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8 Paradoxes That Sum Up America's 20-Year Mission In Afghanistan

The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and removal of the U.S.-backed government was stunning in its speed and tragic in its impact, but it does not surprise experts who have monitored the U.S. reconstruction efforts for the past 20 years. The reasons why are summed up by eight paradoxes that are at the heart of a U.S. government watchdog's just-released review of the mission.

"We can't rewind the clock in Afghanistan, but we are doing similar work in other countries," John Sopko, who leads the watchdog agency, recently told NPR. "And we should learn from the 20 years, not try to forget it and wash it away, or sweep it under the rug."

The list highlights a string of critical flaws in the U.S. approach, many of them rooted in fundamental misunderstandings — or what the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, calls "a willful disregard for information that may have been available."

The U.S. goals were often "operationally impractical or conceptually incoherent," the new SIGAR report says, running down a list of eight paradoxes the U.S. and its partners tried to navigate. The report says they tried to:

  • Root out corruption, but also to jump-start the economy by injecting billions of dollars into it;
  • Improve formal governance and eliminate a culture of impunity, but also to maintain security, even if it meant empowering corrupt or predatory actors;
  • Give Afghan security forces a competitive edge against the Taliban, but also to limit them to equipment and skills that they could sustain after a U.S. departure;
  • Direct considerable reconstruction funds through the Afghan government to help officials practice public financial management, but also to prevent waste, fraud and abuse;
  • Build a credible election process from scratch, but also to respect Afghan sovereignty;
  • Focus on making immediate progress on security and governance, but also to build the long-term capacity of Afghan officials;
  • Reduce the cultivation of poppy, but also to avoid depriving the farmers and laborers who depend on it;
  • Empower women to become more educated and economically independent, but also to be culturally sensitive and respect Afghan traditions.
  • Afghan passengers sit as they wait to leave the Kabul airport on Monday, as thousands of people mobbed the airport trying to flee the Taliban's hardline brand of Islamist rule.
    Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images
    AFP via Getty Images
    Afghan passengers sit as they wait to leave the Kabul airport on Monday, as thousands of people mobbed the airport trying to flee the Taliban's hardline brand of Islamist rule.

    Benefits fall short of the costs, SIGAR says

    SIGAR's report acknowledges that the U.S. has helped millions of Afghan citizens in notable ways. Literacy among young people rose by nearly 30 percentage points for males, and nearly 20 percentage points for females. The mortality rate for children under 5 years old fell by more than 50%. Life expectancy rose 16%, to 65 years.

    The problem, SIGAR says, is that those gains aren't sustainable after the U.S. leaves. They're also not enough to justify the $145 billion the U.S. spent to fund reconstruction — including $83 billion for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces that offered little resistance as the Taliban seized control.

    "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 analysts in 2015.

    The costs can be measured not only in the more than $2 trillion the U.S. has spent on war and reconstruction, but also in lives lost.

    During the conflict, 2,443 U.S. troops were killed and 20,666 more injured, along with 1,144 allied troops who died, the report states. It has been even worse for Afghans, with at least 66,000 members of its military dead, according to SIGAR. Among civilians, more than 48,000 people have been killed, and thousands more injured — estimates that the agency says are both likely far below the true figures.

    Many of the problems identified in the report reflect the troubling dynamic that developed when the U.S. preference for fast results (even if they can't be sustained) ran up against unique challenges in Afghanistan — which has "a complex society with ingrained traditions and an incorrigible political economy," according to SIGAR.

    The U.S. government's goals and strategy also frequently shifted, creating what SIGAR calls "20 one-year reconstruction efforts, rather than one 20-year effort."

    "At various points," SIGAR says as it lists the reasons for American and allied troops being in Afghanistan, "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."

    7 lessons for the U.S. in Afghanistan

    SIGAR lists seven core lessons the U.S. should take away as it scrambles to evacuate diplomatic and other personnel. Each of these critical issues takes up its own chapter in the report, but SIGAR also presents them as a list of daunting challenges:

  • "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 have an understanding of the Afghan social, economic and political systems at the local level 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."
  • Internally displaced Afghan families, who fled from the northern province because of fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces, sit in the courtyard of the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque in Kabul on Friday.
    Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images
    AFP via Getty Images
    Internally displaced Afghan families, who fled from the northern province because of fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces, sit in the courtyard of the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque in Kabul on Friday.

    Tips for future nation-building missions

    The SIGAR analysis is the latest in a string of 10 other reports with the theme of "lessons learned" in Afghanistan. The title of the new report is "What We Need To Learn" — reflecting the authors' view that the U.S. still hasn't mastered important concepts, and their hope that the U.S. acknowledges its failings and works to get better at rebuilding other countries.

    "Implementing these critical lessons will save lives and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in Afghanistan, and in future reconstruction missions elsewhere around the world," the SIGAR report states.

    The report's executive summary concludes with a list of why the U.S. should focus on improving its ability to carry out reconstruction missions. From the report:

  • They are very expensive. For example, all war-related costs for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan over the last two decades are estimated to be $6.4 trillion.
  • They usually go poorly.
  • Widespread recognition that they go poorly has not prevented U.S. officials from pursuing them.
  • Rebuilding countries mired in conflict is actually a continual U.S. government endeavor, reflected by efforts in the Balkans and Haiti and smaller efforts currently underway in Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Yemen, Ukraine and elsewhere.
  • Large reconstruction campaigns usually start small, so it would not be hard for the U.S. government to slip down this slope again somewhere else and for the outcome to be similar to that of Afghanistan.
  • A former senior Defense official told SIGAR that the U.S. should develop its strategies and skills for rebuilding before a crisis occurs rather than when the U.S. is urgently needed, comparing the preparation to the essential priority of military readiness.

    Another former top U.S. official echoed that idea.

    "We just don't have a post-conflict stabilization model that works," former national security adviser Stephen Hadley 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."

    SIGARwasformed by Congress to oversee all aspects of the reconstruction. For years now, it has been raising the alarm about problems with Afghan security forces' capabilities and sustainment. Many of those warnings have now been proven to be accurate.

    "It's tragic, and it's very sad because of the people and expense that we have spent over the last 20 years," Sopko said.

    But, he added, "It's not surprising."

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.