How exactly did twenty years, billions of dollars, and thousands of American lives result in the total collapse of Afghanistan? The United States has nobody to blame but itself, according to a scathing new report from the top U.S. watchdog for the Afghan reconstruction effort.
Just days after Taliban fighters occupied the presidential palace in Kabul and Americans and Afghans desperately flocked to Hamid Karzai International Airport in search of an escape route from the country, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released its 11th “lessons learned” report, which lists seven reasons why the last two decades of U.S. reconstruction efforts failed.
The SIGAR report paints a dark picture of the U.S. efforts to rebuild the country that followed the September 11th attacks and subsequent U.S. invasion: despite $145 billion spent on reconstituting Afghan security forces, civilian government institutions, and other elements of society, the U.S. government “continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve,” according to the report.
“The U.S. government was simply not equipped to undertake something this ambitious in such an uncompromising environment, no matter the budget,” according to the report. “After a decade of escalation, the United States began a gradual, decade-long drawdown that steadily revealed how dependent and vulnerable the Afghan government remains.”
The report also flies in the face of President Joe Biden’s recent efforts to pin the blame for the disaster on Afghans.
“So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” Biden said on Monday. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
One anonymous Afghan man in a refugee camp saw it much differently.
“You created these conditions for us,” the man told Marine Corps veteran Chris Jones in 2017, specifically about the Marines who fought in Marjah in 2010, where the man once lived. “You need to solve this,” he said. “You need to fix this situation.”
SIGAR organized its 140-page report around seven lessons that, if followed earlier, could have resulted in a very different war. They include lack of a clear strategy; unrealistic timelines and expectations; unsustainable improvement projects; harmful civilian and military hiring practices; inability to provide security; lack of a cultural understanding of Afghanistan; and insufficient self-monitoring of the reconstruction process. The seven lessons are summarized below:
Lesson 1: Lack of a clear strategy
Right from the outset, the U.S. government never formed a coherent strategy to rebuild Afghanistan, SIGAR wrote. Why was that? Because the U.S. government does not have a qualified and capable agency to take the lead on rebuilding countries. For example, the Department of State is supposed to lead reconstruction efforts, SIGAR wrote, but it does not have the resources to lead and own the Afghanistan effort. The Department of Defense, meanwhile, is awash in resources to execute strategies, “but not for large-scale reconstruction missions with significant economic and governance components,” SIGAR said.
As an example of the resource imbalance: the military has only slightly fewer musicians than the State Department has foreign service officers (7,400 in total), who make up the backbone of the agency, SIGAR wrote. But that doesn’t mean Defense has the expertise to rebuild a country, especially given the lack of funding oversight Defense is used to.
“We just don’t question DOD in the same way as we question development agencies in conflict zones,” one national security official told SIGAR. “We don’t scrutinize DOD fuel costs because we have . . . formalized $100 per gallon as . . . the cost of doing business.”
The Pentagon specializes in destruction, not reconstruction. In fact, the military can’t even maintain safe housing conditions for its own service members, keep track of its own weapons, or keep itself from using COVID-19 response money as a slush fund for contractors. Why would anyone in their right mind put this organization in charge of rebuilding a country? The United States did, because no other agency had the resources to do so. Without the right agency leading the charge, the U.S. government never developed a coherent long-term strategy, and this made setting goals and measuring progress impossible, SIGAR wrote.
For example, take the way the U.S. mission drifted in Afghanistan after 2001. After defeating the Taliban, the U.S. was focused on permanently destroying al-Qaeda, the group which carried out the 9/11 attacks. But as the Taliban renewed its attacks in Afghanistan, the U.S. added that group to its hit list.
The trouble is, the Taliban enjoyed popular support in the south and east of Afghanistan, so eliminating them would require “a significant expansion of reconstruction efforts” to convince Afghans to support the national government, SIGAR said. But as reconstruction money flowed in, a new enemy surfaced: government corruption. But prosecuting or removing corrupt Afghan officials was its own battle because their support was difficult to replace, SIGAR said.
