Opinion

Bernd Debusmann

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

Bernd Debusmann
Jun 10, 2011 16:47 UTC

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.”

Pakistan and questions over foreign aid

Bernd Debusmann
May 13, 2011 14:38 UTC

In the flurry of statements on the killing of Osama bin Laden, a remark from Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, spoke volumes about how U.S. foreign aid tends to be perceived by its recipients. It’s not enough.

“The United States spent much more money in Iraq than it did in Afghanistan,” Haqqani said in a television interview. “And then it spent much more in Afghanistan than it did in Pakistan. So were there cracks through which things fell through? Absolutely.”

That twisted logic suggests that if only Washington had given Pakistan a few billion more than the $20.7 billion it provided over the past decade, bin Laden, a man with a $27 million bounty on his head, would not have “fallen through the cracks.” Those cracks were wide enough to swallow bin Laden’s one-acre walled compound with a three-storey building in a garrison town near the Pakistani capital.

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