USD 145 Billion spent in 20-years but US failed to reconstruct Afghanistan

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 Department of Defense (DOD) has also spent $837 billion on warfighting, during which 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured. Afghans, meanwhile, have faced an even greater toll. At least 66,000 Afghan troops have been 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.

The Special Inspecter General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report of August 16, 2021, titled ‘What We Need to Learn – Lessons from Twenty Years in Afghanistan Reconstruction’ states:

The lessons learned according to SIGAR:

  1. Strategy: The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve.The challenges U.S. officials faced in creating long-term, sustainable improvements raise questions about the ability of U.S. government agencies to devise, implement, and evaluate reconstruction strategies. The division of responsibilities among agencies did not always take into account each agency’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Department of State is supposed to lead reconstruction efforts, but it lacked the expertise and resources to take the lead and own the strategy in Afghanistan. In contrast, DOD has the necessary resources and expertise to manage strategies, but not for large-scale reconstruction missions with significant economic and governance components. This meant no single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan. For the U.S. government to successfully rebuild a country, especially one still experiencing violent conflict, civilian agencies will need the necessary resources and flexibility to lead in practice, not just on paper.

    This poor division of labor resulted in a weak strategy. While initially tied to the destruction of al-Qaeda, the strategy grew considerably to include the defeat of the Taliban, an insurgent group deeply entrenched in Afghan communities, then expanded again to include corrupt Afghan officials who undermined U.S. efforts at every turn. Meanwhile, deteriorating security compelled the mission to grow even further in scope. 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 U.S. government was simply not equipped to undertake something this ambitious in such an uncompromising environment, no matter the budget. After a decade of escalation, the United States began a gradual, decade-long drawdown that steadily revealed how dependent and vulnerable the Afghan government remains.

    2. 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.

    The U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan could be described as 20 one-
    year reconstruction efforts, rather than one 20-year effort. U.S. officials often underestimated the time and resources needed to rebuild Afghanistan, leading to short-term solutions like the surge of troops, money, and resources from 2009–2011. U.S. officials also prioritized their own political preferences for what they wanted reconstruction to look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve, given the constraints and conditions on the ground. Early in the war, U.S. officials denied the mission resources necessary to have an impact, and implicit deadlines made the task even harder. As security deteriorated and demands on donors increased, so did the pressure to demonstrate progress. U.S. officials created explicit timelines in the mistaken belief that a decision in Washington could transform the calculus of complex Afghan institutions, powerbrokers, and communities contested by the Taliban.

    By design, these timelines often ignored conditions on the ground and forced reckless compromises in U.S. programs, creating perverse incentives to spend quickly and focus on short-term, unsustainable goals that could not create the conditions to allow a victorious U.S. withdrawal. Rather than reform and improve, Afghan institutions and powerbrokers found ways to co-opt the funds for their own purposes, which only worsened the problems these programs were meant to address. When U.S. officials eventually recognized this dynamic, they simply found new ways to ignore conditions on the ground. Troops and resources continued to draw down in full view of the Afghan government’s inability to address instability or prevent it from worsening.

    3. Sustainability: Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the United States built were not sustainable.

    Reconstruction programs are not like humanitarian aid; they are not meant
    to provide temporary relief. Instead, they serve as a foundation for building the necessary institutions of government, civil society, and commerce to sustain
    the country indefinitely. Every mile of road the United States built and every government employee it trained was thought to serve as a springboard for even more improvements and to enable the reconstruction effort to eventually end. However, the U.S. government often failed to ensure its projects were sustainable over the long term. Billions of reconstruction dollars were wasted as projects went unused or fell into disrepair. Demands to make fast progress incentivized U.S. officials to identify and implement short-term projects with little consideration for host government capacity and long-term sustainability. U.S. agencies were seldom judged by their projects’ continued utility, but by the number of projects completed and dollars spent.

