The eleventh lessons learned report issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) updates and thoroughly examines the mistakes and failings of the US military and civil activities in the country since 2001. Reflecting on the winding up of the Western mission in Afghanistan, SIGAR’s latest report does not make new recommendations for US government agencies or Congress. Instead, it presents a list of “questions that policymakers may wish to consider.”
The report analyses how the US became embroiled in what turned out to be an impossible and ill-defined mission. Although the reconstruction of Afghanistan can point to real achievements, such as reduced child mortality rates, per capita GDP increases, and higher literacy rates, the report is also an indictment of poor strategic thinking, incompetence, corruption, and self-delusion.
The US Congress created SIGAR in 2008 as an independent agency to focus solely on assessing the Afghanistan mission and monitoring reconstruction projects and their implementation. Since its inception, the agency has issued 427 audits, 191 special project reports, 52 quarterly reports, and 10 comprehensive lessons learned reports. In addition, SIGAR’s criminal investigations have resulted in 160 convictions for offences related to the funding and execution of reconstruction work. It is estimated that SIGAR’s oversight work has cumulatively resulted in $3.84 billion in savings for the US taxpayer.
Entitled “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction,” the report is based on 760 interviews conducted with current and former policymakers, ambassadors, generals, military officers, development experts, and other practitioners. In sum, the report stresses that despite spent 20 years of and $145 billion of expenditure, successive US administrations have failed to develop an overarching strategy and achievable objectives for Afghanistan’s sustainable reconstruction.
The casualties include 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops killed, and 20,666 US troops injured. In addition, though conservative estimates, more than 66,000 Afghan troops and 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001.
These failings of the US reconstruction effort in Afghanistan have been manifested in project design and implementation flaws, under-recruitment and shortage of expert staff, persistent insecurity in most areas of the country, and a lack of understanding of the Afghan context.
The report highlights the key issues that undermined the US reconstruction effort in Afghanistan:
- “The US government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve:” Although the initial military intervention in 2001 sought the destruction of Al-Qaeda, the operation’s strategic objectives were broadened to include defeating the Taliban and coopting local proxies in the form of corrupt officials who actively undermined reconstruction in the face of security challenges that led to further expansion of the operation. The growth of the mission’s aims well beyond the initial objectives was further compounded by a lack of inter-departmental coordination in Washington over strategy and resources. The report concludes that the “US government was simply not equipped to undertake something this ambitious in such an uncompromising environment, no matter the budget.”
- “The US government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs”: reconstruction was increasingly shaped by political priorities in Washington rather than the actual realities of the Afghan situation and precise assessments of what could be achieved.
- “Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the United States built were not sustainable”: The failure to ensure the longer-term viability of projects meant that billions of dollars went to waste on projects that were under-utilized or allowed to lapse. With Afghan partners frequently unable to lead reconstruction initiatives, there were inadequate efforts to train project leaders and local institutions in the face of US pressure for quick results on the ground. Systemic corruption also led to significant funds being wasted, defrauded, or otherwise abused. As a result, US officials increasingly sought to bypass Afghan government channels, which further undermined efforts to train a cadre of local officials to manage projects.
- “Counterproductive civilian and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the effort”: The US government’s failure to allocate their suitable personnel to lead reconstruction meant that defective strategic aims and project implementation were further undermined. The report notes that “often unqualified and poorly trained” US officials mismanaged projects to a degree usually difficult to remedy subsequently.
- “Persistent insecurity severely undermined reconstruction efforts”: The inability of US forces to fully pacify Afghan regions meant that local populations were skeptical about the longevity and effectiveness of the Western-backed government in Kabul.
- “The US government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly”: The lack of a thorough understanding of Afghanistan’s social, economic, and political conditions led Washington to try and impose their own technocratic governance models on local economic institutions, while also providing Afghan security forces with advanced weapon systems that they were not trained to use effectively or maintain.
- “US government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts:” Due to an excessive emphasis on gaining quick results, monitoring and evaluation efforts were neglected and understaffed, leading to a failure to design projects that could be sustained and adapted if needed.
In its conclusion, the report warns US policymakers against repeating mistakes made after the withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s, when specialized counter-insurgency and civil aid programs were reduced or stopped mainly because the country should prepare for new kinds of warfare. Although the US military advocated this approach, it would be advisable for Washington to assume that many capabilities needed today may probably also be needed in future conflicts.
The report is a powerful indictment of the US government’s failure to understand the Afghan context and devise a coherent strategy for the country’s reconstruction. A fundamental flaw in planning and execution was the absence of the necessary capacities and expertise in any agency tasked to help rebuild Afghanistan. Another factor was the unwillingness of senior officials to form realistic assessments of conditions on the ground and play down facts that challenged their confidence in the results being achieved by the mission. Given these factors, SIGAR questions whether Washington’s institutional will to learn lessons from experience in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, the report suggests many reasons to retain and continue developing US reconstruction capabilities for conflict areas. These include managing the potential expense of such missions, the need for experienced and qualified personnel to lead projects, and “mission-creep” that lead to realistic objectives being jeopardized due to attempts to do too much too quickly. Although many in Washington do not want another Afghanistan-style intervention in the foreseeable future, this does not mean that such operations would never be needed. Indeed, it should be noted that numerous US reconstruction missions – though on a much smaller scale than those in Afghanistan – continue to be run around the world in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Yemen, and Ukraine.
Though current political imperatives rule out anything on the scale of the Afghanistan mission in the near- to medium-term, insurgent activities in areas and countries considered important to US interests is possible. Therefore, Washington should prepare for such operations, not least to avoid the costly mistakes seen in the case of Afghanistan. This requires ongoing planning and preparation in the concerned federal departments that the conceptual, administrative, and logistical challenges presented by large-scale reconstruction efforts can be met in the future. Therefore, the relevant agencies should continue to examine how their strategies, doctrines, practices, and capabilities can most effectively be deployed to ensure readiness for future reconstruction missions.