An Insider’s Account: Underfunding Afghanistan

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A Vulcan's Tale

Dov Zakheim was the Pentagon’s top money man when Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld surprised him by tapping Zakheim to run Afghanistan’s reconstruction — in addition to his day job. He writes about the challenges of war-making, nation-building and budget-balancing in A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan. He hails his fellow bean-counters as heroes, and White House Office of Management and Budget types as villains, which reflects the particular foxhole he occupied. (Funding Operation Enduring Freedom is a typical chapter title.) Battleland had an email exchange with him Wednesday:

Why did you write this book?

I felt I had a story to tell, and some valuable lessons to impart.

What did you learn while writing this book that surprised you?

I knew that we had underfunded Afghanistan, but was surprised by the degree to which it had been underfunded.

What did this book teach you about the way America goes to war?

As I indicate in the book, we tend to treat implementation of policy decisions as a secondary matter.

Who is the unsung hero in your book, and why?

The unsung heroes are the members of my (Comptroller) staff whose knowledge of budget and financial matters proved invaluable in our attempts both to raise financial and materiel support from allies and coalition partners, as well as in negotiating international agreements.

Who is the goat in your book, and why?

The Office of Management and Budget—it had too much power, and as a result, at least one of its senior officials sought to micromanage Executive Agencies, and proved to be exceedingly stingy when it came to providing resources for Afghanistan.

Dov Zakheim at a Pentagon budget briefing shortly after 9/11 / DoD photo

Should Congress be forced to declare war in a case like Iraq? Why or why not?

Congress cannot be forced. There is a War Powers Act that appears to be honored in the breach. Perhaps the Act should be updated and revised to be practicable.

What was our biggest success in Iraq, and why?

The surge: combined with other factors, such as the Iraqi people’s disgust with terrorists, it literally snatched victory from the jaws of disaster.

What was our biggest failure in Iraq, and why?

The twin decisions to disband the Iraqi military and the bureaucracy. The result of these decisions was the creation of a large cadre of bitter, unemployed, armed Iraqis who became the perfect fodder for the insurgency.

What did you learn about the skill and capabilities — or the lack thereof — of our military officers?

Our military officers are far more creative and flexible than some analysts often assume. They too often find themselves implementing policies with which they disagree—the disbanding of the Iraqi military, for example—and have to deal with the consequences of those policies. They are an amazing group of dedicated men and women, for whom no praise is too high.

Were you surprised that no one in the military jumped up and said: we have done hardly any post-war planning!

No — there may have been grumbling in cups, but the military does not try to usurp the role of civilian policy-makers, despite the temptation, at times, to do just that. The military’s respect for civilian control may, at least in my view, be its greatest strength.