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20-year U.S. effort in Afghanistan "marked by many failures," new oversight report finds

Veterans, Gold Star parents react to Afghanistan
Veterans and Gold Star parents react to fall of Afghanistan 01:59

Incoherent strategy. Politically motivated timelines. Unchecked cash spigots. As the Taliban takes control in Afghanistan after 20 years of U.S. involvement, a new watchdog report outlines what went wrong. 

It may be true, as President Biden said Monday, that the U.S. trained and equipped an Afghan military force of 300,000, that we paid their salaries, maintained their air force and equipped them, and that what the key thing we could not give them was "the will to fight" for their future. But in the eyes of the special inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan, the U.S. still fell short in its 20-year-long effort, one that was largely obliterated in a few short months.

The report "What We Need to Learn: Lessons from 20 years of Afghanistan Reconstruction" details how over $145 billion spent on reconstruction efforts added up to only minimal progress. 

The U.S. lacked a clear strategy, the report found, with an evolving mission that forced agencies and personnel to adopt new goals on the fly.

Mr. Biden has defended the decision to draw down U.S. presence in Afghanistan by saying it achieved the goal of degrading al Qaeda. But as the report lays out, this was not always the only goal of the mission in Afghanistan, just one of them.

Afghan security personnel patrol after they took back control of parts of the city of Herat following fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces on the outskirts of Herat, 640 km (397 miles) west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. Hamed Sarfarazi / AP

The goal first was to eliminate al Qaeda, then grew to encompass the elimination of the Taliban — and then expanded further to ridding the Afghan government of corrupt officials. In 2009, al Qaeda wasn't even mentioned in the first draft of the military strategy because the administration found the terrorist group was "no longer a problem." Yet the war continued.

The "Lessons We Need to Learn" investigation follows 10 "Lessons Learned" reports SIGAR has published. SIGAR's analysis draws from thousands of government documents and over 760 interviews, many of which were featured in The Washington Post's 2019 Afghanistan Papers

Explicit timelines on how long reconstruction would take misjudged U.S. projects and Afghan institutions. An official responsible early on with designing the Afghan National Army told SIGAR U.S. troops were expected to depart by 2004, yet the effort continued to require years more time. 

A perpetual sense of "imminent departure" blunted progress. Because of this, the effort in Afghanistan consisted of more than 20 one-year reconstruction projects rather than one 20-year one.

"If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and post little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak," the report states, adding that the fear for personal safety among Afghans has gone up in recent years. 

The report found that U.S. personnel in Afghanistan were often unqualified and poorly trained, and qualified personnel were hard to retain. Annual "lobotomies" of staff hurt efficiency.  Defense Department police advisers sent to train Afghan Police Forces did not have the experience. To compensate, they watched "Cops" and "NCIS," according to the report.  

Even though the U.S. poured money into the reconstruction projects, the lack of strategy meant there was no focus on sustainability. The report says "U.S. agencies were seldom judged by their projects' continued utility, but by the number of projects completed and dollars spent." 

A previous SIGAR audit warned that more than $300 million a year was being spent paying salaries to nonexistent personnel in the Afghan security forces. The U.S. did not have enough oversight staff to properly validate Afghan National Army and National Police attendance. 

The list of lessons that need to be learned are: 

  • The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it wanted to achieve. 
  • The U.S. government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan, and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending too quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs. 
  • Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the U.S. built were unsustainable. 
  • Counterproductive civilian and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the effort. 
  • Persistent insecurity severely undermined reconstruction efforts. 
  • Did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly. 
  • Agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts. 

The report recommended U.S. agencies continue to explore how to ensure they have the capabilities and capacity necessary for both large and small reconstruction efforts because there will likely be another post-conflict stabilization project even if agencies don't think so now. 

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