan Myche, but we must remember that the Taliban were the ones harboring al Queda training camps so they could plan attacks on the USA…. So something must be done, but the real question should be WHAT?…. OBL effed us in more ways than one….
Neurochuck is spot on also in my opinion. If we look at why the Soviet Union failed, we would know that we must alter our own course immediately, as we are following in their footsteps – and don’t think that China isn’t watching this action…. We are the ones spending way to much on the military, and politicians, and the Chinese are the ones with the strong and growing economy….
The Tea Party has the good slogans, but don’t follow through. America Firsters (of the 1940’s) didn’t want any involvement in foreign affairs of ANY KIND. We can’t go to those extremes, but we truly must step back and take a solid look at ourselves…. and soon….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Invest in infrastructure and productive manufacturing jobs in the US, directly protect our borders, gradually scale down abroad military intervention. I think we r already doing it. As per Afghanistan GDP? Just legalize and tax their poppy fields and u got instant “sustainability”… :)

Posted by robb1 | Report as abusive

The US is literally crumbling in front of their very eyes and yet American politicians persist in compulsively voting in trillion-dollar “defense” budgets and continue to find hopeless places far far away in which to bury what little might be left of the nation’s wealth.

This is as tragic a scene as anyone can imagine

It is the willful suicide of a once promising nation.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

The press in Afghanistan and Iraq says “China won the war.” Whether that was the ubtebt of what we’v done, ir certainly appears to be the effect. Foreign direct investment in China, largely by American corporations that chose not to invest in job-producing investments here, has generated an average of 750,000 jobs per month in China over the last five years. No wonder employment is in the doldrums here. The war effort, at American expense, has facilitated that, as well as facilitated Chinese “nation building” (code for “colony building”?). So coming home is overdue to say the least. See the 4-part series, “The War – Did We Sacrifice A Million Lives And A $Trillion Cash Just To Hand Our Jobs To China?” http://www.countercurrents.org/arguimbau 310111A.htm (URL for Part 3 with links to Parts 1, 2, and 4)

I’m sorry, but I’ll keep repeating this like a broken record ’til someon shows me I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong before.

Nicholas C. Arguimbau

Posted by narguimbau | Report as abusive

And the author succeeds once again in riling his followers.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

No, this all fits in perfectly with the Powell Memo, the fascist manifesto written by SCJ Powell in 1971 that the Right marches to that outlines how to take over culture and the business world, and the Project for a New American Century/Rearming America’s Defenses, the newest corporate co-opted plan written by the New Right during Clinton’s on how the USA can divert its domestic resources into a massive corporate and military campaign to take over the world. No lie, no exaggeration. Disabling the countries that have oil, taking it for ourselves, drilling everywhere the bedrock supports the weight of a pump, crushing the affluence of a middle class and replacing it with distracted desperation, and rebuilding the aristocracy that classical and modern democratic liberalism took from them are all a part of the plan. The PNAC called for a “Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century”, two years later, they got their Pearl Harbor of the 21st century on September 11th (doesn’t cost a lot to have a few guys buy some extremists plane tickets and give them a couple of lessons on how to steer a plane), and Bush called it as much. Three days after the attack Rumsfeld had 3 and 4 thousand page documents in front of Congress saying he’d declare martial law if they all weren’t signed. They’ve even publicly talked about PNAC, even called us the Pax Americana. A quiet, desperate nation completely dependent on corporation for food, water, power, shelter and community is a nation that cannot rebel, does not want to rebel. But don’t worry, because Eurasian firms are now outsourcing scut work to the USA because we make less of a fuss than Chinese workers and cost less indirectly than Japanese or German factories. So we’re more like China or fascist Italy, with its corporate capitalist economy, no worker’s rights and one-party state, than the USSR. At least the USSR had a jobs placement program, flawed as it was.

The New Apostolic Reformation, the fundamentalist Christian organization in the USA, has among its ranks most of the New Right and corporate CEOs, with people like Palin and Gingrich being hailed as apostles. A couple of years before the crash of 2008, the church was saying there would be “a massive redistribution of wealth from the ‘unholy’ [the poor], to the ‘holy’ [the aristocracy]”.

There’s no mistake, and they know what they’re doing. This is all part of the plan.

Posted by John_the_Lad | Report as abusive

First off, the idea of Iraq being based on lies has been thoroughly debunked. The only real issue was the use of the (some say planted by the french) wrong evidence of a yellowcake shopping trip–there was other evidence, that one document was not the reason MI6 believed it, they had other reason to. The French had a lucrative setup with the supposed oil-for-food thing that they didn’t want disrupted. Read “Duped” for the details. This doesn’t mean the war was a good idea or anything, but the whole “bush lied people died” thing is itself the lie.

So, for Iraq, the obvious thing to do was take control of the oil and pay for the expenses…would have been politically hard to keep it going that way. But in any event, we are where we are with them, and the word I heard last is that they want us to stay. So I would say, ok, we’ll stay (and protect you from Iran) as long as you keep up the push to democracy and pay our costs in oil.

