While the world discusses the ramifications of the end of a two-decade of US presence in Afghanistan and the swift return of the Taliban, which quickly took control of the country and its capital even before the last American boots left the country, it becomes a must to read a scathing US government report that brings together the reasons behind Washington’s failure in implementing and managing what it set out to in the troubled land.
The report in August, just about the time the Taliban were marching towards Kabul, by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) closely examines the last 20 years of the US presence in that country and concludes that Washington got just too many things wrong. “After spending 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, the U.S. government has many lessons it needs to learn,” the report said.
According to the report, “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.”
The U.S. government spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society, the report said, adding that the Department of Defense spent $837 billion on warfighting, during which 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops were killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured.
The impact on Afghans was greater. At least 66,000 Afghan troops were killed. More than 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and at least 75,000 have been injured since 2001—both likely significant underestimations.
“The extraordinary costs were meant to serve a purpose—though the definition of that purpose evolved over time. At various points, the U.S. government hoped to eliminate al-Qaeda, decimate the Taliban movement that hosted it, deny all terrorist groups a safe haven in Afghanistan, build Afghan security forces so they could deny terrorists a safe haven in the future, and help the civilian government become legitimate and capable enough to win the trust of Afghans. Each goal, once accomplished, was thought to move the U.S. government one step closer to being able to depart.,” the report said.
However, according to the report, the US government got just about everything wrong. Take a look at the report’s key findings:
- Strategy: The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve.
- Timelines: 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.
- Sustainability: Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the United States built were not sustainable.
- Personnel: Counterproductive civilian and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the effort.
- Insecurity: Persistent insecurity severely undermined reconstruction efforts.
- Context: The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly.
- Monitoring and Evaluation: U.S. government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts.
Then there was graft, which seems to have been widespread. “SIGAR’s criminal investigations have resulted in 160 convictions. This oversight work has cumulatively resulted in $3.84 billion in savings for the U.S. taxpayer,” the report pointed out.
Given the high cost of setting things right in Afghanistan and all war-related costs for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan over the last two decades — estimated to be $6.4 trillion – it probably made a lot of sense to walk out as planned without worrying too much about the fate of a country that is now in hands of a government that is largely made up of very dodgy folks.
The debate around what the decision to leave Afghanistan means for the United States and its role in the world has been fairly strong, with many questioning the decision for different many different reasons.
“Twenty years ago America set out to reshape the world order after the attacks of September 11th. Today it is easy to conclude that its foreign policy has been abandoned on a runway at Kabul airport,” The Economist wrote, leaving “America’s allies distraught and its enemies gleeful.”
However, it did also agree that most Americans are tired of the war with two-thirds saying it wasn’t worth it.
And therein lies the conundrum. Should US President Joe Biden continue to look overseas or turn his focus to issues at home? May be it is time for the latter, at least in the short- to medium-term.