An incoherent strategy to rebuild Afghanistan, flush with resources but lacking cohesive leadership and a well-defined mission, doomed the 20-year US reconstruction effort that saw American taxpayers pour $145 billion into projects that were often unsustainable, corrupt, and forced through on unrealistic timelines.
The conclusions from the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction offer a scathing criticism of the US mission in Afghanistan just as the Biden administration is struggling to evacuate Americans and Afghans from the Kabul airport in a chaotic rush to the exits.
The report, titled “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction,” points to how much work remains. “After 13 years of oversight, the cumulative list of systemic challenges SIGAR and other oversight bodies have identified is staggering,” it said.
The report, the 11th issued by SIGAR on lessons learned, outlines how the US poured resources and lives into an impossible and ill-defined mission. While it notes bright spots, including lower child mortality rates, increases in per capita GDP, and increased literacy rates, the report is a litany of incompetence, graft, obfuscation and wishful thinking.
It points to the role US officials played in misunderstanding and sometimes obscuring conditions on the ground, ignoring them when they did not fit a narrative of progress.
“As security deteriorated and demands on donors increased, so did pressure to demonstrate progress,” SIGAR said. “U.S. officials created explicit timelines in the mistaken belief that a decision in Washington could transform the calculus of complex Afghan institutions, powerbrokers, and communities contested by the Taliban.”
“Rather than reform and improve, Afghan institutions and powerbrokers found ways to co-opt the funds for their own purposes, which only worsened the problems these programs were meant to address,” SIGAR said. “When U.S. officials eventually recognized this dynamic, they simply found new ways to ignore conditions on the ground.”
Empowered the wrong people
US officials in charge of the reconstruction effort often didn’t understand Afghanistan and empowered the wrong people, driving corruption, the report found.
US officials “often empowered powerbrokers who preyed on the population or diverted US assistance away from its intended recipients to enrich and empower themselves and their allies,” SIGAR said. “Lack of knowledge at the local level meant projects intended to mitigate conflict often exacerbated it, and even inadvertently funded insurgents.”
And the US and its allies on the ground never made the country secure enough to truly enable its reconstruction efforts.
“The absence of violence was a critical precondition for everything U.S. officials tried to do in Afghanistan — yet the U.S. effort to rebuild the country took place while it was being torn apart,” SIGAR said.
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