America Has Given Up Trying To Define Success in Afghanistan

"Most of the [indicators] of measuring success are now classified, or we don't collect it," the special inspector general for the Afghanistan reconstruction told a Senate committee.


The United States has spent more than $64 billion rebuilding Afghanistan's military and police forces since 2001—but there is literally no way for American taxpayers to know whether their investment has been worth it.

"Most of the [indicators] of measuring success are now classified, or we don't collect it. So I can't tell you, publicly, how well a job we're doing on training," John Sopko, the special inspector general for the Afghanistan reconstruction effort told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

America has been propping up Afghani security forces since soon after the 2001 invasion of the country. The idea has been to eventually leave behind a military and police apparatus that can fight the Taliban and other terrorist groups without American support—and, ultimately, to prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into a state of lawlessness that could make it a breeding ground for terrorism once again.

Having goals is one thing. But 19 years after America's longest war began, there is little indication that the U.S. is any closer to achieving them. And now, as Sopko told the committee on Tuesday, it seems like U.S. military and political leaders don't even have a way to accurately determine if those goals are being met.

Even the most basic data points are being obscured, according to Sopko.

"How many Afghan soldiers do we have? We're still trying to figure out how many we are paying for. How many Afghan police are there, really? We don't know," Sopko said Tuesday. "This isn't rocket science, but apparently it's all secret, classified, and I can't tell you what the results are."

That the United States has sought to suppress negative information about the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan is not news to anyone familiar with The Washington Post's bombshell "Afghanistan Papers" report. Published in December, the Post's report included more than 2,000 pages of interviews conducted by Sopko's office with "people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials." Those internal documents paint a picture of a nation-building effort that has lacked definable goals, wasted billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and done little to improve the internal security of Afghanistan—all while American officials have deliberately misled Congress and the public about the extent of the quagmire. Tuesday's hearing was called in response to the Post's report.

"It portrays a U.S. war effort severely impaired by mission creep and suffering from a complete absence of clear and achievable objectives," Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who called Tuesday's hearing, said of the Post's report. "What the Afghan Papers makes crystal clear is that doing nothing is no longer an option for any senator or member of Congress with a conscience."

While there are no shortage of ideas for how to improve America's reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, Paul said Tuesday that members of Congress should view the entire project more skeptically after the Post's reporting.

"The bigger question is whether or not we should be in the business of trying to create nations," he said.

While the Post's report was indeed shocking, it largely confirmed what the special inspector general's office has been reporting for years. It has published more than 600 audits since 2008 and has repeatedly sounded the alarm about the United States' misleading account of the nation-building effort.

In 2014, for example, the United States Agency for International Development published a report claiming that 3 million Afghan girls and 5 million Afghan boys were attending school—up from a total of 900,000 during the period of time when the Taliban ruled the country. The inspector general's office found that the U.S. was simply repeating the Afghan government's claims about school enrollment and had not sought to verify the totals—totals that even the Afghan Ministry of Education had called into question.

Another audit looked at more than $1 billion the United States had spent supporting "rule of law programs" in Afghanistan. Shockingly, auditors found that progress wasn't just slow—it was going backward. In 2009, America's overall rule-of-law strategy in Afghanistan contained 27 performance metrics. By 2013 those metrics had been abolished, making it impossible to determine whether the programs were succeeding or not.

That audit is part of a disturbing trend. When there hasn't been progress to show, America's Afghanistan strategy has been to prevent showing the lack of progress.

On Tuesday, Sopko told the committee that both the American and Afghan governments have been increasingly classifying information that auditors need to review to determine if progress is being made.

One of his office's most recent reports looked at the declining number of independent missions that the Afghan special forces have been conducting. Sopko told the committee to keep an eye on that metric.

"I'm not a betting man, but I will bet you that next quarter that database will be classified," Sopko told the committee. "Every time we find something that looks like it's going negative, it gets classified or it's [ruled] no longer relevant."

Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) interrupted to ask a vital question: "How is the public, or this Congress—which is supposed to be performing oversight—how are we going to measure any progress if we don't have any access to data or metrics?"

Sopko sighed. "That's the point we've been trying to make over the past five or six years."

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  1. nation-building effort that has lacked definable goals, wasted billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and done little to improve the internal security of ____________.

