An independent watchdog’s report on the reconstruction of Afghanistan detailed the “many failures” over the past two decades, including struggling to develop a coherent strategy across government agencies, underestimating the Afghans’ ability to sustain American-led projects, and failing to understand the context on the ground.
It’s release comes as the Biden administration presides over a widely panned military withdrawal from the war-torn nation that has led to the lightning takeover of the country by the Taliban, a chaotic situation at Kabul’s international airport where crowds of Afghans gathered in a desperate attempt to flee Taliban rule and an evacuation operation that is struggling to fly American citizens out of harm’s way.
“Twenty years later, much has improved, and much has not,” the report released Tuesday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction says.
“If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to US national security interests, the overall picture is bleak.”
It said the government was successful in some areas – expanding health care, higher literacy rates and lower child mortality rates — but “progress has been elusive and the prospects for sustaining this progress are dubious.”
“The U.S. government has been often overwhelmed by the magnitude of rebuilding a country that, at the time of the U.S. invasion, had already seen two decades of Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban brutality,” the report said.
“But after spending 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, the U.S. government has many lessons it needs to learn. Implementing these critical lessons will save lives and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in Afghanistan, and in future reconstruction missions elsewhere around the world,” the report, titled “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction, concluded.
The report, written by special inspector John Sopko, based its examination on 13 years of oversight work, 760 interviews SIGAR staff conducted with former and current policymakers, ambassadors, military officers and development experts.
The SIGAR report pointed out that the US government spent $145 billion over the two decades to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, government institutions and society.
And the Defense Department spent $837 billion on fighting the war in which 2,443 American troops were killed and 20,666 were wounded.
“The extraordinary costs were meant to serve a purpose – though the definition of that purpose evolved over time,” the report said.
Those ever-evolving goals involved eliminating al-Qaeda, decimating the Taliban, denying terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan to plot attacks on the US and its allies by developing the Afghan security forces, and bolstering the civilian government.
But the rebuilding effort was hampered by the US setting goals that sacrificed long-term gains for short-term successes.
The US government “consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly” but led to incomplete results.
“Billions of reconstruction dollars were wasted as projects went unused or fell into disrepair. Demands to make fast progress incentivized U.S. officials to identify and implement short-term projects with little consideration for host government capacity and long-term sustainability. U.S. agencies were seldom judged by their projects’ continued utility, but by the number of projects completed and dollars spent,” the 140-page report said.
The US also failed to grasp rampant corruption in the country, a flaw that undermined the overall mission.
“U.S. programs empowered malign actors and exacerbated preexisting inequities, undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government they were intended to bolster,” the report said.
Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker is quoted in the report: “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption.”