For Afghanistan, I agree, we should say “OK, we got OBL, deposed the Taliban, we completed our objectives, let’s go.” We meet with whoever is as in charge as you can be, tell them if the Taliban comes back, expect us back, too. They keep the taliban out of power, we’ll leave ’em alone.

But wait, there’s more. Does Japan still want us there? Then pay the cost. Korea? Same deal. Germany? Again, if they think it’s valuable to have us there, pay for it. Otherwise, let’s go home and let them deal with it themselves. All of those nations are in better shape than we are economically. I can see why we hung around in every case, but they are strong enough to stand on their own. If we pulled out of Europe it might even convince Russia that they don’t need as much military.

Posted by msouth | Report as abusive

What amazes me is the US soldier. They just keep fighting and fighting. They don’t know the meaning of the word quit. I salute every single one of them. They are soldiers doing their job, not politicians. If only our politicians could perform their duties at a similar level of excellence.

Posted by Discovery451 | Report as abusive

@ Neurochuck when there is a Republican president, the US media does its best to keep the worst news from the war(s) in the public consciousness so they can use it to beat the drum to get the Republican out of office. If there is good news, they don’t report it (google: story of iraq operation “too heroic” to see an example). When a Democrat is in office, especially one they are fawning all over, they tend to forget there is a war on at all.

Also, consider that the problems described here are essentially poorly spent government money. That’s not something the left wants to bring attention to–they probably think we owe Afghanistan all this infrastructure as reparations or whatever, anyway. If the public knew about it there would be more call to quit doing it, which they would consider unjust.

So, there’s the case of the media not covering it. Pathetic, really, since it would be trivial to do a show that compares a crumbling bridge in America with a shiny new one in Afghanistan.

Keep in mind that the left believes government spending can solve any problem, too. So they probably think pouring money into Afghanistan is a great idea because the country is so poor. And maybe it would be an idea with a good outcome, if it wasn’t also so susceptible to the corruption of that money flow as the author mentions.

Posted by msouth | Report as abusive

“…they tend to forget there is a war on at all.”
These wars are protracted compared to most we have fought, and the President who initiated them exhorted people repeatedly to forget the wars, “go shopping” etc. The fighting might have ended sooner, but for an administration that couldn’t run a two car funeral. The blueprint for rebuilding the two war-zones was also forged in the previous administration, and the companies now profiting from the mess were contracted then also. Better to concentrate on the now and later, as we can’t change the past

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

Can you spell oil, Cheney, Halliburton, KBR, Carlyle? There’s some really shrewd purchasing. The use of the name Republicans by that gang of con artists and their eight year scam should be unforgivable to any thinking conservative.

Posted by oboith | Report as abusive

Can you spell oil, Cheney, Halliburton, KBR, Carlyle? There’s some really shrewd purchasing. The use of the name Republicans by that gang of con artists and their eight year scam should be unforgivable to any thinking conservative.

Posted by oboith | Report as abusive

Great article, thank you.

Posted by seattlesh | Report as abusive

The US has a co-dependency problem. We don’t seem to understand where we end and other countries begin (or, equally plausibly, we don’t recognize that there is an end to our country and consider all other countries as adjuncts to ours). We don’t seem to understand that, for example, Saddam Hussein killing and oppressing his people is not our problem. We do, at least, seem to understand that if you ravage a country and lay waste to its infrastructure, it would be wise to try to rectify that. Unfortunately, we do so under the rubric of “nation building”. Right. Like we’re experts at that. We’re not very good at building our own country, never mind somebody else’s.

So, even though we can’t change history, a bit of a review might be useful. We attacked Afghanistan to get Al-Qaeda. Of course, (a) Al-Qaeda was not a part of the Afghani government and (b) Afghanistan didn’t really have a government since several different factions were engaged in a bloody civil war, but no matter. We attacked Afghanistan. Our first flash, using all our really cool military hardware, was an utter failure. Unable to admit failure, the mission morphs into rooting out terrorism even though (a) 9/11 was planned and largely executed while the Al-Qaeda leaders were in Somalia and (b) no Afghani’s were involved in 9/11. After years of rooting out terrorism while fighting the Afghan civil war on the side of our puppet government in Kabul, we’re desperately trying to move into the “nation building” phase wherein we give the Afghanis a bunch of stuff they don’t know how to use, a bunch of stuff they don’t need, and an alphabet soup of organizations that have no roots in Afghanistan. We plan to be there for the foreseeable future.

Iraq is little different. We attacked Iraq because they had “WMDs”. When (heh, heh, heh) we couldn’t find any, rather than admitting failure, the mission morphed into ridding the downtrodden Iraqi people of the evil dictator Zarg … I mean Saddam Hussein (who had been one of the “good guys” back in the ’80s when he attacked Iran at our behest so that we could have a regional power other than Iran). Since it took a few years to find Hussein, a combination of our heavy handed occupation and a release of the underlying tensions in the country that Hussein’s brutal regime had kept suppressed allowed TERRORISM (ahieee) to take root. So we got morph of mission II. Well, eventually we captured and killed Saddam Hussein which allowed for morph of mission III (cue the drum roll), you guessed it, nation building wherein we give the Iraqis a bunch of stuff they don’t know how to use, a bunch of stuff they don’t need, and an alphabet soup of organizations that have no roots in Iraq. We’d like to be in Iraq for the foreseeable future but the previous idiot-in-chief negotiated a hard withdrawal date and the government is now in the position of begging the Iraqi government to please, please let us stay for a laundry list of contrived reasons.

