The US never reconstructed Afghanistan

The Taliban returns to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.
The Taliban returns to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.
Image: Reuters
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US planners say they were shocked at how quickly Taliban forces seized Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul after the last US forces left the country. The rapid advance of the fighters, and the collapse of the Afghan National Army after twenty years of support and training, surprised the Biden administration, which expected to see the government put up more of a fight.

One organization unlikely to be surprised is the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an office created by US lawmakers in 2008 to investigate America’s efforts to build up Afghanistan’s government, military, and economy.

This week, it released a comprehensive report evaluating twenty years and $145 billion worth of reconstruction efforts. In a word, it is damning: “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.”

“The fact that the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] could not fight on their own should not have been a surprise to anyone,” the inspector general, John Sopko, told NPR.

As members of the US foreign policy establishment push back against the course of departure set first by Republican president Donald Trump and continued by Democratic president Joe Biden, it’s worth interrogating the idea that the previous course of action was sustainable in the context of this scrupulous examination of the costs and benefits of the two decade-long conflict.

The US problem in Afghanistan wasn’t resources

“U.S. officials believed the solution to insecurity was pouring ever more resources into Afghan institutions—but the absence of progress after the surge of civilian and military assistance between 2009 and 2011 made it clear that the fundamental problems were unlikely to be addressed by changing resource levels,” the SIGAR report says. “The U.S. government was simply not equipped to undertake something this ambitious in such an uncompromising environment, no matter the budget.”

The assessment shows nearly every aspect of the US approach was flawed and incoherent. Shifting end goals were addressed with tactics that emphasized shortcuts over building sustainable institutions. US methods never came to grips with Afghanistan’s unique situation, and instead were exploited by corrupt local actors.

“We just don’t have a postconflict stabilization model that works,” Stephen Hadley, president George W. Bush’s national security adviser from 2005 to 2009, told SIGAR officials. “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.”

To build effective institutions for governance and economic development, expert civilian assistance is required. Despite frequent lip service paid to the need for diplomats and development experts to take the lead in Afghanistan, those agencies were both under-resourced and held to a higher level of accountability than the military. Lacking the right tool for the job, “U.S. policymakers had no other viable option but to lean on the military and simply pretend State holds the reins in such missions. The pretense continues today.”

Afghanistan’s security was not improving

Violence in Afghanistan has consistently undermined reconstruction, and security has worsened since the 2020 peace deal president Trump struck with the Taliban. In 2020, more Afghans reported fear for their personal safety than ever before. More civilians were killed in 2018 fighting than any previous year. The SIGAR report notes that the Taliban now control more territory than at any point in the war.

Enemy attacks in Afghanistan
Image: SIGAR

Facing this growing threat was the Afghan National Army (ANA) and police forces, laboriously trained and equipped by the US. These forces melted away in the face of Taliban advances, with local leaders negotiating plans to switch sides. The Biden administration was confident that these forces would hold for months, at least, but that analysis proved incorrect.

The ANA’s failure reflects much of what went wrong in Afghanistan: The US vacillated between empowering local militias and training illiterate troops into a modern force equipped with tanks, aircraft, and heavy weapons. Neither strategy succeeded, per the report; by some estimates the US was spending $300 million a year paying soldiers who didn’t exist, with the cash flowing into commanders’ pockets. Each year, a quarter of the Afghan armed forces had to be replaced due to desertion.

Nor are questions about this force novel: In 2015, SIGAR attempted to judge the abilities of Afghanistan’s new security forces, but were informed that the answers to questions like “how many people are in the Afghan army, and how much of their salaries the US is paying?” and “how many military bases has the US turned over to the Afghans, and can they afford to sustain them?” were classified. As it turns out, the military’s private discussions diverged notably from public optimism.

The US will be tempted to nation build again

The total cost of the US invasion of Afghanistan is measured by SIGAR at $145 billion on reconstruction, and another $837 billion spent on fighting the Taliban. Some 2,443 American and 1,144 allied servicemembers have been killed; another 20,666 Americans have been injured. Moreover, 66,000 Afghan troops fighting the Taliban have been killed, and more than 75,000 Afghan civilians have died in the fighting.

This new report is being released for a reason beyond the putative end of American reconstruction: Despite all of the above, its authors anticipate the US will in the future try to reconstruct another country. The US is involved with several similar efforts around the world, on a much smaller scale. The auditors give the following reasons for saying the US should invest in prepping to help build up other countries’ governments more effectively:

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Despite a 2018 Pentagon statement that “there is no appetite to repeat large-scale reconstruction efforts,” the script laid out by SIGAR is already playing out: Former US officials like former general John Allen are calling on president Biden to reverse the Afghanistan withdrawal, without acknowledging their own failures or articulating the kind of fundamental rethink SIGAR says is necessary.