The Trillion Dollar War: The U.S. Effort to Rebuild Afghanistan, 1999–2021

  • Published

The Trillion Dollar War: The U.S. Effort to Rebuild Afghanistan, 1999–2021 by Abid Amiri. Marine Corps University Press, 2021, 256 pp.

The Trillion Dollar War examines the lack of economic development in Afghanistan despite upwards of US$1 trillion being poured into the country since 2001. In this book, Abid Amiri’s core argument is that “Afghanistan needs an economic recovery program and not a humanitarian relief effort” (199). He illustrates how humanitarian relief-oriented efforts were ineffective due to their faulty aid distribution mechanisms that stifled US-led international development in Afghanistan despite good intentions and significant investments in blood and treasure. His work is well-researched, drawing extensively from primary sources, with an emphasis on official reports and research documents. The massive flow of aid in post-9/11 Afghanistan makes it a case-study worth examining given its relevance and applicability in the field of literature on international development aid.

Amiri is an Afghan-American expert on international development aid, currently working as an economist in Washington, DC. A benefactor of aid from the United States, he was selected to attend high school in the United States in 2004. He subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Lawrence University in economics and global studies and a master’s degree from George Washington University in international development. His professional career is highlighted by his key role as the economic affairs officer for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, followed by prestigious appointments as a policy adviser to the minister of finance and as a director of national infrastructure policy in Kabul.

Amiri’s unique academic, professional, and cultural pedigree grants him a “technocrats view” of the problem, which enables his writing to fill a gap in the literature on the West’s perception of Afghanistan’s development woes. Amiri weaves in his personal life and grassroots exposure to nation-building efforts in Afghanistan to bolster his thesis that an economic recovery program is the solution. This lends credibility to his diagnosis that positive stakeholder intentions were superseded by poorly implemented humanitarian relief-oriented efforts.

This book sets expectations for future donors and policymakers by showing how misaligned donor interests, faulty distribution mechanisms, and shoddy accounting undercut nation-building in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2021. Extensive quantitative and qualitative data support his argument and outline the complex relationship between aid and state-building while depicting several egregious examples of donor shortsightedness in implementation. In one example he demonstrates how the project designers of the Kabul to Kandahar highway failed to comprehend local Afghan social structures, resulting in over $200 million in aid losses, an increase in route violence, and the bolstering of rural warlords (89).

Amiri organized this book into six chapters that span the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack H. Obama, Donald J. Trump, and Joseph R. Biden Jr. These presidents took distinct, yet similarly ineffective, approaches. In Chapter 1, Amiri lays out the implementation of the 1948 Marshall Plan in Europe and draws conclusions from it to apply to Afghanistan. Chapters 2 to 3 discuss the Afghanistan War and how Bush’s effort to improve US homeland security quickly expanded to nation-building. In Chapter 4 Amiri explains why Obama’s approach never kindled the economy, and Chapter 5 profiles the cost of the war. Finally, Chapter 6 reflects on how the Trump and Biden presidencies continued the effort with the addition of the Taliban as interlocutors. This book was published before the 2022 withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

Beyond its analysis of the “aid to state building” gap, this book highlights the overall lack of development accountability that persists in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the book’s six chapters are guided by four essential themes. First is a study on the European version of the Marshall Plan. Second is an analysis of the conceptual Marshall Plan 2.0 initiative that Bush embarked upon in 2002. Third is an analysis of the monetary cost that subsequent adjustments in US involvement have made from the middle of the Bush administration through Obama and Trump. And the fourth theme is Amiri’s recommendations on what should be done now, given the current situation.

Furthermore, he identifies three main reasons why these well-intentioned but poorly implemented initiatives failed. Firstly, the eternal misalignment between international donor and Afghanistan government objectives prevented donated funds from serving the true needs of the Afghan people in favor of ineffective objectives that were more appealing to the domestic constituencies or international prestige of the donor nations. Secondly, Amiri identifies the lack of ownership felt by Afghan government officials and citizens because they were largely bypassed by the international donors when initiatives were conceptualized. Thirdly, Amiri cites the lack of mutual accountability that defined many aid initiatives in Afghanistan, resulting in project fragmentation, duplication of effort, and inefficiencies.

Amiri is effective in explaining why there continues to be an absence of a common operating picture between international donors, government institutions, and most importantly the Afghan citizens. He believes that the world still has an opportunity to exert a positive influence, albeit costly, on his aspirational goal of seeing an Afghanistan that is completely self-reliant. Amiri’s solution calls for the United States and the international community to try again with an updated economic recovery program (Marshall Plan 3.0) that is amply context-informed and precise in implementation. Although appealing, however, it is not convincing, because he fails to sufficiently account for the dearth of Afghan citizens with the requisite professional, regional, and cultural expertise to implement Marshall Plan 3.0. They are the essential “technocratic class” needed to mitigate the “aid to state building” gap, but they have been fleeing Afghanistan in masses since the Taliban takeover in 2022.

This book is a useful overview for anyone interested in understanding why Afghanistan is still in poverty despite the scope of development aid that has been expended there since 9/11. Furthermore, The Trillion Dollar War is invaluable for military and development practitioners trying to grasp the politics of international aid. Its insight into strategic-level political and bureaucratic dynamics can help explain the friction encountered during aid project implementation at the tactical levels, which is where most soldiers and development aid workers operate.

Colonel Vrettos W. Notaras, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."