So has this trip down memory lane taught us anything? Probably not, but here’s my take away….

1. The US government is incapable of articulating and implementing a clear and attainable objective for the military when we unleash it on some country.

2. The US government is incapable of ending anything unless the devastated nation has been transmogrified into a society that looks like what we think our society is like (as opposed to what our society really is like).
3. The US government thinks that military force solves problems. This little history conclusively demonstrates that it does not.

4. The nanny state doesn’t work any better when it’s applied to the world than it does when it’s applied here.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

During Vietnam war – why are we there? – “to stop Communism” yet Cuba was and is Communistic and about 90 miles away. I believe much of our war “efforts” are because of all of the defense companies that make money off our wars. When there is talk of shutting down a defense project you hear how many communities will be affected. Is that sourcing of parts purposely done just so multiple Congress members will want the project to continue? Suppose Congress will get the idea of building infrastructure here would be more lasting than half way around the world?

Posted by richinnc | Report as abusive

[…] via Bernd Debusmann | Analysis & Opinion | Reuters.com. […]

Posted by Bernd Debusmann | Analysis & Opinion | Reuters.com :: Patriot Power Hour | Report as abusive

For a decade now, the terrists have been victorious on many levels. In the process of invading and occupying their mid-east homelands, the US and her pathetic allies have steadily been bankrupting their own home nations. Thousands of US (and her pathetic allies) soldiers have been triumphantly killed, and more keep coming for the slaughter. Meanwhile the deaths of homeland defending insurgents/terrists/freedom fighters (not to mention the deaths of innocent civilians) has created countless matyrs and sown the seeds of perennial hatred and ensured many more highly motivated, revenge seeking terrists.

Lest we forget the soldiers who died.

Lest we forget the foolhardy US and allied politicians who blundered into this disaster.

Posted by Foztah | Report as abusive

[…] U.S. nation-building in the wrong place? Bernd Debusmann » More Analysis & Opinion […]

Posted by The Wall Shit Journal and I: Sid Harth | News, Views and Reviews: Sid Harth | Report as abusive

I think we need truly global and democratic international institutions to deal with world problems. And that will take time I guess..

However, US is hugely overspending on defense. Why does the US need a huge budget, more than 15 times Chinese ?

Why should the US spend 75 % on NATO without Europeans chipping in more money and people ?

Are American lives and money cheaper ?

Posted by RKFrance | Report as abusive

yes US should leave but not before they attack Pakistan. Disarm them, take control of their nuclear assets and then let them rot.

Posted by rrdas | Report as abusive

tired of policing the world?
you can’t go home yet, there is still iran, syria, yemen, somalia…etc.

Posted by ranaoboy | Report as abusive

“If there is any nation in the world that really needs nation-building right now, it is the United States.” Nicely put – but where comes the money?

Posted by Whatsgoingon | Report as abusive

really great points have been brought up by your post

Posted by DarkKnightRises | Report as abusive

US “building” a nation….ha ha ha ha….only thing US is good at is destroying other nations. Look at Pakistan, Iraq, Middle East, Korea. Only thing that really matters to politicians in US today is to fill their own pockets at expense of everything else even at expense of their fellow countrymen. Does Americans know which companies got hold of Iraq oil wells and how closely shareholders of those companies were related to Bush administration. It seems all the world, EXCEPT Americans, know this…amazing or stupid.

Posted by 007XXX | Report as abusive

Whats the problem?…..We can rebuild here. We need jobs all you got to do is get enough republicans to approve the funds. OH! thats it!I forgot.Republicans refuse to vote for anything that might jeopardize their chances of taking over the White house.Got to look out for the interest of big corporations,thats how they keep the money in their pockets.Pursuing their American dream while eliminating yours.They would just soon wait it out and watch you fail if thats what it takes to regain control. If you can’t see it,then why can’t they compromise and do whats obvious to everone? Cut the tax breaks only the big corporations and the wealthy are given.We can,t afford it.Big oil….record profits and then you give them another 20-25 million and the best they can come up with is to take from the poor or less fortunate.Its going to be a long long time before the poorman can pay that deficit off! This country is sending all the work overseas because its cost effective for the company,but your being told give the rich the money and they will provide jobs.They sure will but you want be one of them.All this rebuilding infrastructures we destroyed,millions and millions of dollars stolen.These people had a hay day over there.Our country’s debt is maxed out and still the republican party refuses to do what it is going to take to get this country rolling again. Well hopefully with Obamas speech it might make it harder for them to say no.We need jobs.Rebuilding our own infrastructure is profitable.Get the oil companys to pay for it with their record profits,at least make them pay their taxes like everyone else.By the way I do believe this is the first time(not sure,maybe WW2)the oil reserves have been open.Kind of hard to dog obama about that but I hope people can see whos actually trying to help you.I’m sure the republicans got something to say about it. OVER AND OUT…DDOC

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