Why does American foreign assistance fail so often?
Looking beyond Afghanistan
Ronald S. Mangum, Brigadier General, U.S. Army (Retired)
Ilia State University, Tbilisi, Georgia
The recent collapse of the Afghan government after receiving billions of dollars of assistance from the United States and its allies over the past twenty years demonstrates the endemic weaknesses of the U.S. foreign aid program. Americans from the President down are scratching their heads in disbelief. Veterans are asking why they made the sacrifice of blood and lives lost, only to face an ignominious withdrawal and defeat. Unfortunately, this end of our “longest war” could have been foretold from the days that a lone Special Forces “A” team heroically routed the Islamic fighters of the Taliban.
While all eyes are focused on dissecting the U.S. failure in Afghanistan, the challenge is not limited to that involvement – it is much broader and hides deep endemic structural faults. U.S. foreign aid is a short-term fix at best, and our enemies have decades to react and resist. Typically, a U.S. agency identifies a target country that needs “assistance” and sends a team to assess the situation on the ground and to identify the assistance needed. The team may be two or three people – usually just those who are available, and not necessarily expert, or even familiar with the country, terrain, politics, religion, language, or any other basic identifying feature of the potential target country. The assessment team spends only a few days, or maybe a couple of weeks to make their assessment. What does the assessment team look for? Typically, they look at what the United States has and which the target country does not have. When they finish their assessment, they write up what is “missing” from an American point of view, and their recommendation is to put what is “missing” into our assistance program for that country. This superficial assessment then becomes the basis for throwing money, lives, and resources at the target country.
Look before we leap
If the target country is remote and little is known about it, we often rely to our detriment on the accounts of the locals. This was apparent in Iraq when U.S. intelligence agencies relied heavily on information supplied by an Iraqi politician, Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi, an American educated politician, claimed that Saddam Hussein was holding weapons of mass destruction. The claim was not illogical because Iraq had used chemical weapons to suppress its own people and to combat Iran. Even a seasoned military leader and senior stateman, General Colin Powell, advanced the claim in a speech before the United Nations to justify our invasion of Iraq. Hindsight and many months of searching failed to disclose any weapons of mass destruction, but instead of realizing that we had been fooled by Chalabi and winding down our military effort, we let our military leaders double down on attempting to achieve a military victory.
The Iraq invasion was unique in that it was driven in response to the 11 September 2001 (9/11) attacks on American soil. The public was outraged, and the Bush administration took what was likely the only course that it could take in order to avoid impeachment, which was to cobble together a military action against someone. Iraq, and Saddam Hussein had defied United Nations sanctions for years and neighboring Afghanistan was controlled by a religious despotism imposed by the Taliban. These countries, therefore, offered an easy sop to the howling mobs. The invasion of Iraq was a well-planned, but the “invasion” of Afghanistan, which was retribution for the Taliban’s refusal to deliver the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin laden, began with a couple of Special Forces detachments that deployed to assist a local opposition group, the Northern Alliance, overcome the Taliban.
Consequently, we took little time to understand what a target country wants or what it really needs, as well as understanding what assistance it is capable of successfully absorbing. And then we feign surprise when the country fails to turn into an American style democracy. What other outcome can we expect based on our faulty assessment procedures? I have seen this foreign assistance program model, and watched it fail, in several countries. Maybe because my natural instinct in any foreign country or culture is to learn as much as I can about the target country, its history, its people, its language and culture for a couple of reasons: one, I have a natural curiosity about other people and their culture and secondly, I realize that I can never successfully enter another’s culture, so I don’t want to insult their culture or embarrass myself while I am a guest in their culture. I know that I can never fully understand a foreign culture and all of the nuances of growing up and living in the culture, so I am always cautious of my actions.
A classic example of lack of cultural knowledge is from America. A few decades ago, there was a play called “Do patent leather shoes shine up?” What on earth could that mean? The title was based on the belief in Roman Catholic school cultures that proper girls should not wear patent leather shoes lest their male classmates could look at their shiny shoes and see what was under their skirts. Such voyeurism is highly unlikely, but my point is that only someone who grew up in that specific culture would have any idea from where the title or theme came. Even in a culture in which I have lived for many years in Austria, there are many terms and idioms that come out of the deep cultural roots that I simply don’t know until graciously informed by a colleague. So how do we expect an assessment caried out over a few days to adequately identify the needs of a country, especially when we are applying our own wants, needs and standards to the situation?
