eight Paradoxes Summarizing America’s 20-Yr Mission in Afghanistan: NPR

Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The second person from the left is a former Ghani bodyguard. Zabi Karimi / AP hide caption

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Zabi Karimi / AP

Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The second person from the left is a former Ghani bodyguard.

Zabi Karimi / AP

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the US-backed government is staggering in its speed and tragic in its effects, but it does not come as a surprise to experts who have watched US reconstruction efforts over the past 20 years. The reasons for this are summarized in eight paradoxes that are at the center of the recently published review of the mission by a US government guard.

“We can’t turn back the clock in Afghanistan, but we’re doing similar work in other countries,” John Sopko, who heads the watchdog agency, recently told NPR. “And we should learn from the 20 years not to try to forget it and wash it away or sweep it under the rug.”

The list highlights a number of critical shortcomings in the US approach, many of which stem from profound misunderstandings – or what the Bureau of the Inspector General for Reconstruction of Afghanistan (SIGAR) calls “deliberate disregard for information that may be available.” “

The US goals are often “operationally impractical or conceptually incoherent,” says the new SIGAR report, running a list of eight paradoxes that the US and its partners have tried to navigate. The report says they tried:

  1. To eradicate corruption, but also to stimulate the economy by injecting billions of dollars into it;
  2. Improving formal governance and eliminating a culture of impunity, but also to maintain security, even if it means empowering corrupt or predatory actors;
  3. Giving Afghan security forces a competitive advantage over the Taliban, but also limiting them to equipment and capabilities they could obtain after a US withdrawal;
  4. Channel substantial reconstruction funds through the Afghan government to assist civil servants in the exercise of public finance management, but also to prevent waste, fraud and abuse;
  5. build a credible electoral process from the ground up, but also respect Afghan sovereignty;
  6. Focus on immediate progress in security and governance, but also on building the long-term capacity of Afghan officials;
  7. Reducing poppy cultivation without penalizing the farmers and workers who depend on it;
  8. Empower women to become more educated and economically independent, but also to be culturally sensitive and respect Afghan traditions.

Afghan passengers wait to leave Kabul airport on Monday as thousands of people besieged the airport to flee hard-line Islamist Taliban rule. Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption

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Deputy Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images

The benefits lag behind the costs, says SIGAR

The SIGAR report recognizes that the US has helped millions of Afghan citizens in remarkable ways. The literacy of young people rose by almost 30 percentage points for men and by almost 20 percentage points for women. The under-5 mortality rate fell by more than 50%. Life expectancy increased by 16% to 65 years.

The problem, SIGAR says, is that these gains are unsustainable after the US leaves. Nor are they enough to justify the $ 145 billion the US spent on reconstruction – including $ 83 billion on the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which offered little resistance when the Taliban took control took over.

“When you look at how much we’ve spent and what we’ve got for it, it’s amazing,” a former senior DOD official told SIGAR analysts in 2015.

The cost can be measured not only in terms of the more than $ 2 trillion the United States spent on war and reconstruction, but also in terms of human lives lost.

2,443 U.S. soldiers were killed and 20,666 others injured and 1,144 Allied soldiers died during the conflict, the report said. It was even worse for Afghans, according to SIGAR, with at least 66,000 military dead. More than 48,000 civilians were killed and thousands more injured – estimates the agency said are likely well below the true numbers.

Many of the issues identified in the report reflect the troubling dynamics that developed when the US penchant for quick results (even if unsustainable) encountered unique challenges in Afghanistan – which is a “complex society with deep-seated roots Traditions and an incorrigible political economy, “says SIGAR.

The US government’s goals and strategy also changed frequently, creating what SIGAR calls a “20 year recovery effort instead of a 20 year effort.”

“At various points,” SIGAR said, listing the reasons why American and Allied troops were deployed in Afghanistan, “the US government hoped to eliminate al-Qaeda, decimate the Taliban movement that hosted it, all of them Refusing terrorist groups a safe haven in Afghanistan. ” to build Afghan security forces so that they can 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 US in Afghanistan

SIGAR lists seven important lessons the US should take with it in its efforts to evacuate diplomatic and other personnel. Each of these critical issues has its own chapter in the report, but SIGAR also presents them as a list of daunting challenges:

  1. Strategy: The US government continually sought to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it wanted to achieve.
  2. Timelines: The US government consistently underestimated the time it would take to rebuild Afghanistan, creating unrealistic timelines and expectations that made spending quick priority. These decisions increased corruption and made the programs less effective.
  3. Sustainability: Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects built by the US were unsustainable.
  4. Personnel: Counterproductive policies and practices by civil and military personnel thwarted efforts.
  5. Uncertainty: Persistent uncertainty has severely undermined reconstruction efforts.
  6. Context: The US government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore did not focus its efforts on it.
  7. Monitoring and Assessment: US government agencies rarely performed sufficient monitoring and assessment to understand the impact of their efforts.

In the courtyard of the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque in Kabul sit on Friday internally displaced Afghan families who fled the northern province before a fight between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption

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Deputy Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images

Tips for future nation building missions

The SIGAR analysis is the latest in a series of 10 additional reports that focused on lessons learned in Afghanistan. The title of the new report is “What We Need to Learn” – and reflects the authors’ view that the US is still not in command of important concepts and their hope that the US will recognize its failings and work to better rebuild other countries to become.

“Implementing these important lessons will save lives and prevent waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan and in future reconstruction missions elsewhere around the world,” the SIGAR report reads.

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

  1. They are very expensive. For example, the total war-related cost of US efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan over the past two decades is estimated at $ 6.4 trillion.
  2. They usually walk badly.
  3. The widespread realization that they are badly off hasn’t stopped US officials from prosecuting them.
  4. Rebuilding countries sunk in conflict is actually an ongoing effort by the US government, reflected in efforts in the Balkans and Haiti, as well as in smaller efforts currently in Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Yemen, the Ukraine and elsewhere run reflects.
  5. Large reconstruction campaigns usually start small, so it is not difficult for the US government to slide down this slope elsewhere and achieve a result similar to that in Afghanistan.

A former senior defense official told SIGAR that the US should develop its reconstruction strategies and capabilities before a crisis occurs, rather than when it is urgently needed, likening preparation to an essential priority of military readiness.

Another former senior US official echoed the idea.

“We just don’t have a working model for post-conflict stabilization,” former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley told SIGAR. “Every time we have one of these things, it’s a pick-up game. I have no confidence that we would do better if we did it again.”

SIGAR was established by Congress to oversee all aspects of the reconstruction. It has been raising the alarm for years about problems with the capabilities and carrying capacity of the Afghan security forces. Many of these warnings have now been shown to be correct.

“It is tragic and very sad because of the people and the expenses that we have spent over the past 20 years,” said Sopko.

But he added, “It’s not surprising.”

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