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Shawn Vestal: Ryan Crocker offers withering critique of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan

Former Ambassador to the Middle East Ryan Crocker speaks at a forum on the Middle East at the Jepson Center on Gonzaga University’s campus in December. Interviews conducted with Crocker as part of the Lessons Learned project formed the foundation of an extensive and damning report on the war in Afghanistan published recently in the Washington Post. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Ambassador to the Middle East Ryan Crocker speaks at a forum on the Middle East at the Jepson Center on Gonzaga University’s campus in December. Interviews conducted with Crocker as part of the Lessons Learned project formed the foundation of an extensive and damning report on the war in Afghanistan published recently in the Washington Post. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Earlier this year, Spokane native and retired diplomat Ryan Crocker met with Iraqi vice president and former prime minister Nouri al-Malaki – someone with whom Crocker became familiar during his time as U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

“He was in a terrifically good mood,” Crocker said, according to a recently released interview he gave to an inspector general, obtained and published by the Washington Post.

“He sat down and he said, ‘You know, Crocker, you were in here about every other day for two years telling me how I should organize my politics and government. I think you need me to come to Washington to tell you how to organize yours.’ ”

The comment seems to have been a joke – perhaps aimed at some particular bit of Trumpish chaos, if not Trump generally. But Crocker’s account of American adventures in nation-building makes you wonder if Malaki doesn’t have a point.

The overall impression left by Crocker’s sobering interview on our efforts at rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq – efforts that our leaders repeatedly and falsely assured us were not efforts at nation-building – is that they were poorly planned, haphazardly initiated and practically unsuccessful, and they fostered massive corruption in an impoverished country that was simply not structurally prepared to handle billions of dollars in U.S. aid.

In fact, Crocker said, “our biggest single project (in Afghanistan), sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption.”

And he’s dubious that our government, broadly speaking, has learned any lessons or developed the right kind of systems to do it right.

“I would tell you if tomorrow we go into Libya in a big way, that’s not going to be much better than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Crocker said in one interview. “I don’t think government has thought about how you structure, you know, a complex effort like that. I just don’t think we’ve learned it, and we don’t have the, the governmental structures that could rationalize it.”

Crocker’s interviews, conducted in January and December 2016, were part of the Lessons Learned project, undertaken by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The documents were obtained by the Washington Post after a three-year court battle, and they formed the foundation of an extensive and damning report on the war in Afghanistan.

It is excellent journalism, deep, thorough and brilliantly reported. It includes a trove of first-hand interviews and memos with key officials that paint a gloomy portrait of our efforts in the war and reconstruction – and a dramatically gloomier one than our leaders have presented in public. The original documents, as well as audio recordings, of Crocker’s interview are available at the Post; this column is based largely on those documents.

As an ambassador who served twice in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq and Pakistan, Crocker’s evaluation of the massive reconstruction projects that paralleled the war was withering. He said the government must examine its mistakes and develop stronger anti-corruption methods, but if one were to draw a single lesson from his comments about how to go about nation-building, it could well be a simple one: Don’t.

Or, at least, don’t do it the way we did it in Afghanistan. Don’t pour money into a country with no structures in place for absorbing and managing it. Don’t build massive infrastructure projects without a plan for maintaining them. Don’t try to impose our good ideas on people who don’t buy in. Don’t fail to understand the people and culture of the nation we think we can build.

And don’t let political Washington’s impulses overwhelm the realities on the ground.

‘Absolute devastation’

Crocker is a Spokane native and graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla who became a career ambassador with the Foreign Service. Now retired, he was sent to Afghanistan as 2002 as acting ambassador, as U.S. troops began military operations intended – at least at first – to hunt down al-Qaida.

He arrived to find, Crocker said in one interview, “Absolute devastation.”

The country had been at war for decades before the recent battles. Crocker said it reminded him of “pictures of Berlin in 1945.” The leaders had no real formal authority, and there was “no military, no police, no civil service, no functioning society.”

He began trying to establish relations with then-president Hamid Karzai, but said he was hampered because there was not a clear mission – “We didn’t know what the U.S. was there to do” – and because of political disagreement in Washington over whether the U.S. should lead a rebuilding effort or be a smaller player in a multilateral approach. The latter became the strategy in those early days.

