The Afghanistan Lessons America Refused To Learn

A U.S. agency spent 13 years documenting our government's failure to stabilize or rebuild the country.


As the humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan continues to brutally unfold, there are not a few "we told you so" lecturers out there. But nobody has earned their stripes more than the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Created by Congress in 2008, SIGAR's job is to serve as independent oversight over the more than $140 billion dollars appropriated for the country's reconstruction efforts.

For more than a decade, SIGAR has done yeoman's work with regular reports showing how poorly the reconstruction efforts were going, how Afghanistan continued to fall under the Taliban's control, and how the money being spent on infrastructure projects was feeding internal corruption rather than making the country safer. When Americans read stories about disastrous Afghanistan boondoggles (like a $43 million compressed natural gas station that should have cost $500,000), a SIGAR report is frequently the source. In 2018, Reason's Brian Doherty compiled many such stories from SIGAR's reports.

SIGAR normally publishes a "lessons learned" annual report. This week they've published a report with a title that's even blunter: "What We Need To Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghan Reconstruction."

In the preface, Inspector General John F. Sopko gives only the barest mention of successes in Afghanistan, explaining that this new report documents, "how the U.S. government struggled to develop a coherent strategy, understand how long the reconstruction mission would take, ensure its projects were sustainable, staff the mission with trained professionals, account for the challenges posed by insecurity, tailor efforts to the Afghan context, and understand the impact of programs."

"There have been bright spots—such as lower child mortality rates, increases in per capita GDP, and increased literacy rates," he says, adding that "after spending 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, the U.S. government has many lessons it needs to learn."

The 140-page report focuses on seven different areas where policy decisions in Afghanistan failed to achieve stability over a 20-year period. The most damaging lesson was that America did not have a coherent strategy for what reconstruction in Afghanistan looked like. Strategies for "success" kept changing from defeating Al Qaeda to defeating the Taliban (which, unlike Al Qaeda, is deeply entrenched in Afghan culture) to fighting corruption.

Though the report talks about how poorly resources were managed and deployed, it also notes that the problem was not that America didn't spend enough money: "The U.S. government was simply not equipped to undertake something this ambitious in such an uncompromising environment, no matter the budget."

American personnel sent to Afghanistan often were not qualified to supervise Afghanistan's domestic operations. We were using cop shows to teach Afghans how to police themselves: "[Department of Defense] police advisors watched American TV shows to learn about policing, civil affairs teams were mass-produced via PowerPoint presentations, and every agency experienced annual lobotomies as staff constantly rotated out, leaving successors to start from scratch and make similar mistakes all over again."

Without a consistent fixed explanation of what success looked like for Afghan reconstruction, the U.S. was unable to establish a credible timeline and underestimated how much time rebuilding would take. The end result here was an emphasis on spending quickly and completing specific projects. This reduced project oversight (we really don't know where all the money for that $43 million gas station actually went) worsened Afghanistan's internal corruption problems:

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. When U.S. officials eventually recognized this dynamic, they simply found new ways to ignore conditions on the ground. Troops and resources continued to draw down in full view of the Afghan government's inability to address instability or prevent it from worsening.

Since America failed to provide stability or ensure that money was spent wisely, the infrastructure that U.S. forces attempted to build there was not sustainable. "U.S. agencies were seldom judged by their projects' continued utility, but by the number of projects completed and dollars spent," the report notes.

Because Afghanistan's government was so prone to corruption, U.S. officials often sought help from outside government channels to complete projects. While this helped to actually get things done, it necessarily meant that that government officials were not getting their own experience learning how to sustain infrastructure projects.

Then there's the constant arrogance of thinking that America can come into a country on the other side of the world and transform its entire civic culture to match ours via strength of will:

The U.S. government also clumsily forced Western technocratic models onto Afghan economic institutions; trained security forces in advanced weapon systems they could not understand, much less maintain; imposed formal rule of law on a country that addressed 80 to 90 percent of its disputes through informal means; and often struggled to understand or mitigate the cultural and social barriers to supporting women and girls.

The report notes that lack of knowledge of Afghan culture contributed to corruption as the U.S. often inadvertently ended up partnering with predatory powerbrokers who diverted assistance to themselves.

And finally, because the U.S. never had a real vision of what rebuilding Afghanistan actually looked like, anything that got done at all was touted as a success, regardless of its value: "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."

This attitude is not confined to Afghan reconstruction. But that in an unstable country with poor infrastructure, violent and corrupt factions fighting for control, and an inability on the part of the U.S. to monitor and evaluate success or learn from failure meant that disaster was inevitable.

SIGAR, to its credit, has been documenting these problems all along. The next time politicians and generals start talking about intervening in other countries in order to spread freedom or democracy, they should be ordered to read these reports.