After $145 billion spent on reconstruction over two decades, the latest SIGAR report described the overall picture in Afghanistan as ‘bleak’.
The US government “struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy” in Afghanistan, the Special inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a report published on Tuesday.
SIGAR’s John Sopko described the overall picture in the country as “bleak” after twenty years and $145 billion spent towards rebuilding Afghanistan’s economy, government institutions, security forces and civil society.
Overall, the US spent over $2 trillion since the 2001 invasion – costs that were meant to serve the purpose of eliminating Al Qaeda and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorism.
US president Joe Biden has been slammed for the scuttled nature of the US withdrawal, allowing for the Taliban’s lightning takeover of most of the country’s provincial cities and ultimately Kabul on Sunday.
Biden emphasised the US mission was never about nation-building and instead aimed at “preventing a terrorist attack on [the] American homeland.”
Sopko said the US mission consistently underestimated the amount of time required for reconstruction, creating “unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly” which increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.
SIGAR’s report incorporated 760 interviews and reviewed thousands of government documents, eventually concluding that the “troubled reconstruction effort has yielded some success but has also been marked by too many failures.”
While there were several areas of improvement, progress has been “elusive” and the US has been “overwhelmed” by the magnitude of the rebuilding project, it added.
The report fundamentally questioned whether bright spots – improved life expectancy, lower child mortality rates, increased per capita GDP and higher literacy rates – were “commensurate with the U.S. investment” or “sustainable after a U.S. drawdown.”
“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,” Sopko said of the mission.
The report highlighted the flawed division of responsibilities between US agencies and how their execution “did not always take into account each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Tasked with leading the reconstruction efforts, the State Department lacked the expertise and resources to lead such a strategy – something the Department of Defence possessed but not for the massive scope necessary for missions with significant economic and governance components.
“No single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan,” the report said, adding this poor division of labour led to a “weak strategy”.
Expectations around timelines were further undermined by domestic politicking, with US officials elevating “their own political preferences for what they wanted reconstruction to look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve.”
As a result, conditions on the ground were often ignored and “forced reckless compromises” created “perverse incentives” to achieve short-term goals that were unattainable.
Furthermore, the US failed to base their actions around a comprehensive understanding of local socio-economic and political dynamics, resulting in resources intended for programs diverted to enriching local powerbrokers and inadvertently funding insurgents.
Neither did the agencies carry out sufficient monitoring and evaluation processes to determine what worked and what didn’t.
SIGAR was founded in 2008 as an independent agency focused on oversight of the US government’s reconstruction efforts and the special inspector general conducts audits and investigations as part of the outfit’s mandate.