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OPINION

Has the US learned what it needs to learn from the war in Afghanistan?

If you are trying to make sense of all of this, the best source to turn to is the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

An abandoned military infrastructure sits at an airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Feb. 1, 2021.
An abandoned military infrastructure sits at an airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Feb. 1, 2021.JIM HUYLEBROEK/NYT

Every screen and page in America is showcasing a parade of former generals, politicians, and pundits with a cyclone swirl of explanations for why the United States just lost a 20-year war to a small but brutal band of fanatics. Usually, there’s a subtext that the person opining is not to blame for what just happened.

If you are trying to make sense of all of this, the best source to turn to is the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR.

SIGAR, which has been closely watching US operations in Afghanistan since 2008, just released a 140-page report called “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction.”

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There is no way to soften the blow: The first paragraph states that the United States spent $145 billion trying to reconstruct one of the poorest, most war-torn countries in the world, and $837 billion trying to subdue and secure it. There are other more painful costs: 3,587 American and allied troops died in Afghanistan, and 20,666 were injured, many with lifelong grievous wounds. When you’re tempted to feel disgust at this whole debacle, just pause and remember with gratitude these men and women who went to Afghanistan to defend you from the people who attacked the United States on 9/11. Remember, too, the 66,000 Afghan troops who died fighting with US and allied forces, and the 48,000 Afghan civilians who perished, according to SIGAR. The report notes that the real number of civilian deaths and injuries is probably much higher.

So what did all these costs add up to? Some of the money went to build roads, schools, businesses, elections systems, and other infrastructure. As a result, some measures of stability improved, from life expectancy to literacy to infant mortality. That matters and was a source of some hope for the future, but the SIGAR report concludes that too many improvements were elusive and most are too easily undone. If the Taliban is true to its record, that’s just what will happen. More than $83 billion went to train and equip the Afghan armed and police forces, which have now melted away, leaving a large cache of US weapons, vehicles, and aircraft in the hands of the Taliban.

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In general, SIGAR says there was too much money aimed at projects that were too technically sophisticated, with a pricey supply chain, or that just weren’t appropriate for Afghanistan. The report gives many examples of glorious constructs — power plants, hospitals, a carpet factory — that the Afghans had neither the funds nor the technical expertise to operate and maintain. In general, American timelines were too short, prioritizing quick, obvious wins over more enduring, slow-build investments. As the report says, the United States fought a 20-year war one year at a time, meaning American officials never wanted to commit to staying, largely for fear of losing the support of the American public and Congress. The tidal wave of dollars and grand designs oversaturated a country that just couldn’t absorb so much — by 2010, US spending equaled more than 100 percent of Afghanistan’s entire GDP — slopping over into rampant corruption. The effect was corrosive and destructive for Afghan institutions, and it helped fuel rising insecurity around the country, which made rebuilding even harder.

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The corruption was by no means limited to provincial Afghan warlords and Kabul politicians, or the criminal networks that feed the Taliban, for that matter. A huge amount of money went straight into the pockets of US contractors, who provided everything from food and fuel to security. As military and civilian officials constantly rotated in and out of the country, the contractors stayed, sometimes writing their own orders. As the report notes, “because contract work was often performed with little to no oversight, waste and fraud often went virtually unchecked.”

That raises the question of why there were so many contractors in Afghanistan, and the report has an answer: The United States lacked the personnel to staff this effort, both in numbers and in qualifications. That deficit was particularly acute in the civilian ranks, and the disparity in resourcing sometimes resulted in counterproductive military and civilian policies and projects.

The lack of human capacity was really a symptom of a bigger problem. According to SIGAR, US officials struggled from the beginning to have a coherent strategy and never acquired a good understanding of the goals for this war: Other than an initial push to find Osama bin Laden and his Taliban enablers, we never really decided why we were there. One issue the SIGAR report doesn’t try to explain is why cycles of US military and civilian leaders allowed a situation that was so obviously flawed to continue, or why Congress approved gigantic budget after budget. The SIGAR report suggests the ambiguity of purpose reflected a post-Vietnam aversion to “nation-building,” and that there’s a danger Americans will walk away from Afghanistan and Iraq with the same “never again” mantra. That’s part of the problem, no doubt, but as a country, we also have far too much faith in the use of force to deliver quick and decisive results, when that’s just not the way war works.

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The United States will probably again face unstable or conflict-torn places that might present a threat to US interests or an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe that demands a response, regardless of our preference to stay away from these kinds of missions. The urgent question is whether the United States is capable of having more modest, appropriate national security goals, with institutions better aligned to building peace and stability. Have we actually learned what we need to learn?

Sharon E. Burke is president of Ecospherics. She served in the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, most recently as an assistant secretary of defense.