You did not have to be a foreign policy expert to see that there was no clear strategy for Afghanistan. Marine veteran Josh Hartley realized when he patrolled Helmand Province in 2010 that his “mostly undefined ‘counterinsurgency’ mission was impossible to achieve,” he wrote for Task & Purpose. For example, he and his fellow infantrymen could not touch the local poppy trade, which is used to produce heroin and opium, because it would interfere with “the locals’ way of life,” Hartley said. But that meant the local Taliban fighters could keep making money off the illegal crop and keep enriching themselves without firing a shot at the Marines.
“This was how they [the Taliban] would win,” Hartley wrote. “Not by attrition warfare to the last man — by continuing their business and making as much money as they could until we finally left.”
By 2011, it was clear that the shifting goals and misaligned U.S. government agencies pursuing them were not effective. At that point the goals became smaller, but with an unrealistic timeline to achieve them. At first, the goal was to train Afghan forces to defend themselves as soon as possible, SIGAR wrote; then, withdrawing under a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government; then withdrawing without any such deal.
“There [was] a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary,” to get anything done NSC official Douglas Lute told SIGAR.
Lesson 2: Unrealistic timelines and expectations
Since the U.S. government lacked a high-level focus on Afghanistan’s long-term development, the U.S. reconstruction effort was marred from the start. Indeed, the U.S. government “consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan, and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly,” according to the report. “These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.”
Specifically, the lack of a clear strategy resulted in 20 mismatched one-year reconstruction efforts, rather than one cohesive 20-year effort, SIGAR wrote. Some of this was due to U.S. officials prioritizing their political preferences over what they could actually accomplish. Politicians and presidents set impossible deadlines which “ignored conditions on the ground and forced reckless compromises in U.S. programs, creating perverse incentives to spend quickly and focus on short-term unsustainable goals,” that could never result in a successful reconstruction effort, SIGAR said.
For example, one U.S. military official told SIGAR that American troops were expected to leave the country in the hands of a capable Afghan Army by 2004 because nobody in Washington wanted to plunge the U.S. into a long-term nation-building project.
“In what would become a pattern, a perpetual sense of imminent departure reduced the ability of U.S. officials to plan for the long term,” SIGAR explained.
Another example of this was the Ring Road, a route that would connect many of the large cities in Afghanistan. The project was a large-scale investment in infrastructure, which made it a perfect sign of short-term success for the National Security Council. But in order to build it by 2004, NSC overruled objections from the U.S. Agency for International Development, took funds from agriculture and governance programs and sacrificed quality standards. This became a decade-long pattern among reconstruction projects, SIGAR said.
The rush to hit impossible timelines also helped encourage corruption when Afghan powerbrokers “found ways to co-opt the funds for their own purposes,” SIGAR wrote. But instead of addressing the problem, U.S. officials “simply found new ways to ignore conditions on the ground.”
Lesson 3: Unsustainable improvement projects
When you’re constantly trying to “turn a corner” in 18 months, as President Barack Obama did during the Afghanistan surge between 2009 and 2011, money is spent fast and hard, and that’s unsustainable while trying to rebuild a stable country, SIGAR said.
“Reconstruction programs are not like humanitarian aid,” the report read. “They are not meant to provide temporary relief. Instead, they serve as a foundation for building the necessary institutions of government, civil society, and commerce to sustain the country indefinitely.”
Despite pouring $7.8 billion into capital assets such as buildings, roads, and transmission lines, the U.S. failed to ensure its investments were sustainable in the long run or help the Afghans feel more responsible for the project’s sustainment. That led to $2.4 billion, or 31% of the total, being spent on assets that were not used as intended, unused, abandoned or destroyed, SIGAR found. Projects fell into disuse and disrepair, and countless Afghan employees never gained experience managing and sustaining long-term reconstruction projects.
For example, in 2008, USAID gave out $18.5 million to build two hospitals: one in Paktia province and one in Paktika province, but the annual operating and maintenance costs of the new hospitals were many times those of the hospitals they were supposed to replace. Undeterred, USAID started building the new hospitals a year before even telling the Afghan Ministry of Public Health about them, SIGAR found.
