[Note for TomDispatch Readers: I'm proud to say that TD Managing Editor Nick Turse's bestselling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, has just won a prestigious American Book Award -- another honor for a work that has already made a major place for itself in the library of writings on the Vietnam War. Here's a small reminder: for a $100 contribution, the sort of gesture that truly does keep TomDispatch rolling along, you can still get a signed, personalized copy of his book. Just check out our donation page for the details. Tom]
In light of recent history, perhaps it's time to update that classic U.S. Army recruitment campaign slogan from "be all that you can be" to "build all that you can build." Consider it an irony that, in an era when Congress struggles to raise enough money to give America's potholed, overcrowded highways a helping hand, building new roads in Afghanistan proved no problem at all (even when they led nowhere). In fact, the U.S. military spent billions of taxpayer dollars in both Afghanistan and Iraq on nation-building infrastructural efforts of all sorts, and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction repeatedly reported on the failures, disasters, and boondoggles that resulted. In 2012, for instance, that auditor found that, of the $10.6 billion in Afghan funding it examined, $7 billion was "potentially wasted." And this has never ended. In 2014, it typically reported that "some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics, and even fire stations built by the Army [in Afghanistan] are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don't meet international building codes."
As of this year, more U.S. and NATO money had been "squandered" on the "reconstruction" of Afghanistan than was spent on the full post-World War-II Marshall Plan to put a devastated Europe back on its feet. And how has all that spending turned out? One thing is certain: those torrents of money helped create a devastating economy of corruption. As for reconstruction, the Inspector General found mainly "poor planning, shoddy construction, mechanical failures, and inadequate oversight."
As TomDispatch's Nick Turse, author of the award-winning book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, reminds us today, thanks to the counterinsurgency strategy that the U.S. military has pursued in these years, most of this spending came under the heading of "winning hearts and minds" in the countries the U.S. invaded. Any American batallion-level commander in an Afghan village could essentially reach into his pocket and pull out the funds to build a schoolhouse. And yet, in the United States, much of our educational infrastructure, built after World War II for the Baby Boomer generation, is in need of reconstruction funds that are no longer in any pockets. The same holds true for American airports (none having been built in almost 20 years), bridges (almost half of them needing "major structural investments" in the next 15 years and 11% now considered "structurally deficient"), highways, dams, levees, sewage and water systems, and the like. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country's infrastructure a grade of D+ and estimated that, to keep the U.S. a fully functioning first-world country, some $3.6 trillion dollars would have to be invested in infrastructural work by 2020.
Fat chance. Though no one ever comments on it, the constant spending of money to win hearts and minds in distant lands should be considered passing strange when hearts and minds are at stake in Rhode Island, Arkansas, and Oregon. Stranger yet, the group designated to do that hearts-and-minds construction is also dedicated to destroying infrastructure in times of conflict. It shouldn't be surprising that nation-building, school by school, road by road, might not be its strong point.
Worse yet, as Nick Turse reports, continuing his remarkable ongoing investigation into the U.S. military's "pivot" to Africa, even after the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems that there are hearts and minds still to win out there and all of Africa to build in. Tom
How Not to Win Hearts and Minds in Africa
Hushed Pentagon Investigation Slaps U.S. Africa Command's Humanitarian Activities
By Nick Turse
[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania -- Movie night in Mouloud, Djibouti. Skype lessons in Ethiopia. Veterinary training assistance in Garissa, Kenya. And in this country on the east coast of Africa, work on both primary and secondary schools and a cistern to provide clean water. These are all-American good works, but who is doing them -- and why?
As I sit in a room filled with scores of high-ranking military officers resplendent in their dress uniforms -- Kenyans in their khakis, Burundians and Ugandans clad in olive, Tanzanians in deep forest green sporting like-colored berets and red epaulets with crossed rifles on their shoulders -- chances are that the U.S. military is carrying out some mission somewhere on this vast continent. It might be a kidnapping raid or a training exercise. It could be an airstrike or the construction of a drone base. Or, as I wait for the next speaker to approach the lectern at the "Land Forces East Africa" conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, it could be a humanitarian operation run not by civilians in the aid business, but by military troops with ulterior motives -- part of a near-continent-wide campaign utilizing the core tenets of counterinsurgency strategy.
The U.S. is trying to win a war for the hearts and minds of Africa. But a Pentagon investigation suggests that those mystery projects somewhere out there in Djibouti or Ethiopia or Kenya or here in Tanzania may well be orphaned, ill-planned, and undocumented failures-in-the-making. According to the Department of Defense's watchdog agency, U.S. military officials in Africa "did not adequately plan or execute" missions designed to win over Africans deemed vulnerable to the lures of violent extremism.
This evidence of failure in the earliest stages of the U.S. military's hearts-and-minds campaign should have an eerie resonance for anyone who has followed its previous efforts to use humanitarian aid and infrastructure projects to sway local populations in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. In each case, the operations failed in spectacular ways, but were only fully acknowledged after years of futility and billions of dollars in waste. In Africa, a war zone about which most Americans are completely unaware, the writing is already on the wall. Or at least it should be. While Pentagon investigators identified a plethora of problems, their report has, in fact, been kept under wraps for almost a year, while the command responsible for the failures has ignored all questions about it from TomDispatch.
Doing a Bad Job at Good Works
Today, the U.S. military increasingly confronts Africa as a "battlefield" or "battleground" or "war" in the words of the men running its operations. To that end, it has built a sophisticated logistics network to service a growing number of small outposts, camps, and airfields, while carrying out, on average, more than one mission each day somewhere on the continent. A significant number of these operations take the form of a textbook hearts-and-minds campaign that harkens back to failed U.S. efforts in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s and more recently in the Greater Middle East.
In Vietnam, the so-called civilian half of the war -- building schools, handing out soap, and offering rudimentary medical care -- was obliterated by American heavy firepower that wiped out homes, whole hamlets, and whatever goodwill had been gained. As a result, U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine was tossed into the military's dustbin -- only to be resurrected decades later, as the Iraq War raged, by then-general and later CIA director David Petraeus.