    Pretty much boiler plate.

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    2. Nation building is a fool’s errand when the people who live there aren’t behind the plan. Afghanis don’t want democracy and we should have left the day after Tora Bora when we didn’t get OBL’s head on a stick.

  2. England learned a lesson in Afghanistan.
    The Soviet Union learned a lesson in Afghanistan.
    The USA is learning a lesson in Afghanistan.
    Who will be next?

    1. My money is on China.

      1. “My money is on China”

        And their money is going to be recouped if they can bring to market some viable fraction of the 1-3 trillion USD in minerals Afghanistan sits on.

        Has the US ever defined what success would look like in Afghanistan? Not that it would ever be achievable without routing the Pashtun from KP and the NWTA. Oh, and incidentally killing a sizable fraction of them.

        1. Has the US ever defined what success would look like in Afghanistan?

          Not that I’ve ever heard. I suspect success = “keeping troops breathing down Iran’s neck as long as possible.”

          1. The only meaningful success to be achieved in Afghanistan was accomplished with the death of bin Laden. We should have left immediately after that, but Obama didn’t have the stones to pull the plug and so a decade later we’re still screwing around there achieving nothing.

      2. I think the Chinese will be better at it than we are. The PRC is willing to break a few eggs to get their omelette.

        1. So were the Soviets . . .

    2. The US is not there to learn a lesson and succeed. The troops are there protecting a pipeline that feeds energy to Pakistan and India. They are there protecting corporate profits no national interest. The Taliban did not want to pipeline, hence the invasion, had nothing to do with Bin Laden, a CIA asset. He was just a manufactured pretext. The proof is that we said we would get out once we got him. We got him and we are still there. Corporation don’t have jet fighters and bombs at their disposal. The US military is being used just as the English was being used to subdue and take over much weaker, but rich in resources, countries. We have turned our military into enforcers for the thievery of US corporations, just as the British military was the enforcer for the East India Trading Company. Once the US military steps foot in your country, it will never leave. The US owns Europe, Japan and many others where they have military bases. When you have foreign military bases in your country, you are not free, you are occupied.

  3. Commander in Chief Hillary Clinton would have secured a decisive victory in Afghanistan by now.


    1. #StillWithHim

      1. Never give up!
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  4. Here’s a winning strategy: GTFO of that slagheap immediately.

  5. You can’t spell “peace President” without using “president Trump has increased US troop numbers in Afghanistan by 67% over his warmongering predecessor.”

    1. At what point in his presidency? At one point Obama had over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.
      Trump has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is higher then the 8400 at the end of Obama’s presidency, but well below the average for his 8 years.

      1. Hey look, soldier is busy picking cherries. Bing or marachino?

        1. Picking cherries? Showing actual data that shows you were the one actually picking cherries by referring to only a single year of Obama’s presidency to make your point, she ignoring the other 7 years of data. I showed all 8 years worth of data. That is hardly picking cherries. Do you even know what that means?

          1. You’re trying to reason with an absolute retard.

  6. I may not be able to define success but I know it when I see it and this is not it.

  7. Success in Afghanistan is easy to define.

    Success in Afghanistan = {empty set}

  8. “for any senator or member of Congress with a conscience.”

    Shirley there must be 2 or 3 of them

    1. Not that I’ve seen evidence of. And don’t call me Shirley.

  9. Withdrawing is not as simple as everyone get on a plane and go home. It will be a long and costly process. It may even result in increased US casualties, the Taliban has a history of attacking and trying to overrun allied bases during withdrawals, to claim a victory and to inflict maximum casualties on the allies. So yes, let’s get out, but make sure we do it the right way, protecting our troops (which likely will require heavy air power, and air power causes collateral damage) and insuring we leave as little as possible that could aid the Taliban in hurting others. We must also accept that the Taliban likely will regain control, because the ANA is a joke that makes the ARVN of yesteryear look competent.

    1. We must also accept that the Taliban likely will regain control


      1. That’s been a given for a while now.

        There is a real, actual benchmark for us leaving, but if we haven’t met it by now, we absolutely never will. I suspect that’s why Trump, or at least the Department of State was trying to set up that summit at Camp David last year.