    Over time, U.S. policies emphasized that all U.S. reconstruction projects must
    be sustainable, but Afghans often lacked the capacity to take responsibility for projects. In response, the U.S. government tried to help Afghan institutions build their capacity, but those institutions often could not keep up with U.S. demands for fast progress. Moreover, pervasive corruption put U.S. funds sent through the Afghan government at risk of waste, fraud, and abuse. These dynamics motivated U.S. officials to provide most assistance outside Afghan government channels. While expedient, the approach meant that Afghan officials were not getting experience in managing and sustaining U.S. reconstruction projects over the long term. As a result, even when programs were able to achieve short-term success, they often could not last because the Afghans who would eventually take responsibility for them were poorly equipped, trained, or motivated to do so.

    1. Personnel: Counterproductive civilian and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the effort.The U.S. government’s inability to get the right people into the right jobs at the right times was one of the most significant failures of the mission. It is also one of the hardest to repair. U.S. personnel in Afghanistan were often unqualified and poorly trained, and those who were qualified were difficult to retain. DOD police advisors watched American TV shows to learn about policing, civil affairs teams were mass-produced via PowerPoint presentations, and every agency experienced annual lobotomies as staff constantly rotated out, leaving successors to start from scratch and make similar mistakes all over again. These dynamics had direct effects on the quality of reconstruction. There were often not enough staff to oversee the spending, and certainly not enough who were qualified to do so. This was particularly true for civilian agencies, such as State or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which should have been leading the effort but were unable to meaningfully perform that role. This compelled the better-resourced DOD to fill the void, creating tensions with civilian agencies that often had different ideas but fewer staff to offer.

      5. Insecurity: Persistent insecurity severely undermined reconstruction efforts.

      The absence of violence was a critical precondition for everything U.S. officials tried to do in Afghanistan—yet the U.S. effort to rebuild the country took place while it was being torn apart. For example, helping Afghans develop a credible electoral process became ever more difficult as insecurity across the country steadily worsened—intimidating voters, preventing voter registration, and closing polling stations on election day. In remote areas where the Taliban contested control, U.S. officials were unable to make sufficient gains to convince frightened rural Afghans of the benefits of supporting their government. Insecurity and the uncertainty that it spawns have also made Afghanistan one of the worst environments in the world to run a business. The long-term development of Afghanistan’s security forces likewise saw a number of harmful compromises, driven by the immediate need to address rising insecurity. The danger meant that even programs to reintegrate former fighters faltered, as ex-combatants could not be protected from retaliation if they rejoined their communities.

      6. Context: The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly.

      Effectively rebuilding Afghanistan required a detailed understanding of the country’s social, economic, and political dynamics. However, U.S. officials were consistently operating in the dark, often because of the difficulty of collecting the necessary information. The U.S. government also clumsily forced Western technocratic models onto Afghan economic institutions; trained security forces in advanced weapon systems they could not understand, much less maintain; imposed formal rule of law on a country that addressed 80 to 90 percent of its disputes through informal means; and often struggled to understand or mitigate the cultural and social barriers to supporting women and girls. Without this background knowledge, U.S. officials often empowered powerbrokers who preyed on the population or diverted U.S. assistance away from its intended recipients to enrich and empower themselves and their allies. Lack of knowledge at the local level meant projects intended to mitigate conflict often exacerbated it, and even inadvertently funded insurgents.

      7. Monitoring and Evaluation: U.S. government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts.

      Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is the process of determining what works, what does not, and what needs to change as a result. Conceptually, M&E is relatively straightforward, but in practice, it is extremely challenging. This is especially true in complex and unpredictable environments like Afghanistan, where staff turnover is rapid, multiple agencies must coordinate programs simultaneously, security and access restrictions make it hard to understand a program’s challenges and impact, and a myriad of variables compete to influence outcomes. The absence of periodic reality checks created the risk of doing the wrong thing perfectly: A project that completed required tasks would be considered “successful,” whether or not it had achieved or contributed to broader, more important goals.


Savio Rodrigues

Savio Rodrigues Founder & Editor-in-Chief
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