Overambitious in Afghanistan: The Tale of the Doorknob

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Overambitious in Afghanistan: The Tale of the Doorknob
By: Adam Mausner

Afghanistan is awash in wasted money and failed endeavors. We’ve all seen the examples—$468 million spent on C-27 transport aircraft that were rarely used and eventually cut up into scrap metal, $60 million spent on half-completed hospitals, $500 million spent on a perpetually almost-finished hydroelectric dam. The list goes on and on. We’ve also seen the usual explanations: corruption, bureaucracy, bad metrics, little oversight, poor communication, or good old-fashioned fraud. To this list of (not-inaccurate) explanations for failure, I’d like to add the Tale of the Doorknob:

In 2011, I met a USAID engineer in Kabul who told me a frightening tale that cuts to the heart of our failures in Afghanistan. He had been charged with building a police station in northeast Afghanistan—one of the least-developed regions in one of the least-developed nations on earth. The police station was (foolishly) built to American standards, complete with a modern fire-suppression system and a two- story atrium. Shortly after the building was completed, the local police chief pulled him aside to explain why the building would likely be abandoned in a few years. “These men are from the Hills,” the chief explained, pointing to his employees. “One of them couldn’t get into my office for a meeting this morning because he had never seen a doorknob before. How do you expect them to maintain this station?”

The Americans who approved the design of the police station likely could not conceive of an Afghan not knowing how to use a doorknob, let alone how to maintain a modern fire suppression system. The lesson of the doorknob lends itself to other, more expensive and troubling decisions the United States and its NATO allies have made in Afghanistan. For instance, why are we currently wasting huge sums of money and limited Afghan resources training them to fly four (extremely expensive and difficult to fly and maintain, but large and efficient) C-130 transport aircraft, instead of, say, 50 (smaller but cheap, easy, and rugged) Cessnas?

Luckily, as U.S. forces and resources are drawn down in Afghanistan, many of these overambitious plans and projects will likely be scaled back. Resource scarcity may force U.S. planners to shift to the more Afghan-appropriate models that they should have been using all along. But the damage has been done, over and over again. We must only hope that the next time wild-eyed U.S. planners seek to create a “little America” in some other devastated developing nation, the Tale of the Doorknob is remembered and heeded.

Adam Mausner is a fellow with the International Security Program at CSIS, where he specializes in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, with a focus on Afghan and Iraqi security force development. Other posts by .


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