Army veteran Joanna Dasher shared this pessimistic view when she was assigned to a provincial reconstruction team in Ghazni Province accompanying USAID and State Department reps working to build schools, clinics and roads.
“We did build some of those things, but I don’t think any of us ever believed they’d last long,” she said in an essay for Task & Purpose. For example, Dasher helped put on a successful presidential election, but by the time her husband returned to the country in 2019, increasing violence had driven many voters away from the polls.
“It’s hard to imagine anything we helped build nine years ago surviving much longer,” she said.
Another example of an unsustainable project was the Afghan Air Force. SIGAR reported earlier this year that even though the U.S. spent more than $8.5 billion since 2010 to develop local airpower, Afghans still relied on civilian contractors to maintain the aircraft. who would leave when U.S. troops withdrew.
“Contractors provide 100% of the maintenance of Afghan Air Force Black Hawks and C-130s and a significant share of maintenance of its light combat support aircraft,” John F. Sopko, the head of SIGAR said in June.
The U.S. could build as many roads, power projects or helicopter squadrons as it wanted, but the Afghan government often lacked the technical know-how to keep them running, SIGAR wrote, and the U.S. never wanted to stay long enough to find out. American agencies were judged more by the number of projects completed and dollars spent than by the projects’ continued utility, SIGAR said, which disincentivized sustainability.
“The Afghan government had no motive to create their own budget process, because the [donor] spigot was turned on full force,” one anonymous official with the USAID told SIGAR.
Lesson 4: Harmful civilian and military hiring practices
Both the U.S. and Afghan governments failed to hire the right people to do anything in the reconstruction process, which constituted “one of the most significant failures of the mission” SIGAR wrote. U.S. personnel were often unqualified and poorly trained. For example, many military police advisers trained by watching American television cop shows, while civil affairs teams trained by studying PowerPoint presentations.
The low quality was partly due to the U.S. government constantly taking on new large-scale reconstruction projects “without first guaranteeing enough personnel resources were available to see them through,” SIGAR wrote. The scramble for employees was so desperate that one USAID employee said they got the job because they had “a pulse and a master’s degree.”
Even the U.S. military, which has reserves larger than most government agencies, struggled to meet the commitment at times. For example, in 2005, the U.S. sought to train and equip the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. But to do that, the military needed 635 Police Mentoring Teams, though it only had 90, and many of those were stretched thin, SIGAR said. That led to helicopter pilots, Navy SEALs or other service members, who had no business training police, watching TV shows like Cops and NCIS to become more familiar with policing as they were shoe-horned into police training units, SIGAR wrote.
One Air Force veteran told Task & Purpose he felt that squeeze personally. Former Tech Sgt. William Monahan was embedded with a special operations task force that killed or captured high-value local leaders. Though the mission was straightforward, the higher-ups had no strategic objective and kept demanding more.
“Sortie rates were increased. Maximum hours requirements were waived,” Monahan said. “Manning limitations were overruled by the Secretary of Defense — we were in country indefinitely despite our orders reading 179 days. My longest trip exceeded that by 20 days, and there was always the looming specter of extension on all the others.
“Despite all that, we were generally never apprised of the big-picture goals which drove these drastic increases in operations tempo that strained individuals and their families to the point that our career field was rumored to have the worst retention in the Air Force,” he added. “It was simply ‘fly more, deploy more,’ and we had no idea how long this is going to last.”
When you don’t have many employees, oversight goes out the window, SIGAR said. That allowed Afghan National Army and Police officials to inflate their payrolls with “ghost soldiers” to get a few more bucks in unnecessary salaries. One SIGAR audit warned that more than $300 million a year was spent paying the salaries of nonexistent Afghan security forces.
Making things worse was the fact that U.S. government employees cycled in and out of the country, resulting in what SIGAR called “annual lobotomies” for every agency. Newly-arrived staff would make the same mistakes as their predecessors, learn from them, then leave and the cycle would repeat. To correct that, the U.S. government hired huge numbers of contractors, but their work was performed with even less oversight, allowing for unchecked waste and fraud.
