Afghanistan

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.

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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.

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  1. 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.”

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  2. 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.

    Hamid Karzai met with Haqqani Network leadership yesterday to be of assistance in forming a new government. Our favorite partner in Afghanistan was the most predatory powerbroker of them all. Even our friends in Afghanistan were our enemies.

    1. Yeah, and the only reason Karzai stepped down was basically because we told him he had to, or else.

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  3. “[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.”

    Yeah, this is a hallmark for just about any government anywhere. Regardless of staff turnover or not.

    Source: Army and DoD for 20 years.

    1. How do you think Biden learned to plan the ‘get your ass kicked out’? maneuver?
      I’m guessing some old Laurel and Hardy flics,.

  4. Glad Scott brought up the SIGAR archive, because it’s absolutely devastating in its assessment of how fucking wasteful our adventure in Afghanistan ultimately was. These reports are a 13-year damnation that renders the “women and girls” appeal to emotion from Democrat NPCs utterly moot. If your human rights effort has to be backstopped by a giant money-laundering scheme for contractors and NGOs, it really has no moral ground to stand on.

    Craig Whitlock’s book on this coming out at the end of August couldn’t be more serendipitous. As much as I like to rag on media bobbleheads, Whitlock did a great job documenting the whole venal, deceitful enterprise there and deserves kudos for his work.

  5. 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

    Absolutely. This is a notable case of a government agency doing its job; it’s just unfortunate that no one is going to actually be held accountable for it, because in a nation with balls, these guys would all be working at McDonald’s by now.

    I think it was Overt who pointed out that this entire operation was a massive boon for a whole class of people who made a 20-year-career out of exploiting this, and effectively became a tumor on the entire region of Northern Virgina as a result.

  6. When clients are starting a new business, one of the first questions I ask is how they are getting out (sale, succession to family, etc.). It elicits interesting looks.

    How are we getting out should have been one of the first tasks under Bush when the initial goal was to eliminate the terrorists, and Obama once we finally got Bin Laden. General exit plans should have been in place in 2011 as Iraq had already proven nation building doesn’t work where our vision of government has never existed.

  7. The irony is palpable.

    Gosh! What are we doing wrong? We invade every sovereign nation, destroy their infrastructure. Kill them by the thousands. Hell we even install puppet governments of our own choosing.

    They STILL don’t love us. What’s wrong with them?

    1. And then, the very people who did this do not show any contrition or acknowledgement they were wrong, but instead just continue right on with wrongheaded moralizing browbeating upon the American populace — this time in the form of, “YOU MUST ACCEPT ONE BILLION REFUGEES INTO YOUR COUNTRY NOW! LOOK AT THIS MESS WE MADE HAHA!”

  8. A U.S. General advised the taliban to allow a peaceful withdrawal from Kabul because the U.S has massive firepower available. Dummy to the bitter end!

    1. I’m sure the cash doesn’t hurt.

  9. From an earlier article today, as to why such efforts at “nation building” and “exporting democracy” fail:

    “artificial colonial relic with no pervasive sense of national identity.”

    “virtually no logistics capability,”

    “incapable of maintaining its equipment,”

    “hobbled by corruption.”

    So many ways to spell “shithole”

  10. Don’t start a land war in Asia. And when you leave, have a plan.

    1. Don’t start a land war in Asia.

      And never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!

  11. Nobody refused to learn any lessons. They just lied and grifted until they couldn’t any more.

    1. We didn’t learn anything here. Not a goddamned thing.

      1. Well, I think we learned that turning over a lot of power to a demented old man isn’t a good idea.

  12. “[Department of Defense] police advisors watched American TV shows to learn about policing…

    Surely you’re not suggesting that you can’t learn anything you need to know about being a cop from Law and Order? Or is TJ Hooker the more authoritative source? The latter has The Shat, so maybe it’s the better option.

  13. For more than a decade, SIGAR has done yeoman’s work with regular reports showing how poorly the reconstruction efforts were going.

    If only Joe Biden had been in a position of executive power when these reports started, the fall of Kabul wouldn’t have snuck up on him like it did.

    1. True. Everything would have proceeded in exactly the same way, but he would have been less surprised.

  14. I need a definition of “America”. If you’re talking about the voters, the answer is because they’re stupid people who vote for stupid people.
    In case nobody noticed, stupid people don’t adhere to moral principles. Adhering to moral principles nips voting. and all of the death and destruction that results from it. in the bud.

