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Seven Lessons for Ukraine

Will the U.S. learn anything from its adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq?

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(Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Though some say it is wishful thinking to be talking today about the reconstruction of Ukraine—they do have to win first—it is never too early to pull out lessons learned from the last fiasco, in hopes they can be baked into whatever eventual process is undertaken. That's why a group of senators asked the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to put together a brief list of things not to do again in the course of rebuilding Ukraine.

SIGAR was in charge of overseeing the two-decades-long, $145 billion spend to rebuild Afghanistan. Over the course of years, according to a report, in addition to the 1,297 audit recommendations SIGAR made to recover funds, improve agency oversight, and increase program effectiveness, they also made 143 recommendations to executive agencies as part of the Lessons Learned Program. So while few people seemed to listen to them regarding Afghanistan, that doesn't mean they had nothing to say, especially as regards to the next reconstruction program in Ukraine.

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As SIGAR notes, “While Afghanistan and Ukraine are very different countries with a history of facing very different threats, many of the challenges U.S. agencies faced in Afghanistan—coordinating efforts, dealing with corruption, and effectively monitoring and evaluating projects and programs—will be the same as the ones they will face in Ukraine.”

Most of what SIGAR warned about for Afghanistan was exactly the same stuff its sister organization, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), cautioned earlier. It can be very frustrating to watch a whole-of-government approach to repeating one's predecessor's mistakes. It can be even more frustrating to have participated in it all, as I did, overseeing two reconstruction teams in Iraq while I still worked for the State Department.

At some point in the future there will be a Special Inspector General for Ukraine Reconstruction (SIGUR) that will watch the same mistakes from Iraq and Afghanistan repeated, with no one listening. Creating SIGUR has already been suggested; Senator Rand Paul back in May temporarily placed a hold on a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine, demanding unsuccessfully Congress insert a provision into the aid package creating an inspector general to oversee the distribution of the aid.

Nonetheless, there is always hope (the SIGAR people must be the most optimistic humans on earth) in putting down on paper the blindingly obvious when billions of dollars and national credibility are at stake. So, from SIGAR with love, here are the seven lessons from Afghanistan for the reconstruction of Ukraine:

Lesson 1: The U.S. government struggled to develop a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan and imposed unrealistic timelines that led to wasteful and counterproductive programs.

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Now who would think lacking a strategy and indeed any agreed-upon goal would slow things down? In Ukraine, will the goal be raising the entire country to Western European standards? Favoring the anti-Russian areas? Trying to buy loyalty in the pro-Russian areas? Or as in Afghanistan (or as in Iraq, just substitute the two country names from here on out) simply spending money willy-nilly in hopes a coherent strategy might emerge in retrospect? Unrealistic timelines (variously, success before the next local election, before the next U.S. election, before the military change of command, before my tour as team leader is up...) meant most timelines were ignored.

Lesson 2: Lack of effective coordination both within the U.S. government and across the international coalition was a major obstacle to success in Afghanistan and resulted in a disjointed patchwork of ineffective efforts.

In Iraq, the Italian reconstruction team did not talk to, never mind take direction from, the Americans; they were too focused on providing commercial opportunities for their countrymen. USAID was really into schools and bridges, whereas State focused on “democracy building” in a medieval Islamic society via local modern drama clubs. The hope that synergy would emerge was consumed by the same thing that makes a million monkeys typing away at a million typewriters still unlikely to produce a great work of literature. And they may need all that time; reconstruction in Ukraine is expected to take decades.

Lesson 3: Though viewed as our greatest strength, the level of financial assistance in Afghanistan was often our greatest weakness.

As with teenagers and booze, too much money can only lead to trouble. Billions were spent with little oversight, leading directly to corruption. The money tsunami “overwhelmed the Afghan economy and fueled massive corruption from senior government officials in Kabul to low-level officials around the country. This corruption posed a critical threat to the mission.” SIGAR found “in Afghanistan, the U.S. government spent too much money, too quickly, in a country that was unable to absorb it” and warns of the same in the future Ukraine reconstruction.

Lacking a trusted banking system, business in Iraq and Afghanistan was done in cash, vast amounts of paper money brought into the country on pallets and stored in copier paper boxes stacked alongside the safes which could not hold a tenth of the moolah on hand. It begged to be misused.