The lack of experienced or competent civilian workers also led to a breakdown in coordination between aid agencies and the military units who were supposed to keep them safe. For example, the U.S. military held the resources and transportation, which meant they called the shots for which reconstruction projects were viable, even when it conflicted with civilian objectives or common sense.
“Civilian agencies needed to hire additional partners to keep pace with the projects deemed acceptable by the military; when the agencies could not effectively monitor the work being done, the ensuing waste and fraud drove the military to request even more programs,” SIGAR wrote. “These programs would then also go understaffed or without supervision. In this way, the United States continuously spent money and engaged in more projects without seeing proportionate returns on its efforts.”
Lesson 5: Inability to provide security
The U.S. and Afghan government could never hope to succeed without protecting Afghan citizens from the Taliban, but neither the U.S. military nor Afghan security forces accomplished this, SIGAR said. This was most apparent during political elections. It was difficult to establish a credible electoral process when the Taliban intimidated voters, prevented voter registration and closed polling stations on election day, wrote SIGAR. In remote areas, U.S. officials could never convince scared Afghans to support the government.
“We don’t care who is in control, we just want peace,” an Afghan man from rural Helmand Province told Chris Jones in 2017. “We want our children in school and to grow our crops.”
With the threat of violence always close at hand, Afghanistan also became “one of the worst environments in the world to run a business,” SIGAR wrote. Lucrative opportunities like mining operations and fiber optic networks were hampered by landmines, car bombs, kidnappings and assassinations.
“The fact of the matter is you can still go to Afghanistan and get smoked by an enemy mortar round if luck isn’t on your side,” wrote former Army Ranger Marty Skovlund Jr. upon returning to Afghanistan in 2017, where he found security conditions had not improved in the eight years since his last deployment there. “It’s still a war zone.”
The constant insecurity was in part due to the U.S. focus on the most volatile areas of Afghanistan. The hope was that securing them would have a ripple effect on the rest of the country, but they were so volatile that the coalition was perpetually struggling to secure them, SIGAR wrote.
“We were supposed to build roads in an area so dangerous that armed U.S. military helicopters could not even land nearby,” one USAID official told SIGAR.
But even projects in more-secure areas, like the Aynak copper mine in Logar Province and the Hajigak iron mine in Bamyan Province, suffered from insecurity, SIGAR said. That represents a further failing of the U.S. and Afghan militaries to secure the country. Another contributing factor was the fact that some of the Afghan military and police had previously committed war crimes against their countrymen, and continued to abuse them while in uniform.
One such incident occurred while an American cavalry unit searched a compound in Paktia Province for a Taliban weapons cache alongside Afghan police. As recorded in Spencer Ackerman’s book “Reign of Terror,” the police beat a woman in the compound with a pole and would have stolen a motorcycle if U.S. troops had not intervened. But because the Americans would not let them have the motorcycle, the Afghan police refused to help them find the weapons cache.
“Sergeant Rob had stopped a robbery and saved the women’s motorcycle at the expense of his immediate mission and their relationship with the Afghan police,” Ackerman wrote. “Alpha Cavalry Troop, 1-61 Cavalry would never get its weapons cache. This was what it meant to do the right thing in the Afghanistan war.”
Lesson 6: Lack of understanding of Afghanistan
Mixed into all the other lessons was the fact that the U.S. simply did not know much about the social, political and economic dynamics of Afghanistan, SIGAR wrote. One example of this misunderstanding was when the U.S. tried to stand up an American-style legal system in a society accustomed to Sharia law. When the city of Marjah was cleared in 2010, local judiciary officials only heard five cases because, according to locals, “we’ve never seen this and need to see if it works,” SIGAR said.
“They also didn’t think it was practical because of the slow appeals process,” where cases can languish for months, one Afghan official said.
The U.S. also failed when it tried to force American-style technocratic models of government and business onto a country used to the power of social groups and patronage networks.
