The billions of dollars America has dumped into Afghanistan that have been used in a wasteful or fraudulent manner are neither surprising nor the fault of the U.S. military, Chuck Hagel said before a Senate committee Thursday.
The retired senator and Vietnam veteran who may soon lead the Department of Defense told the Senate Armed Service Committee that the United States needs to learn from the documented accounts of nation-building that appear to have failed in Afghanistan and Iraq. He cited an overworked military and a lack of support from other federal departments.
Experts say correcting this mistake may take a while.
"When you think about the universe of money that went into both of those wars, no one should be surprised," said Hagel in response to a question from Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
"We need to learn from this. It wasn't the fault of the military," he added. "The military was asked to do everything. We overloaded the circuits of the military."
U.S. special inspector general reports for both Iraq and Afghanistan have pointed to local authorities mishandling and, in some cases, outright deceiving the Department of Defense's efforts to bolster infrastructure amid ongoing wars there.
One report indicated Afghanistan security would not be able to fend for itself after the planned 2014 drawdown.
Hagel also cited young captains in war zones given six figures in cash as "walking around money" to appease tribal chiefs. They should not be to blame for what became of that money, he said.
"This has certainly strained our forces," says Mark Gunzinger, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
"[The military] has often been called upon to perform missions that have not been its primary responsibility…simply because they were the only U.S. government organization capable of doing so at the time, even if they were not initially trained and resourced for such missions," he says.
State Secretary Hillary Clinton and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both supported additional resources for the State Department and other government organizations to take on primary responsibility for this kind of nation-building.
This strategy is aligned with the most recent Defense Strategic Guidance, though its implementation may prove more difficult than either department imagined.
"We do not have a contracting procedure in the State Department and USAID which can effectively control money, effectively establish requirements or effectively measure requirements," says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior intelligence official at the Pentagon, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Our current strategy is not to repeat anything like the level of effort we had in regards to nation-building that occurred in Afghanistan or Iraq," says Cordesman, previously the national security assistant to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who also grilled Hagel on Thursday. "The question in a lot of ways is 'Can we fix it?'"