And then there was the unequal distribution of reconstruction funds. The military always had more than anyone else and so always won every discussion about what to do next. As SIGAR noted, when USAID tried to stop implementing projects in areas where they could not be monitored or evaluated, the military simply used funds from its Commander’s Emergency Response Program to implement those projects anyway, often in even less secure areas, where projects were unlikely to succeed.

Lesson 4: Corruption was an existential threat to the reconstruction mission in Afghanistan.

This will be a massive issue in a place like Ukraine (it remains the most corrupt country in Europe excluding Russia; according to USAID, rooting out corruption in Ukraine will be a generational challenge) with its very organized crime. “Rebuilding Ukraine means fighting graft first,” claimed the Washington Post. Ukraine has “entrenched patronage networks that involve senior officials who can inhibit reconstruction and international aid by wasting assistance and damaging the government’s ability to deliver services. Combating corruption is difficult because it requires the cooperation and political will of those elites who benefit the most from it. Few cooperate willingly,” SIGAR wrote. Militia leaders, warlords, oligarchs, they're all pretty much the same problem in different headgear.

Lesson 5: Building and reforming the Afghan security forces was hindered by their corruption, predation, and chronic dependency on the United States.

The Ukrainian military is 100 percent dependent on the United States for everything from spare parts to uniforms to strategic and tactical leadership. They have already lost the ability to fight on their own. The numbers help tell the story: Over the course of two decades in Afghanistan, the United States spent an average of $375 million each month on security assistance. Consider that the U.S. is currently spending $2.5 billion each month—nearly seven times the average monthly amount it spent in Afghanistan—on security assistance in Ukraine. Intended or not, that buys a lot of dependence.

As in Afghanistan, Ukraine’s internal security forces remain rife with corruption and require urgent reform. Ukraine’s police are largely feared and distrusted by the people they are supposed to serve. In some areas of the country, the police have resembled “a mafia-style organization” that intimidates locals with impunity, warns SIGAR.

Lesson 6: Tracking equipment provided to Afghan security forces proved challenging well before the government collapsed.

So much military equipment poured haphazardly into a country is sure to see some of it end up in the wrong hands. In Afghanistan, the U.S. was supplying both sides of many encounters, arms leaking out into the countryside via corruption, lack of security, and poor stock-keeping. Already in Ukraine, Russian organized-crime groups, local crooks, and unauthorized volunteer battalions obtained or stole weapons from Department of Defense security aid meant to arm the Ukrainian military for its defense against Russia, according to an inspector general report revealed as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Military.com. In just a taste of what's to come, the report shows how U.S. efforts to meet end-use goals for billions in security assistance donated throughout 2022 often failed.

Another Department of Defense (DOD) report found employees fell short of requirements for tracking financial aid to Ukraine. According to the Daily Caller, the report examined how the DOD “was monitoring transactions from over $6.5 billion in funding from the Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act through Advana software,” the only authorized reporting platform. “Auditors warned DOD’s subpar reporting processes, including use of systems that are unreadable by Advana, could hinder oversight and transparency” (the U.S. did not properly track $18.6 billion in aid to Afghanistan, partly because it employed software systems that were either incompatible with one another or incapable of handling the volume of data received. Most projects in Iraq, millions of dollars, were tracked only via a shared Excel spreadsheet).

Lesson 7: Monitoring and evaluation efforts in Afghanistan were weak and often measured simple inputs and outputs rather than actual program effectiveness.

In Iraq we evaluated a program's effectiveness like this: We increased the amount of money we spent one quarter on education by 13 percent. The next quarter we announced a 13 percent improvement in education in our area; it was simple as that.

“Oversight became an afterthought,” wrote SIGAR:

The U.S. government is poor at predicting the resources and length of time necessary to rebuild complex institutions in other countries. The timelines created by U.S. officials ignored conditions on the ground and created perverse incentives to spend quickly and focus on short-term goals. The U.S. government emphasized short-term, tangible projects where money could be spent rapidly and success claimed more immediately over less tangible but potentially more enduring, long-term programming, such as capacity building. Physical security, political stability, and immediate reconstruction needs took priority over the slow, iterative work of building good governance and the rule of law, the foundations for combating corruption.

There are the lessons, solid suggestions each one. They were largely ignored in Afghanistan and Iraq. Think they’ll do any better in Ukraine?