The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the removal of the US-backed government was staggering in its speed and tragic in its impact, but that comes as no surprise to experts who have followed US reconstruction efforts in the over the past 20 years. The reasons for this are summed up in eight paradoxes that are at the heart of a just-published review of the mission by a US government watchdog.
“We can’t go back in Afghanistan, but we’re doing similar work in other countries,” John Sopko, who heads the watchdog agency, told NPR recently. “And we should learn from 20 years, not try to forget it and erase it, or sweep it under the rug.”
The list highlights a series of critical flaws in the US approach, many rooted in fundamental misunderstandings – or what the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, calls “a willful disregard for information that might have been available”. “
American goals were often “operationally unachievable or conceptually incoherent”, the new SIGAR report said, listing eight paradoxes that the United States and its partners have attempted to navigate. The report says they tried to:
- Root out corruption, but also revive the economy by injecting billions of dollars into it;
- Improve formal governance and eliminate a culture of impunity, but also maintain security, even if it means giving power to corrupt or predatory actors;
- Give Afghan security forces a competitive edge against the Taliban, but also limit them to equipment and skills they might retain after a US departure;
- Directing considerable reconstruction funds through the Afghan government to help civil servants practice public financial management, but also to prevent waste, fraud and abuse;
- Build a credible electoral process from scratch, but also respect Afghan sovereignty;
- Focus on achieving immediate progress in security and governance, but also on building the long-term capacity of Afghan officials;
- Reduce poppy cultivation, but also avoid depriving the farmers and workers who depend on it;
- Enable women to become more educated and economically independent, but also to be culturally sensitive and respect Afghan traditions.
Benefits outweigh costs, says SIGAR
SIGAR’s report acknowledges that the United States has helped millions of Afghan citizens in significant ways. Youth literacy increased by almost 30 percentage points for men and almost 20 percentage points for women. The mortality rate for children under 5 has fallen by more than 50%. Life expectancy has increased by 16%, to 65 years.
The problem, according to SIGAR, is that these gains are not sustainable after leaving the United States. Nor are they enough to justify the $145 billion spent by the United States to fund reconstruction, including $83 billion for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces which offered little resistance when the Taliban took over. Control.
“When you look at how much we’ve spent and what we’ve gotten for this, it’s mind-boggling,” a former senior Defense Ministry official told SIGAR analysts in 2015.
The costs can be measured not only in the more than $2 trillion the United States has spent on war and reconstruction, but also in lives lost.
During the conflict, 2,443 American soldiers were killed and 20,666 others wounded, along with 1,144 Allied soldiers who died, the report said. It was even worse for the Afghans, with at least 66,000 servicemen dead, according to SIGAR. Among civilians, more than 48,000 people have been killed and thousands more injured – estimates the agency says are likely far below the actual numbers.
Many of the issues identified in the report reflect the troubling dynamics that developed when the United States’ preference for quick results (even if they cannot be sustained) collided with unique challenges in Afghanistan – which has “a complex society with entrenched traditions and an incorrigible political economy,” according to SIGAR.
US government goals and strategy have also changed frequently, creating what SIGAR calls “20 year reconstruction efforts, rather than a 20 year effort”.
“At various times,” says SIGAR, listing the reasons why US and allied troops are in Afghanistan, “the US government hoped to eliminate al-Qaeda, decimate the Taliban movement that harbored it, deny all terrorist groups safe haven safe in Afghanistan, building Afghan security forces so they can deny terrorists a safe haven in the future, and helping the civilian government become legitimate enough and able to win the trust of Afghans.”
7 lessons for the United States in Afghanistan
SIGAR lists seven fundamental lessons the United States should remember as it scrambles to evacuate diplomatic and other personnel. Each of these critical issues occupies its own chapter in the report, but SIGAR also presents them as a list of daunting challenges:
- “Strategy: The US government has constantly struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to accomplish. »
- “Timelines: The US government consistently underestimated the time needed to rebuild Afghanistan and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized quick spending. These choices have increased corruption and reduced program effectiveness.
- “Sustainability: Many institutions and infrastructure projects built by the United States were unsustainable.”
- “Personnel: Counterproductive policies and practices by civilian and military personnel thwarted the effort.”
- “Insecurity: Persistent insecurity has seriously undermined reconstruction efforts.
- Background: The US government lacked an understanding of local Afghan social, economic, and political systems and therefore did not tailor its efforts accordingly.
- “Monitoring and evaluation: US government agencies have rarely done enough monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts.”
Tips for Future Nation-Building Missions
The SIGAR analysis is the latest in a series of 10 other reports on the topic of “lessons learned” in Afghanistan. The title of the new report is “What We Need to Learn” – reflecting the authors’ view that the United States has still not mastered important concepts, and their hope that the United States will recognize its failures and s strive to improve themselves to rebuild other countries.
“Implementing these critical lessons will save lives and prevent waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan, and in future reconstruction missions elsewhere in the world,” the SIGAR report states.
The report’s executive summary concludes with a list of reasons why the United States should focus on improving its ability to carry out reconstruction missions. From the report:
- They are very expensive. For example, the total war-related costs for US efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan over the past two decades are estimated at $6.4 trillion.
- They are usually bad.
- Widespread acknowledgment that they’re doing badly hasn’t stopped US officials from prosecuting them.
- Rebuilding countries mired in conflict is in fact an ongoing endeavor of the US government, reflected in efforts in the Balkans and Haiti and smaller efforts now underway in Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Yemen, Ukraine and elsewhere.
- Major reconstruction campaigns usually start on a small scale, so it would not be difficult for the US government to step back down that slope elsewhere and have the result be similar to that in Afghanistan.
A former senior defense official told SIGAR that the United States should develop its reconstruction strategies and skills before a crisis occurs rather than when the United States is urgently needed, likening preparedness to the essential priority of military preparation.
Another former senior US official echoed this idea.
“We just don’t have a post-conflict stabilization model that works,” former national security adviser Stephen Hadley told SIGAR. “Anytime we have one of those things it’s a pick-up game. I’m not convinced that if we did it again we’d do better.”
SIGAR was formed by Congress to oversee all aspects of the reconstruction. For years, she has been sounding the alarm about the problems of capacity and sustainment of the Afghan security forces. Many of those warnings have now proven to be true.
“It’s tragic and it’s very sad because of the people and the expense we’ve spent over the past 20 years,” Sopko said.
But, he added, “it’s not surprising.”