That June 7, 2010 marks the 104th month of US military engagement in Afghanistan and, consequently, America's longest war in history (Vietnam lasted 103 months), would be less significant if we were not fumbling on all fronts in Afghanistan, from security to development to governance. The disconcerting indication of this mile-marker is not simply that Afghanistan trumps Vietnam as the "longest war in history," but that there is no guarantee that by the 116th month, in July 2011, the bulk of US presence will leave as promised.
Many in Washington warrant that "we are in it to win it". Not only is this paradigm problematic given past precedent of similar, failed attempts by the Russians and the British to "win" in Afghanistan, but we are hardly "winning" now -- another 104 months (some suggest we should stay indefinitely in Afghanistan) hardly increase our chances of "winning".
A better goal, in the remaining months, would be to focus on fortifying Afghan capacity in security, governance and development sectors. While Washington may claim that as its goal, the fact that only 10 to 20 percent of all our military and nonmilitary aid is going directly to Afghan government, nongovernment and private agencies, with the remainder controlled by US or other foreign contractors, makes that mission near impossible.
To be fair, the State Department is aiming to increase their numbers for State-related contracts to 40 percent, up from 20 percent, by December 2010, albeit noncommittally as it's only an aspirational goal. I have advocated legislatively for much higher percentages (60-80 percent), and I continue to believe the only way for Afghans to materialize stable and secure self-governance is for US military and nonmilitary contracts to prioritize investments in Afghan capacity and infrastructure. At present, the opposite is happening. War profiteering is pervasive. Private contractors are making a killing off this war.
Effective monitoring and evaluation of contracts, which might prevent such profiteering, is near impossible to find. The doggedness of the Iraq War's Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, is nowhere to be found on Afghanistan. The various auditing agencies housed within Defense and State claim little responsibility for assessments beyond a fiscal audit -- e.g. whether or not a school was built with the money allocated. I am, however, hard-pressed to find anyone monitoring and evaluating whether Afghans see that same US-built school as legitimate, have trained teachers to use the school, have parents who feel safe sending their kids there (association with US projects brings high risk), and have communities ready to sustain the school in the long-term.
I have similar concerns with the sustainability of US-led training of Afghanistan's security forces. Recent reports show attrition rates in the Afghanistan National Police at a whopping 70 percent, surpassing equally untenable attrition rates within the National Army. In allocating hundreds of billions of dollars towards a training curriculum for Afghan security forces, without good monitoring and evaluation, it is difficult to change to a more efficient tack. It makes it much more difficult to stem the attrition trends of former Afghan army and police foot soldiers, which once made $200 per month as government employees, as they leave for private security contractors who pay several hundred dollars per day. It makes it much more difficult to evaluate why violent attacks on US troops are on the rise and why the Marjah offensive fell far short in providing security and stability. Without this necessary evaluation, we will continue to implement ineffective strategies indefinitely.
Lastly, our good governance approach is equally ill footed. In recent past, we have circumvented Afghanistan's central government on most governance strategies (80 percent of all military and nonmilitary aid bypassed the government) colluding, ironically, with known warlords and corrupt figures. Now we're trying to team up with Kabul and President Karzai, yet we continue to undermine their authority by building parallel structures locally that rival the highly effective, government-run National Solidarity Program's Community Development Councils. To add insult to injury, US and foreign contractors who offer substantially higher salaries snatch up the best and brightest of the Afghan government's young recruits, leaving Kabul with little self-governing potential and heavily reliant on international consultants.
While this month undoubtedly signifies an important date in US military history, something more than record-breaking months is at stake -- the very strategy that may well continue the US war far into the future. This month, as Afghanistan's 1500-person-strong peace jirga, comprised of the country's political, tribal and spiritual leaders, reports out its recommendations to the world, it behooves the US to pay heed.
The US presence is in serious need of legitimacy in Afghanistan and, short of an effective and independent monitoring and evaluation program that would improve our credibility and undermine contractor profiteering, the least we can do is support the jirga-led peace process. It will make us squirm, as some of the recommendations include the reintegration of Afghanistan's disarmed and demobilized opposition. At this point, however, given that we are 104 months into this war, better us squirming at a reconciliation process led by more legitimate locals, than continuing to cushion US and foreign contractor pockets and failing to adequately prop up Afghanistan's leadership. It is time we radically rethink the American approach to Afghanistan, before America's longest war becomes America's everlasting war.