The Lessons Learned report from the Special Inspector General on Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) concludes that the U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore, failed to tailor its efforts accordingly.
“Effectively rebuilding Afghanistan required a detailed understanding of the country’s social, economic, and political dynamics. However, U.S. officials were consistently operating in the dark. The U.S. government clumsily forced Western technocratic models onto Afghan economic institutions; trained security forces in advanced weapon systems they could not understand, much less maintain; imposed formal rule of law on a country that addressed 80 to 90 percent of its disputes through informal means; and often struggled to understand or mitigate the cultural and social barriers to supporting women and girls”.
Of course our assessment teams interview key influencers in the target country and ask what they want. My experience that the key figures in any target county are sponges. By that I mean that they see assistance dollars that can help their country, so they will accept anything that is offered whether they ‘need’ it or not. This often leads to a gross amount of wasted dollars spent for equipment or programs that can’t or won’t be used by the target country. For example, U.S. policy currently is fixated on equality issues that in many cases cannot excite the target country’s population. Afghanistan society is largely patriarchal and although there have been some notable successes in educating women and giving women the opportunity to be educated and hold position in public, much religious concepts in Islam do not appreciate the potential contributions of women outside the home. Thinking that our assistance programs are going to overcome popular religious beliefs is, in my opinion, the height of hubris.
When I was providing defense reform assistance in the country of Georgia, we were continually frustrated by the Georgian system of hiring and training their government employees, and even their government leaders. In Georgia, positions were filled mainly by the “who do you know” old boy system. A ministry employee was not chosen based on training or education, only by their personal relationship with the individual at the top of whatever level of the government pyramid they worked. Likewise, pay was not based on training and experience, but was solely based on the person’s position. In the military, for example, a lieutenant could command a brigade, which is a position normally held by a colonel. The lieutenant would receive a colonel’s paycheck because pay was based on the position held. In most modern militaries, pay is based on military rank, and that rank is earned after successive training and experience. For example, a colonel in the United States military would reach that military rank only after going through the ranks of lieutenant, captain, major and lieutenant colonel over a twenty-year period, and serving in command and staff position appropriate to each rank. The same system works in most modern armies. I would often caution my U.S. retired military personnel who made up our advisor team, that they should ascertain the actual training and knowledge of each of their military counterparts and not assume their training and background based on the rank that they wore.
My defense reform team recommended to the Minister of Defense that the military personnel management system change to a pay-by-rank system in which every member of the same rank would receive approximately the same pay, but that did not happen during my tenure. After studying the issue for a while, I realized that in Georgia all personnel actions were governed by one national law which was not under the control of any one ministry. So, the logical suggestion could not be implemented in the Ministry of Defence unless the entire government personnel law was changed. We were not mandated to work outside of the Defense Sector, so we realized that we would have to work within the existing laws and regulations.
Another challenge in our assistance programs is short-term success mentality. For military officers, especially, an assignment lasts for one to two years. In order to succeed and progress in rank, one has to ‘hit the ground running’ and accomplish major tasks within that one-to-two-year period. This system encourages officers to try to learn their jobs as quickly as possible, do something notable, and get ready for their next job. My experience is that it takes about six months to learn the works of any position and extend that to any number of months for complex assignments in a joint or combined military position. After one has learned the ins and outs of the position, they can begin to look for ways to improve the system and then move on. I can’t remember the number of jobs that I have held in which I developed what were acknowledged as significant systemic improvements and when I happened to have the opportunity to revisit my former unit only to find that the improved system was no longer in use – my successor had to put his/her own mark on the job, so he/she changed everything – maybe even for the better, but surely at least just to take credit for a change.
What can be done to improve our foreign assistance programs? The first step is political. What is the popular opinion on providing aid to a specific country? What is its strategic or economic value to the U.S.? If the value is high enough, it is worth conducting a detailed assessment – first paper based on what we know about the country and second from sending an assessment team to determine the facts on the ground. From a realistic perspective, what do we think it will take to achieve our objectives, e.g., how much cost and over what time? What other countries – friends or foes — are interested in the target country and how much do we estimate they are willing spend to counter our objectives? The assessment must realistically observe what the country needs to achieve our objectives and there must be a host nation segment of their society that will champion our objectives – and not just because we will pay for change. We must set realistic milestones, and when those are not met, we must be willing to change course or cease our efforts there.
