Losing Afghanistan
An Obituary for the Intervention
Noah Coburn


Contents and Abstracts
1 Surveying the Intervention from Above
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the scale of the international intervention from some of the biggest projects to some of the smallest. It introduces Bagram Airbase, located in the center of Afghanistan, and one of the most important international bases used during the intervention. The chapter looks at some of the agricultural communities around the base and considers the potential for conflict between these communities and the base. It also introduces a company, owned in part by an American engineer, designed to build small-scale wind projects across the country and asks why certain projects receive funding, while others do not.

2 Intervening
chapter abstract

This chapter charts the move of the anthropologist from a small town in the mountains of Afghanistan to the busy diplomatic circles of Kabul. It considers some of the literature that has been produced about the intervention thus far and argues that much of the thinking about the intervention had a circular nature that derived from the narrow views that many people had. Thus, diplomats tended to support diplomatic solutions, military officers, military ones and development workers were always arguing for more funds. Thus, it suggest that a more holistic, ethnographic approach is required to truly understand the multiple dimensions of the intervention. In particular, it suggests an approach that focuses on individual stories has much to offer and introduces the reader to a Navy SEAL in charge of liaising with the Afghan National Army to demonstrate such an approach.

3 The Exotic Tribes of the Intervention
chapter abstract

This chapter considers whether the international community should be considered a 'community' and what such a community would look like. It argues that while incredibly diverse in origins and in jobs preformed, as funds increasingly enter the country, the international community was united by the language it used, the places they lived and their common worldview. It also asks what many of the Afghans who worked specifically with the international community had in common and introduces one young merchant who owned a small logistics company that was expanding rapidly.

4 Before the Invasion
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the history of the area around Bagram Airbase, as well as the history of the international community in Afghanistan more generally. It begins by focusing on the invasion of Alexander the Great and various other conflicts that shaped the complex ethnic and political composition of the area. It then considers the period of jihad against the Soviet backed government, when most of the international aid community was based in Pakistan. It then considers how these elements have contributed to the lasting conflict around Bagram. Through this period it also tracks the life of Ronald Neumann, whose father was ambassador of Afghanistan, a position his son would hold thirty years later.

5 A New Era?
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the recent history of the coalition airbase at Bagram and the international project in Afghanistan more generally since the US-led invasion in 2001. In particular it looks at the case of a Navy SEAL to demonstrate the ways in which for many, despite the long history of conflict in Afghanistan, the intervention really began with the September 11 attacks. Initial momentum in Afghanistan was lost, however, as the international focus shifted to Iraq. With President Obama's announcement of both a surge in troop levels and development spending, there was newfound hope, particularly for small-scale development projects. This was especially apparent in the attempts at electrifying much of the country, which led to large wasteful projects, like the Kajaki Dam and generator projects in Kandahar. The chapter concludes by outlining the history of one small wind energy company and its struggle to secure funding.

6 Contracting the Intervention
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at one particularly effective, small-scale, sustainable energy project and asks why it failed during the surge years when so much funding was available. It considers the contracting model that was the basis for how much of the development money in the country was distributed and argues that in many cases, smaller NGOs were simply not asking for enough money. This led to a pattern of large scale, inefficient contractors, with little on-the-ground knowledge often beat out small competitors for international funds, creating patterns of waste and corruption. In addition, it considers the ways in coalition soldiers attempted to reach out to local communities using development funds, particularly as the counterinsurgency approach called on soldiers to 'win hearts and minds.'

7 Climbing over the Wall
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on ways that the airbase at Bagram attempted to reach out to local communities. It begins by looking at why development was slow in the area and how high risk made Afghan businessmen unlikely to invest in long-term projects. These led to a boom in cheap construction projects, which were an easy way to make money rapidly. As the base increasingly failed to provide either services or security to the communities around it, officials turn to hiring local labor. This proved more difficult than expected, however, due to the complex logistics of contact labor on the base.

8 The Merchant-Warlord Alternative
chapter abstract

While many in the communities around Bagram were gaining little from the international presence, there was a small group of young merchants who were able to monopolize much of the easy money coming off the base through contracts. This led to a new form of leader: the merchant-warlord. These figures often relied on bribing lower level coalitions soldiers to falsify bills of sale, steal fuel and countless other schemes. US government auditors worked relentlessly to track down these schemes, but rarely ended up prosecuting anyone but those on the lowest rung of the organizational ladder. This led to some embarrassing cases, including an Afghan driver who was lured to the United States and detained at great cost, despite the fact that it was clear that he had no real knowledge of his company's organization.

9 Warlord Density and its Discontents
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at local communities' growing resentment of Bagram Airbase. As the intervention went on, rumors spread about what was happening inside the base and stories circulated about the lack of cultural sensitivity of troops. All of this climax in a series of riots outside of the base following the burning of several Korans confiscated from the prison inside Bagram. These protests spread quickly across the country, creating a major rift between the Afghan government and international diplomats. Tensions between these two groups centered in particular on control over detainees who were held often outside the Afghan legal system.

10 How to Host Your Own Shura
chapter abstract

In response to the sense that the international military was not doing enough to engage local communities, the military increasingly attempt to hold community consultations based upon the tradition of Afghan elders meeting on shuras or councils. The chapter recounts how this led to a series of training programs that actually taught soldiers how to host meetings of elders. The chapter studies one specific case of internationally-sponsored shuras that were used to release Afghan detainees. Another aspect of these types of programs was the Human Terrain program made up of social scientists embedded with the military. All of these projects ultimately had limited impact since, in part, none of them actually built relationships between Afghan leaders and those in the international community.

11 The Pieces Left Behind
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the question of whether the intervention in Afghanistan was "worth it." It asks how we measure such a thing and argues that the cross-purposes and constantly changing agenda of the international community was what ultimately doomed it to waste and inefficiency. The intervention was simultaneously a counterinsurgency, a counterterrorist operation, a development project, a state-building enterprise and a human rights mission. And, as a result, was ultimately none of these. The chapter reflects on how the international community might learn lessons more effectively and what this means both for Afghanistan and future potential interventions.