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Watchdog issues a stinging indictment of US nation building exercise in Afghanistan

The reconstruction was largely a failure that could have been avoided, and SIGAR said this all along. Was anyone listening?

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Today, a key government watchdog released a fortuitously-timed report examining the bipartisan failure of America’s nation-building effort in Afghanistan. "What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction" by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR), is a 122-page indictment of our bipartisan reconstruction mission, outlining key failures that successive administrations made in Afghanistan.

Among the key points:

—  “The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly.”

—  “No single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan.”

—  “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.”

The missteps recorded in today’s SIGAR report come as little surprise, considering the American military’s long, abysmal track-record of coercive nation building. But it is well worth reading.

We spent 20 years pursuing haphazard strategies aimed at ill-defined gains, subjecting millions of Afghans to violence, displacement, or death. Our inability (or unwillingness) to understand Afghanistan’s underlying ethnic, political and social dynamics left us incapable of building sustainable programs that could be led and administered by the Afghan people. 

This report, arriving on the heels of a chaotic withdrawal, underscores the failure of our two-decade long military engagement, and should serve as a nail-in-the coffin for the nation building enterprise, particularly the notion that it could be accomplished through prolonged military engagement.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath. 

Most politicians and media figures appear more concerned with dissecting the immediate, political implications of Biden’s mismanaged withdrawal than examining the incalculable costs of the last two decades. Any proper interrogation of the military-industrial complex that drives America to continue pursuing global hegemony — despite repeated, catastrophic failures — would implicate many of these same individuals. They helped to expend the billions of dollars and thousands of American lives that built the corrupt, ineffective institutions, and networks that SIGAR identifies here and that would fail to stand a fortnight on their own. 

Those who seek to end America’s addiction to American military primacy should recognize the unique opportunity at hand to force a national reckoning with America’s failed foreign policy and the war machine that drives it. 

This week, President Biden signaled that America can, in fact, choose to pursue a different path. Ending costly military interventions in Afghanistan makes room for the development of more enduring models of diplomacy and development-centered engagement in the Middle East and Central Asia. It also frees up precious resources that could be better spent on more existential obligations like fighting climate change or preparing for the next global pandemic. 

But we can’t confuse what’s possible with what’s likely; until the American people grapple with the profound costs and consequences of our nation building projects, we are doomed to continue repeating the same bloody mistakes.

Kabul, Afghanistan 05.10.2012: Armored Vehicle in the streets of Kabul (Karl Allen Mayer/Shutterstock)
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