‘Strategic confusion’ in Afghanistan: Special Inspector General says ‘every agency experienced annual lobotomies’ for 20 years

J Michael Waller / American Greatness / August 19, 2021. A new inspector general report eviscerates the entire 20-year U.S.-led reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, revealing a constant interagency rotation of “annual lobotomies,” ensuring that the same mistakes were repeated again and again. 

The August 2021 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report shows failure after failure, regardless of presidential administrations. Its conclusions are damning of the entire U.S. diplomatic, international development, intelligence, and the non-combat part of the military effort. 

The 11th annual “Lessons Learned” report, was prepared just before Afghanistan’s sudden collapse and released August 17. 

Congress created SIGAR in 2008 as an independent entity to focus on the Afghan mission. Its Lessons Learned series was designed to guide those who made and implemented policy. John Sopko has been special inspector general since President Barack Obama appointed him in 2012. 

Sopko’s latest “Lessons Learned” report underlines what some of us at the Center for Security Policy have been saying for almost 20 years: The United States had no long-term strategy for Afghanistan. 

The chapter subheadings say it all: “The ends were murky, and grew in number and complexity,” “Problems with personnel structures were well known,” “Willful disregard for critical information,” “Evaluation was stymied by strategic confusion, when it was tried at all, “Money spent, not impact achieved, became the primary metric of success.” 

What follows are excerpts from the executive summary of SIGAR’s latest report. No commentary is necessary. 

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 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 . . . no single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan.”
  •  “This poor division of labor resulted in 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 equipped to undertake something this ambitious . . . ”

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.”
  • “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 compromise 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.”

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.”
  •  “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 disused or fell into disrepair.”
  •  “U.S. agencies were seldom judged by their projects’ continued utility, but by the number of projects completed and dollars spent.”

4) “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.”
  • “U.S. personnel in Afghanistan were often unqualified and poorly trained, and those who were qualified were difficult to retain.”
  • “[Department of Defense] 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.”

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.”

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 constantly 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.”

  •  “The absence of periodic reality checks created the risk of doing the wrong thing perfectly:  project that completed required tasks would be considered ‘successful,’ whether or not it had achieved or contributed to broader, more important goals.”
  • “These shortcomings endangered the lives of U.S., Afghan, and coalition government personnel and civilians, and undermined progress toward strategic goals.”

 SIGAR’s Executive Summary Conclusion 

  •  “. . . after 13 years of oversight, the cumulative list of systemic challenges SIGAR and other oversight bodies have identified is staggering.”
  •  “As former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley told SIGAR . . .  ‘I don’t have the confidence that if we did it again, we would do any better.’”
  •  “This was equally apparent after the Vietnam War . . . declining to prepare after Vietnam did not prevent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; instead, it ensured they would become quagmires.”