SIG report says US ‘botched’ Afghanistan reconstruction with ‘staggering’ mistakes

A report from a U.S. government agency says that the United States’ reconstruction of Afghanistan had “many failures” in the past 20 years.

The agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which examined the U.S. progress of the country since 2008 identified fundamental problems with the work that was being done. “Twenty years later, much has improved, and much has not,” the report read. “If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak.”

After almost 20 years American forces went into Afghanistan, the U.S. has spent well over $1 trillion on war and reconstruction efforts. “When you look at how much we spent and what we got for it, it’s mind boggling,” a former senior Defense Department official told SIGAR. “The extraordinary costs were meant to serve a purpose—though the definition of that purpose evolved over time,” SIGAR’s report said.

The goals included defeating al-Qaeda, defeating the Taliban, making sure other terrorist groups could not be set up, and assisting the new Afghan government. Assisting the government proved to be difficult, as SIGAR said its analysis “has revealed a troubled reconstruction effort that has yielded some success but has also been marked by too many failures.”

Difficulties with the scope of the reconstruction were worsened by flaws in how the U.S. set goals that focused on short term gains at the expense of the long term, which created a “counterproductive cycle” that resulted in new problems with new short term solutions. “When none of that worked, the U.S. government developed yet another short-term goal: withdrawing all troops almost immediately, even though it risked depriving the continuing reconstruction mission of the personnel needed to oversee security assistance,” the report said.

The report also talked about how the U.S. failed to understand the “social landscapes” in the area, including within the Afghan National Defense and Security Force. “For example, by providing material support and equipment to certain units within the ANDSF without consideration for ethnic dynamics between units, the United States could be perceived as biased in favor of one ethnic group or faction at the expense of another,” the report said.

“A 2017 SIGAR report on the development of the ANDSF underscored that point, finding that the United States ‘largely ignored’ intra-force political dynamics, which led to ‘major social and political imbalances’ within the ANDSF.” There are other problems as well, including corruption. “The United States failed to grasp the degree to which American largesse was captured by Afghan elites—even in the face of strong evidence that this was happening,” the report said, pointing to how “U.S. programs empowered malign actors and exacerbated preexisting inequities, undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government they were intended to bolster.”

The “bright spots” of the reconstruction include higher literacy rates, higher GDP per capita, and lower child mortality rates, Special Inspector General John Sopko noted in a letter. Whether these improvements will continue is another story. “While there have been several areas of improvement—most notably in the areas of health care, maternal health, and education—progress has been elusive and the prospects for sustaining this progress are dubious,” the report said. “The U.S. government has been often overwhelmed by the magnitude of rebuilding a country that, at the time of the U.S. invasion, had already seen two decades of Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban brutality.”

The report raised issues for policymakers to consider moving forward, with regard to Afghanistan and other countries where the U.S. is occupied. “[A]fter 13 years of oversight, the cumulative list of systemic challenges SIGAR and other oversight bodies have identified is staggering,” the report said. Former national security adviser Stephen Hadley was pessimistic of the future. “We just don’t have a post-conflict stabilization model that works,” he told SIGAR. “Every time we have one of these things, it is a pick-up game. I don’t have confidence that if we did it again, we would do any better.”



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