“Efforts to build Western-style governance institutions and populate them with the heads of pre-existing patronage networks simply empowered malign actors, who did not ‘self-correct’ as some officials may have hoped they would,” SIGAR wrote.
Rank and file civil servants used to controlling the economy also did not appreciate an American-style economy, which “relegated the state to merely supporting economic affairs,” SIGAR wrote. Some of those servants actively obstructed such initiatives.
Even if they tried to better understand Afghan society, it’s not clear American officials could have ever done so well enough to execute a successful counterinsurgency, SIGAR said. Even Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top military commander in Afghanistan, said an effective campaign required “a level of local knowledge that I don’t have about my own hometown.”
One fact that American policymakers did not often consider is that many Afghans do not even consider themselves Afghans.
“They identified themselves as ‘Pashtuns’ and if asked where they lived, believed they were in “Pashtunistan,” encompassing a region that is parts of Southern Afghanistan and Pakistan,” wrote Marine veteran Josh Hartley about the locals he worked with in an essay for Task & Purpose. “This isn’t like visiting a state where they say something like ‘This ain’t America, it’s Texas.’ The people truly did not identify in any way as Afghans.”
American advisors were thus reliant on local partners for information, SIGAR wrote, which made them vulnerable to being “played all the time,” as one U.S. official said. This also applied to the U.S. long-running effort to promote gender equality in Afghan society. Familial pressure, child care responsibilities, cultural restrictions on women’s mobility, and the threat of sexual harassment and abuse (especially from the police) were huge barriers to promoting women’s rights that the U.S. government took years to take into consideration, SIGAR said.
“[R]arely did U.S. officials have even a mediocre understanding of the environment, much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions,” the report read.
Lesson 7: Insufficient self-monitoring of the reconstruction process
Though SIGAR was founded in 2008, the U.S. government did not do enough to monitor itself in Afghanistan, SIGAR said. Monitoring and evaluation (M&E), the process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t, is “extremely challenging” in practice. In Afghanistan, where staff turned over rapidly; where no single U.S. agency was in the lead; and where security failures made measuring success difficult, it was nearly impossible, SIGAR said.
“The absence of periodic reality checks created the risk of doing the wrong thing perfectly: A project that completed required tasks would be considered ‘successful,’ whether or not it had achieved or contributed to broader, more important goals,” the report read.
The M&E effort also failed because the U.S. government was “focused on doing as much as possible as quickly as possible, rather than ensuring programs were designed well to begin with and could adapt as needed,” SIGAR wrote. That meant the U.S. could not identify its own flaws, which put everyone’s lives at risk and undermined the reconstruction effort.
“It was impossible to create good metrics,” one senior U.S. official told SIGAR. “We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, and control of territory, and none of it painted an accurate picture. At the end of the day, there was nothing for us to latch on to except for number of attacks against civilians, ANDSF, and [coalition partners].”
Overall, the number of problems identified by SIGAR and other oversight bodies was “staggering,” the report said. But this report could prevent such a mistake from happening again.
After Vietnam, the U.S. focused on forgetting “everything that had to do with irregular warfare or insurgency, because it had to do with how we lost a war,” said former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Jack Keane in the report. But this was a mistake, Keane said, and all it ensured was that future irregular wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan would also become quagmires.
We simply can’t keep ignoring or forgetting the lessons of counterinsurgency and reconstruction, SIGAR argued, since those efforts keep coming up in the Balkans, Haiti, Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Yemen, Ukraine and other countries. If the U.S. does not prepare better, it will keep producing quagmires.
“You wouldn’t invent how to do infantry operations [or] artillery at the start of a war,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker in the report. “You need [to already have] the science behind [reconstruction] and people who think about it 24/7.”
Retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Tony Villa probably put it better than anyone.
“When we left Vietnam, it all went back to the same,” he told Task & Purpose in April, shortly after President Biden announced his goal of withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. “I have a feeling that this is going to be a similar thing. And so: Was it wasted? I don’t want to think it was. I’d like to think that there were good things that came out of it – and there probably are: things that we don’t know. But who knows?”
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