Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

How It All Fell Apart in Afghanistan

The top U.S. watchdog for the conflict has a new theory.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A plane flies above buildings and a hillside.
A plane flies above buildings and a hillside.
A U.S. Air Force aircraft takes off from the airport in Kabul on Aug. 30, 2021. Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! How’s that U.S. pivot to the Indo-Pacific going, eh? The split screen from this week’s G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, says it all: While U.S. President Joe Biden and his top aides did a reassurance mission from their hotel room after a Ukrainian shootdown of a Russian missile killed two people in Poland, Indonesian President Joko Widodo killed time by giving reporters a personal tour of his mangrove garden.

We'll be off next week for Thanksgiving but look forward to returning to your inboxes after the holiday.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: A watchdog calls out the United States for a nation-building failure of historic proportions in Afghanistan, the Poland missile crisis continues to make waves in Europe, and a new Republican speaker threatens to hold up Pentagon funding.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! How’s that U.S. pivot to the Indo-Pacific going, eh? The split screen from this week’s G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, says it all: While U.S. President Joe Biden and his top aides did a reassurance mission from their hotel room after a Ukrainian shootdown of a Russian missile killed two people in Poland, Indonesian President Joko Widodo killed time by giving reporters a personal tour of his mangrove garden.

We’ll be off next week for Thanksgiving but look forward to returning to your inboxes after the holiday.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: A watchdog calls out the United States for a nation-building failure of historic proportions in Afghanistan, the Poland missile crisis continues to make waves in Europe, and a new Republican speaker threatens to hold up Pentagon funding.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


On Par With Vietnam

When it comes to the history of U.S. nation-building efforts, it’s hard to do worse than Afghanistan.

That’s according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. government’s top watchdog office inside the Beltway that was designed to track American funding for the 20-year war and the fledgling government in Kabul, which collapsed last year as the Taliban’s lightning offensive barged into the capital and American forces left in their wake.

SIGAR’s latest report found that the stunning collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s U.S.-backed government was influenced by a failure to recognize that U.S. President Joe Biden was serious about withdrawing American troops, his exclusion from diplomatic talks with the Taliban and the unwillingness of the militant group to compromise, and the stacking of loyalists around the presidential palace that made corruption an endemic problem in Kabul.

But even though the report is not exactly a doorstop by Washington standards—clocking in at just 70 pages—it will also leave Republicans, who won the House with a slim margin, plenty of ammunition to hold Biden’s feet to the fire about the administration’s messy exit from Kabul and the failure to see that Ghani’s government was likely to collapse.

“U.S. efforts to build and sustain Afghanistan’s governing institutions were a total, epic, predestined failure on par with the same efforts and outcome in the Vietnam War and for the same reasons,” said Chris Mason, an associate professor of national security at the U.S. Army War College, who was interviewed for the report.

Strangely enough, there are some residual effects of America’s 20-year involvement in Afghanistan despite its horrific rush to the exit. Although the Taliban have dissolved several of the ministries that the United States helped the Afghans create after its 2001 invasion that followed the 9/11 attacks, the Afghan ministries of finance, health, and the economy as well as the country’s central bank have “continued some basic functions,” SIGAR concluded. And the Taliban have also mostly kept lower-ranking civil servants in their jobs.

The watchdog also cast blame on the United States for failing to help tackle Afghan corruption and its lack of ability to properly oversee elections, which were consistently weighed down by allegations of fraud. Ghani and his loyalists didn’t help matters either. Michael McKinley, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told SIGAR that the Afghan president consistently suggested development goals that were “completely off the charts” and that his apparent “separation from Afghan reality” was concerning.

Ghani was “living in fantasyland,” McKinley said.


Let’s Get Personnel

Dean Karlan, a professor at Northwestern University, has been named chief economist for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mary Beth Long, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, has joined the board of directors at drone manufacturing company Red Cat Holdings.

Shana Mansbach, a speechwriter for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has now joined the State Department as a speechwriter and senior advisor to the secretary of state, Politico reported.


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

The Polish missile crisis that wasn’t. A missile struck Poland and killed two people amid a massive Russian salvo on Ukraine this week. Turns out, that projectile was likely an errant Ukrainian air defense missile, according to preliminary investigations. Western officials said it’s a tragedy that’s still all Russia’s fault. (After all, Ukraine wouldn’t have to fire air defense missiles if Russia wasn’t constantly barraging the country.)

Although the U.S. president, Polish leaders, and NATO’s chief said it was an unfortunate accident, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is still insisting that the missile came from Russia.

Not till I’m speaker. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is threatening to hold up the passage of Congress’s prime defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for fiscal year 2023 until Republicans take control of the House in the new Congress. If he makes good on his threat, it would be the first time in 61 years Congress didn’t pass the NDAA—though negotiations are still ongoing.

McCarthy was elected to serve as House speaker by his Republican colleagues after some bruising midterm disappointments for the GOP in the midterms this week. McCarthy said Democrats added “woke-ism” into the NDAA and he wanted to wait so the new Congress could help “get things right,” per Defense News. He didn’t elaborate on what specifically in the NDAA was “woke.” Oh, and also, he already voted to pass the House version of the NDAA back in July. (It passed by a vote of 329 to 101 with a majority of Republican support). Shrug.

Nordic spies and Russian lies. A new spy scandal is engulfing Sweden as reports emerged of two Iranian-born brothers in Sweden, one of whom works for the Swedish intelligence services, who were arrested on charges of spying for Russia, FP’s Elizabeth Braw writes. The revelations came on the heels of another spy scandal in Norway, where Norwegian officials said they caught a Russian spy posing as a Brazilian academic.


Snapshot 

Soldiers sit on a vehicle with guns.
Soldiers sit on a vehicle with guns.

Kenyan soldiers arrive in the city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of a regional military operation to quell violence after fighting between Congolese security forces and the M23 rebel group. Alexis Huguet/AFP via Getty Images


Put On Your Radar

Today: The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation ministerial meeting begins in Thailand.

Friday, Nov. 18: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin begins a six-day trip to Canada, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Jack will be riding along and will be feeding highlights back to the FP mothership here in Washington.


Quote of the Week

“[P]er my advanced understanding, ‘article 5’ is the technical term for the paywall popup informing you that you’ve already read 4 articles this month and perhaps you would like to subscribe.”

CNN polling and election analytics editor Ariel Edwards-Levy was among many nonexperts who got roped into NATO semantics this week after a likely projectile from a Ukrainian shootdown of a Russian missile landed in Poland, killing two people. 


FP’s Most Read This Week

A Theme Park Crisis Is Wrecking South Korea’s Bond Market by S. Nathan Park

Ireland is Europe’s Weakest Link by Eoin Drea

Crypto’s Boy King Got Dethroned Overnight by David Gerard


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

One hell of a drug. It may only be November, but we are eagerly anticipating the February release of Cocaine Bear, which is, yes, a real movie about a bear that goes on a drug-induced rampage. Count your hosts in for two tickets, please. And we’re not the only ones with bad movie taste: Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker came away from a late-night movie binge session thinking vampires are “cool people.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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