    2. Retrograde operations are often difficult and dangerous. We’ve been gradually withdrawing for a long time, though, and I’d argue that we need to pick up the pace and stop dragging it out.

      Keeping in mind that the whining of the generals and the neo-cons in his party are the biggest reason it keeps getting dragged out.

      1. I am sure it is some of the generals, but on the whole, if politicians actually took the advice of the generals over the past two decades, rather than fight the wars according to polls and soundbites…

        1. I think the problem with the two Presidents before Trump is that they didn’t understand the difference between good advice and bad advice (because they had no idea what they were trying to achieve), promoted a lot of bad generals to positions of authority, and then accepted their advice without too much question.

          Those are the same generals who hate Trump now, because he knows exactly what he wants to achieve…removing us from the Middle East and ending those wars (as well as the profitable contractor jobs those generals were expecting after they retired).

          1. Not to mention the previous two president’s relied on idiots as SecDef. Appointees who cared more about enforcing their authority it petty pissing wars with the Pentagon then actually developing real world solutions. Oh and who believed you could cut the DoD budget while fighting two major wars and multiple minor ones. This resulted in never having enough resources to achieve any goal, especially the poorly defined ones of the Bush and Obama administration.

            1. It seems so long ago now that Dick Cheney, of all people, was trying to get actual military hardware programs cut.

            2. I’ll defend Robert Gates on that front. He crossed over between the Bush and Obama administrations and he was a fantastic SecDef. He did his best to kill or gut expensive programs that showed little likelihood of paying off, even if those programs were politically popular. He blasted our NATO allies for not paying their fair share of the costs (an area where he coincided with Trump). He looked to make outcomes better for soldiers in the field and tried to draw down conflicts where he didn’t see an upside to the U.S.

              Problem is that he was just one guy and the snakepit he had to lead built up over several decades. That’s why I believe the best way forward is to do to the general/flag officer ranks in the military exactly what Trump is doing to the NSC right now…start gutting them and don’t fill in the vacancies. The military is top-heavy at the highest level (the general to troop ratio i, and too much of that top-heaviness consists of terrible, toxic leaders.

              They talked about cutting the general ranks by 25% back in 2016, but I haven’t seen a single word of it since then.

    3. The ANP is even worse than the ANA. All of the national police I encountered were illiterate and high the entire time they were on duty. The only ones that seemed invested in making the system work were the Hazara Shi’a mainly because they were sick of being treated like shit and actually placed some trust in the USA protecting them as a community.

  10. America Has Given Up Trying To Define Success in Afghanistan

    The more apt description is that the President accepts the premise that there is no additional success to be had, which is why he wants our troops out of there. He would just prefer to remove them without creating an immediate shitshow like what happened when the Russians withdrew in the 1990s.

  11. There can’t be additional success without initial success.

  12. “any senator or member of Congress”

    1. Senator should be capitalized.

    2. I see this all the time in the media and it’s a pet peeve. Senators ARE members of Congress. The members of the other chamber are Representatives. Get it the fuck right.

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  14. It’s been a success for the politicians. They get campaign cash from the defense industry and then easily reelected.

    1. **Trump has figured our how to pocket the money from the people invested in warfare while still in office bringing this “success” to a whole new level.

  15. Technically Korea is in a ceasefire.

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  21. They had a chance to claim victory when the Seals got ‘bin Laden’ and buried some old geezer at sea.

  22. The Taliban can define success in three words, ‘yankee go home.’ If Americans can’t define success, it’s probably because they are fighting a lost cause, even if it’s taken 20 years to sink in.

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  24. What Victor Whisky said. If the Taliban running Afghanistan supported the multi-national pipeline from the oil and natural gas fields from just north of the country to the seaports to the south, there’d be no need for foreign troops.
    Then, too, there’s the fortune in poppies, lithium, copper and such to be protected.

  25. Hi…..
    I am Elena gillbert.We need to start measuring success by achievements on the ground and not by unrealistic expectations. We also have to realize that patience is required. Success in Afghanistan will be measured in years and decades, not twenty-four-hour news cycles and 140-character-long tweets. It won’t be pretty, and there will be setbacks—after all, as Churchill reminds us: “it is a rough, hard job.”
    click here

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