Know when to hold ‘em
When the decision is made to initiate an assistance program, we must select the right people to provide assistance. Assistance cannot be provided from afar. We need to have, in military terms, boots on the ground who are willing and able to stay in the country for the long haul. Again, using military resources as an example, our Special Forces teams, before the Global War on Terror (which, oh by the way, we still have not won) used to provide mature, long-term knowledge of a target country, and were willing to deploy for extended periods of time to establish presence and provide informed at the ground level truth of the situation in the country. The key to Special Forces success, which I hope that we can reconstruct, is to gain the trust of the target population. That means always acting with integrity and being honest when there is a problem. Bad news doesn’t age well, and only long-term consistency can resolve most systemic issues.
Our assistance must meet their true needs, not their wants and not their blind acceptance of whatever we offer. We must be there for them, but on their schedule, not ours. We must make every effort to understand their issues from their perspective and devise solutions that fit their laws and culture. I don’t mean to infer that we should sit back and defer to their every wish. As when dealing with children and I don’t mean to imply that we talk down to them, we must treat them as equals, but we need to set limits, praise success and curb excesses.
Our assistance needs to be proactive. By examining their systems, we should not wait for a problem to develop before we act. We should know how the system works and be able to identify issues before they arise, develop solutions, and present them even when not asked. The target population may not be honest with us because they are embarrassed to admit a problem, or maybe they have tried to solve the problem, but that has not worked, so they may not realize that there is a solution. In the most difficult situation, they may not even realize that there is a problem. In those cases, we need to teach and coach what ‘right’ looks like.
In every case, we must be patient. Their culture likely existed long before our nation was formed, and it won’t change overnight. Establishing timelines and insisting that they meet them seldom works. We need their buy-in to any solution. We may provide a framework that will provide a way ahead if they accept the need and the time. Our main understanding must be that it is their country, not ours. We can “lead the horse to water, but we can’t make it drink”, so we need patience to urge change, consistently and persistently. But we must also be realistic. If an assistance program is not producing the results that we want, we must re-examine our objectives. That doesn’t mean, as some have asserted that we did in Afghanistan, moving the goal posts in order to claim victory. We must realistically assess why we should continue to throw money and lives at a problem that is not being resolved. This is often tricky because in the United States when a military action starts, the politicians often turn the entire problem over to the military, and the military mind is set on winning total victory.
Know when to fold’em and when to walk away
Developing foreign assistance is like working with a non-profit organization that is run by volunteers. There is no profit motive (except for those who are living off the aid or giving it), and there is limited incentive for success. Foreign assistance is a voluntary gift from the United States, and the only real leverage for the U.S. is to stop giving the aid and walk away. Out invasion of Iraq and subsequently, Afghanistan, was based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction that would be used to terrorize his neighbors and destabilize an oil-rich region. When we realized that Chalabi was prevaricating, or at least greatly exaggerating the threat, we should have left the dealing with Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to the diplomats, and packed up our military and come home. We would have saved more than two thousand U.S. military lives and more than twenty thousand wounded, as well as trillions of dollars and international good will. But we did it in Vietnam and as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has warned, we will do it again because we do not learn our lessons well.
Ronald S. Mangum is a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General who has worked providing assistance programs under Department of Defense and U.S. Agency for International Development sponsorship. He obtained his Doctor of Philosophy degree from the Ilia State university in Tbilisi, Georgia and his Juris Doctor degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He currently resides in Woodstock, Illinois.
 What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction, August 2021, Executive Summary, pp. X-XI
 Even in a pay-by-rank system, there would be small differences in pay based upon such things as location pay, hazardous duty pay or pay based upon special military training.
 I Afghanistan I suspect that an underlying reason for staying even though it should have been apparent that we were no ‘winning’ or accomplishing our goal, was that we wanted to show our near-peer competitor, Russia, that we could “win” where after ten years effort, it could not.
 “We will do this again”, Afghanistan IG Warns, https//www.militarytimes.com>news>2021/07/29