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Why did the United States under-estimate the difficulties in bringing order and development to Afghanistan and Iraq?

At the start of the twenty-first century, the United States engaged in two military interventions, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What were supposed to be short, sharp wars dragged the US into the long and failed missions of reconstructing the Afghan and Iraqi states. Today, 97% of Afghanistan’s licit GDP is derived from foreign aid and efforts to guarantee stability are still being undermined by the Taliban-led insurgency. In fragile, conflict-driven Iraq, the population constantly struggles with ongoing water shortages, electricity scarcity and a broken economy. Given the immense costs of the two invasions, it is paramount to ask how it all could go so wrong. Focusing on the period of the Bush administration, this essay seeks to answer why the US under-estimated the difficulties in bringing order and development to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Dr Toby Dodge has identified several faulty assumptions that underpin military intervention, which explain why the US failed to bring order and development to Afghanistan and Iraq. One of these assumptions is that military force can achieve political ends, something which it did not do in Afghanistan. Henry A. Crumpton, a former CIA officer who was largely involved in ousting the Taliban, confessed that winning the war in Afghanistan required the US to “get in at a local level and respond to people’s needs so that enemy forces cannot come in and take advantage.” In ignoring this fundamental aspect of counterinsurgency, efforts succeeded only in keeping urgent problems at bay while hoping that the situation in Afghanistan would improve on its own. This brings us to a second faulty assumption underpinning military intervention: the overestimation of the stability, competence and popularity of the intervener’s local allies.

What a fragile state on the verge of collapse could not survive was a badly designed government in the hands of an unskilful leader. With the help of the US, Afghanistan received both. The Bonn Agreement of December 2001 established a new constitution for Afghanistan, which left a hugely centralized government, in the hands of a US-picked elite, in charge of the country. In 2004, the US rejoiced as Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected President of Afghanistan, believing that Afghanistan would now independently be able to engage in effective state building. Karzai, however, proved to be both uninterested in and incompetent for the role of reconstructing the Afghan state, and it did not take long until Afghans were complaining about the administration’s inability to meet the basic requirements of governance. Karzai appeased discredited warlords from the civil war period and dragged Afghanistan back to its failed past. He also used state assets to create a corrupt patronage network of clients completely bound to his leadership. In August 2009, Karzai was able to win the Afghan elections again, however this time with the help of fraud and corruption. The patrimonial, incompetent leadership of Karzai combined with the deeply centralized nature of the Afghanistan government, both which had been put in place by the US, are two important reasons to why Afghanistan remains a failed state today.

A third faulty assumption was that conflict would be short in duration. Barfield agrees with Dodge’s assertion in arguing that the reason for the failure of reconstructing the Afghan state was “the short-term political calculation driving US foreign policy.” Having ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan, the US began mobilizing for its war in Iraq. In 2005, the US presented Afghanistan as a “mission accomplished” and announced plans to reduce the number of troops in the country. The reality from within Afghanistan looked completely different, however, as dissatisfaction with the slow pace of economic development...
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