    1. If we won’t even stand up for our inalienable rights here, the thought that we’d stand up for “moral principles” is laughable.

      In front of the whole world, the sitting president of the United States was just censored banned deplatformed and erased along with anyone else who tried to used free speech to identify election irregularities.

  15. on WHAT moral or legal basis did our gummit decide it was OUR job to raise the economic success level in Afghanistan, or “rebuild their society”? Afghanistan was what it was when we first started meddling precisely BECAUSE that situation is what they wanted to build, and then built. Who are WE to “tell them how they should live”? I’ve wondered for a couple of decades now just HOW we justified, morally, establishing the thriving opium industry there in Afghanistan? We hav NO ROOM to criticise any aspect of that nation and how it ran or tried to run itself. If WE were busy promoting the opium industry there (and we were) j

    1. Afghans didn’t want their society rebuilt in the first place. 99% wanted Sharia law according to Pew.

    2. Yes, we should have grown opium genetically modified to kill pain and not people and to grow like kudzu legal, plentiful, and cheap as candy at home! Then Afghanistan’s tribes and Taliban would be the rest of the way in the Stone Ages and no threat to anyone.

  16. I spent 3 1/2 years as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan, the last 2 1/2 at HQ ISAF. I found that SIGAR’s reports were routinely denigrated and dismissed because they tended to point out the lack of efficacy of the military’s reconstruction, rule of law, and civil affairs efforts.

    There is no point to setting up a watchdog agency if its findings are going to be ignored.

    1. Obviously the people who think military advisers are necessary aren’t the ones who are making the decisions.

      Or more likely military and other advisers are there solely for manipulating the optics for the propaganda.

    2. Have you seen this documentary by John Pilger?

      “The war you don’t see”

      It demonstrates our history of using propaganda to manipulate public opinion before, during and after war.

      In it there is a video of Dan Rather, mainstream media celebrity, saying that they were merely stenographers for military propaganda just to gain access to government sources to have a product to sell.

      http://johnpilger.com/videos/the-war-you-dont-see

      1. The film begins with shocking footage from Iraq in 2007. An American Apache gunship opens fire on a Baghdad street, killing in cold blood two Reuter journalists, along with Iraqi civilians.

        Note that Reuters is propagandizing for the war, so “hoisted by their own petard” comes to mind.

        And this has been the core belief of progressives for more than a century. Bernays expressed it like this:

        The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.

        Bernays, the father of public relations, got his start manipulating Americans into supporting WWI, and propaganda has been essential for overcoming public opposition to war for every war since.

        1. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

          Together they reverse engineered psychosis and we have propaganda.

        2. Propaganda even works when it’s forced upon us with threats of persecution, because fear is the strongest emotion to fuel psychosis.

          Lenin knew and employed this to create communist Russia and maintain it with the media and ruthlessness if the secret police.

          The biggest secret conspiracies need coercion and propaganda to be maintained. Illustrated by the fact that it’s a crime punishable by imprisonment to share real evidence that refutes the holocaust narrative in every nation where it exists.

        3. Tell me that you don’t feel fear and anger when you are forced to consider the evidence that soundly refutes the holocaust.

          That’s the emotion that maintains your psychosis.

          1. If you want to challenge your psychosis and consider the evidence, for the first time In your life, that soundly refutes the false holocaust narrative you can read the book, it is well researched verified and written.

            Breaking the Spell: The Holocaust, Myth & Reality.

            http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23629458-breaking-the-spell

        4. ^ This is the lesson we’ve never learned from any war.

  17. And finally, because the U.S. never had a real vision of what rebuilding Afghanistan actually looked like,

    You can’t engineer societies any more than you can engineer economies.

    And you certainly can’t reengineer Afghanistan to be a liberal democracy, a country where 99% of the people believe that Sharia should be the law of the land.

    1. The Afghan government blames the Taliban, and the Taliban denies this. And at the same time, nobody cares about the injured, about the poverty and backwardness of the Afghan people

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  18. Your publication was concerned about “muh..Russia” when Trump started negotiating a withdrawal and Amash complained about the “optics” about Trump negotiating with the Taliban around the anniversary of 9/11 (spoiler: the Taliban had nothing to do with 9/11).

    You can always tell when a war is over because then Koch whores start pretending like they supported an end to the conflict all along. Haha

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