A watchdog overseeing the American effort to rebuild Afghanistan offered a tough assessment this week of where things stand in the war-torn country as U.S. troops withdraw.
“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,” wrote John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, in a report titled “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction.”
Sopko, whose office is referred to as SIGAR, has provided numerous reports over the years that have cast a frequently negative light on the American effort in the war-torn country, exposing billions of dollars in waste, including a long line of abandoned schools, broken vehicles and crumbling highways. (The full library of SIGAR reports is available here.)
This week’s release, the 11th “lessons learned” report, looks back at the 20-year American effort and raises serious questions about the ability of the U.S. to “carry out reconstruction efforts on the scale seen in Afghanistan.”
“The U.S. government has now spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society,” the report says. “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 main lessons: SIGAR offers seven main lessons from the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, quoted here from the report:
1. The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve.
2. The U.S. government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.
3. Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the United States built were not sustainable.
4. Counterproductive civilian and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the effort.
5. Persistent insecurity severely undermined reconstruction efforts.
6. The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly.
7. U.S. government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts.
A warning for next time: After reviewing the many failings in Afghanistan, the report concludes that the U.S. lacks the ability to rebuild countries following military interventions, no matter how much money it spends. Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley summed up this insight in an interview with SIGAR. “We just don’t have a post-conflict stabilization model that works,” Hadley said. “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.”