“Yes, I remember, you know, when this was determined, feeling a sense of some relief, at least I wasn’t going to have to worry about everything,” he said. “You know, I remember a meeting with the Italians and the Brits, for example, and coming out of those meetings just glad that somebody else had to worry about whatever it was, policing.”

He was only there a few months at that point. Crocker returned as ambassador in 2011, to find, as one of his interviewers put it, “a very different Afghanistan.” The “security situation” was improved, major infrastructure had been built, and the health, economic and educational systems were “light years” beyond what they had been during his first assignment there, he said.

In particular, he was pleased that so many girls were attending school – “more than I would have even hoped for.”

There was also another significant difference: a flourishing of massive corruption.

‘Guarantee of corruption’

The U.S. has poured more than $133 billion into reconstruction in Afghanistan. When adjusted for inflation, that is more, the Post reported, than we spent on the Marshall Plan to restore Western Europe after World War II. Nevertheless, presidents Bush and Obama insisted publicly that we were not engaging in nation-building.

The money flooded rapidly into a drastically impoverished country, a country with no real way to absorb it. Vast amounts were outsourced to people in the country; bribery and fraud was rampant; untracked cash flowed freely; and the money enriched drug kingpins, warlords and other corrupt actors, the Post reported.

One forensic accountant analyzed more than $100 billion worth of defense contracts and concluded that about 40% of it went to insurgents, drug traffickers or corrupt officials.

Crocker said in his interviews that Karzai repeatedly told him that the U.S. bore responsibility for the corruption – and Crocker agreed.

“I’ve always thought (Karzai) had a point, that you just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption,” he said. “You just can’t.”

It was, he said, “a virtual guarantee of corruption.”

Crocker said he saw the same thing in Iraq during his time as the ambassador there, from 2007 to 2009. It left him wondering whether such rebuilding efforts were even possible.

“So, having been through this now twice, Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the profound questions I would ask, if we ever, God forbid, look at something on such a scale again, is, ‘How do you do it in a way that does not fuel wholesale corruption?’ ”

He said smaller-scale efforts, with goals and projects more suited to the country’s reality – and less tied to the American impulse to do a lot and do it fast – might make it easier to prevent corruption.

But as for the prospects of rooting out the results of U.S.-fueled corruption in Afghanistan today, Crocker was bluntly pessimistic.

“I think what we’re seeing clearly is what I was talking about earlier, that the deep rooted nature of corruption … is now beyond the ability of even a determined Afghan President to correct,” he said.

‘A totally evil person’

One consequence of the corruption was that the U.S. forged lesser-of-two-evils alliances with brutal, corrupt warlords to fight the Taliban. One was Mohammed Qasim Fahim Khan, a Tajik militia leader with a reputation for brutality and corruption, the Post reported.

Crocker told interviewers a chilling story about meeting in 2002 in which Khan told him that an Afghan government minister had been murdered.

“He giggled while he related this,” he said. “Later, much later, it emerged, I don’t know if it was ever verified or not, it emerged that Khan himself had the minister killed. But I certainly came out of those opening months with the feeling that even by Afghan standards, I was in the presence of a totally evil person.”

One of Crocker’s key assignments in his second stretch in Afghanistan was to attempt to negotiate a peace agreement. As part of that process, many officials favored including the Taliban in talks – and many say the failure to do so helped deepen the long and unnecessary extension of the war there.

Crocker was an unalloyed critic of negotiating with the Taliban, and has remained so. Just last month, the magazine Foreign Policy published an interview with Crocker in which he decried the Trump administration’s haphazard, on-again, off-again approach to talks with the Taliban.

“Well, this is a president who says he doesn’t like losers,” he said. “The narrative, ‘We’re tired in Afghanistan. We don’t want to be there anymore. Let’s just sit down, let’s get the best deal we can and we’ll be checking out.’ It’s so reminiscent of what we did in Vietnam. So if that’s what the president wants to do, then he’ll do it. But no one should be kidding themselves. I mean, this is giving up.”

Overall, Crocker did not seem optimistic about the prospects of the U.S. government absorbing the lessons of Afghanistan.

“I’d be very afraid that, you know, when the magical day comes in Syria and Yemen, in Libya maybe, when the – the hot conflict has ceased or at least bubbled to a low simmer, that we’ll just want to charge in and start fixing everything as fast as we can, because as I alluded to this earlier … we’ll lose sight of what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the ultimate point of failure for our efforts, you know, wasn’t an insurgency,” he said. “It was the weight of endemic corruption.”