WASHINGTON — Maybe this is how the Soviets felt in 1989.
There was a heavy tone of defeat in the questions senators posed to Ryan Crocker Wednesday morning as they prepared to confirm the star diplomat as the new ambassador to Afghanistan.
“What we’re trying to give to the Afghan peo
ple and have worked at for 10 years, and given them in blood, sweat and tears — you really, really wonder whether they want what we’re trying to give them,” complained Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho.
“When I see the reports, both public and private, about where our money has gone here, where the corruption is at, and when I see (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai talk about the United States as an occupying force, I have real problems having American lives shed and having American treasure continuing to be shed,” protested Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., argued that “if there’s any nation in the world that really needs nation-building right now, it’s the United States of America.” As for Afghanistan, “when we’re putting hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure in another country, it should only be done if we can articulate a vital national interest.”
Crocker, who retired from the foreign service but was called back to duty by President Obama, did not attempt to dissuade the lawmakers from their pessimism. “I’m under no illusions of the difficulty of the challenge,” the former ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq told them. “If Iraq was hard, and it was hard, Afghanistan in many respects is harder.”
The defeat that weighed on the questioners was not a military one; the surge of troops into Afghanistan has been reasonably successful against the Taliban. But the military success was intended to buy time to stand up Afghanistan’s civil society — a hope that has come to naught.
Nine years ago, President George W. Bush promised a Marshall Plan of sorts for Afghanistan. He said the military victory must be “followed by a moral victory that resulted in better lives for individual human beings,” taking the form of a “stable government,” a “national army” and a functioning education system.
A decade and tens of billions of dollars later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic majority staff concluded that the nation-building effort has had only modest success. As The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung reported, fully 97 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is foreign military spending. As the military begins its promised pullout next month, the small improvements in Afghanistan’s corruption-plagued government could quickly be lost.
The committee members were uniformly grateful that Crocker had agreed to take on the thankless new role, and they were nearly as uniform in their doubts that it would go well.
“Our current commitment in troops and in dollars is neither proportional to our interest nor sustainable,” said the chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Ranking Republican Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, noting Afghanistan’s cost of more than $100 billion a year to U.S. taxpayers, fretted about “massive, open-ended expenditures” and “more faith than is justified in Afghan institutions.”
Crocker, in his opening statement, added to the gloom. “Enormous challenges remain,” he said. “Governance, rule of law, including corruption, which undermines the credibility of the Afghan state, narcotics, sustainable economic development … along with the capacity of the government to provide basic services such as education and health care.”
Pressed by Kerry, Crocker suggested he’d settle for reducing the corruption. “We’re not out to clearly create a shining city on a hill,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Even this less ambitious goal seemed optimistic in comparison to the senators’ comments: “back to square one again” (Lugar), “not sustainable for multiple reasons” (Bob Corker, R-Tenn.), “supporting a corrupt system” (Ben Cardin, D-Md.), “we do not have a solid partner” (Menendez), “how this is going to end with us achieving (our goals) is very, very difficult to grasp” (Risch).
“What is the goal?” asked Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
“I was not among those who have ever used the word ‘winning’ or ‘victory,'” Crocker replied. His alternative description of success: “Good-enough governance: Governance that is good enough to ensure that the country doesn’t degenerate back into a safe haven for al-Qaida.”
A decade after Bush spoke of “moral victory” in Afghanistan, even “good-enough” sounds a bit too hopeful.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.