US reconstruction mission in Afghanistan 'marked by too many failures,' watchdog says

US reconstruction mission in Afghanistan 'marked by too many failures,' watchdog says
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The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) concluded that while the U.S.’s reconstruction mission in Afghanistan “yielded some success,” it was “marked by too many failures,” according to a report the watchdog released Monday.

“After conducting more than 760 interviews and reviewing thousands of government documents, our lessons learned analysis has revealed a troubled reconstruction effort that has yielded some success but has also been marked by too many failures,” SIGAR, an independent watchdog created by Congress in 2008 to examine the war in Afghanistan, wrote.

The 140-page report from the group, the 11th of its kind, was released one day after the Taliban seized the Afghan capital city of Kabul, unleashing chaos in the country and effectively toppling the country’s government.

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The pivotal advance by the Taliban drove Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to leave the country. He later revealed in a Facebook post that he fled to avoid potential clashes with the Taliban and prevent future bloodshed.

The independent watchdog identified seven “key lessons” learned from America's 20-year involvement in Afghanistan.

The group said the U.S. “continuously struggled” to establish and execute a “coherent strategy” for what it aimed to achieve through its military intervention. It specifically said the division of responsibilities among U.S. agencies failed to “always take into account each agency’s strengths and weaknesses,” and that the “poor division of labor resulted in weak strategy.”

The report also found that the U.S. government “consistently underestimated” the time needed to rebuild Afghanistan, and established “unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly.” The group contended that those choices “increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.”

A number of the institutions and infrastructure projects established by the U.S. for the mission were not sustainable, according to the watchdog. The group concluded that the U.S. government “often failed to ensure its projects were sustainable over the long term,” writing that “billions of reconstruction dollars were wasted as projects went unused or fell into disrepair.”

It also noted that Afghans sometimes “lacked the capacity to take responsibility for projects,” adding that the institutions “often could not keep up with U.S. demands for fast progress.”

SIGAR found that “counterproductive civilians and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the effort.” The group said the 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,” and “one of the hardest to repair.”

The report concluded that personnel deployed to Afghanistan were oftentimes “unqualified and poorly trained,” and that those who were right for the job “were difficult to retain.”

The group also found that “persistent insecurity severely undermined reconstruction efforts,” and that “the U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly.”

Finally, SIGAR concluded that agencies in the U.S. government “rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts.”

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"After spending 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, the U.S. government has many lessons it needs to learn,” SIGAR wrote in its executive summary.

“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 group added.

Douglas Lute, who served in both the Bush and Obama White Houses, first as the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, then as the deputy assistant to the president focusing on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, told SIGAR that the U.S. was “devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan.”

“What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking. ... It’s really much worse than you think. There [was] a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary,” he added.