A damning report from a government watchdog finds the U.S. squandered $145 billion in Afghanistan over 20 years in a futile effort to impose Western democracy and values on a population it didn’t understand.
The 69-page autopsy from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko cites missed opportunities, dependence on unreliable players, and a recurring inability to understand critical cultural and political nuances. The ill-fated, two-decade affair ended in debacle, with 13 U.S. service members killed and hundreds of Americans left behind when the U.S. abruptly pulled out in August, 2021 and allowed the Taliban to return to power.
“If there is one overarching lesson to be learned from the totality of this tragedy, it is that any future U.S. reconstruction mission similar in scale and ambition to that in Afghanistan is likely to be difficult, costly, and defined by the real possibility of an unfavorable governance outcome,” the report’s conclusion states.
A repeating theme in the report is the U.S. government’s misreading of the players in a civil war. The U.S. assumed the conflict was a struggle was between the Taliban and supporters of democracy, but some who opposed the Taliban were simply alleged war criminals and child molesters from competing factions, the report states. When the U.S. imposed some semblance of order, it propped up a former World Bank official who, as president, was arrogant and naïve, according to the analysis.
In the end, the U.S. lost the trust of the people it sought to help when it turned out that services such as speedy justice and border security were more efficient under the Taliban than a Western-influenced bureaucracy.
Elections, the hallmark of Western democracies, were never embraced by Afghans, the report said.
“The United States also failed to legitimize the Afghan government through democratic elections, which were consistently marred by fraud,” the report said.
Only about a tenth of the people the U.S. believed were starved for self-governance cast ballots, with most assuming the voting was rigged. The lack of taking election security seriously meant that the U.S.-backed government had little moral high ground to Afghans.
“As soon as we would say ‘election,’ [the Taliban would respond] ‘Hahaha, that election that you’re talking about, that corrupt election? That every person was for sale?’” an Afghan government official said.
Money spent on humanitarian programs was often wasted, as people were willing to take free services but didn’t feel any loyalty to the new U.S.-backed Afghanistan government because of it, the report found. Some U.S. contracts wound up funding the Taliban because contractors would pay them protection money.
The report described how virtue-signaling by idealists sometimes led to a detachment from reality. Some U.S. officials opposed leaving Afghanistan because of “an idealized vision of advancing the rights of Afghan women. [But] this group interacted with a small number of women’s rights advocates who were not representative of the overall population,” the report said.
In one case, American-allied forces thought they were fighting the Taliban, but they had actually radicalized a formerly-peaceful group of villagers by imposing unnecessary rules in the name of “unsubstantiated environmental concerns.” The villagers were loggers, and the new government was blocking their way of life.
Many of the people the U.S. worked with shared opposition to the Taliban, but were also just as hostile to U.S. values. They had a record of being corrupt and abusing their own people, and when Afghans saw the U.S. working with them, people preferred the Taliban, the report found.
“The continued employment of government officials who reportedly committed acts of child sexual abuse and exploited their positions to extract resources from the population contributed to a perception of the Afghan government as abusive and predatory,” the report said. “Putting human rights violators in charge of governance at local and national levels turned people against the state and gave rise to the Taliban again.”
Many of the Afghans the U.S.-allied government empowered to reform Afghanistan were also corrupt. For example, General Abdul Raziq, who President Hamid Karzai installed as Kandahar’s chief of police, was “was deeply involved in the narcotics trade and took a significant cut of customs revenue at the border crossing. Systemic torture, forced disappearances, and summary executions of civilian detainees were well documented, and as Raziq gained more power, the U.S. military stopped transferring detainees to his custody.”
The Kabul Bank “lent to fictitious companies in transactions that benefitted politically connected Afghan shareholders who never paid back those loans. U.S. government funds for Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police salaries regularly moved through the bank … Two of the principal beneficiaries of the fraudulent loans were Mahmoud Karzai and Haseen Fahim—the brothers of President Karzai and Vice President Marshall Mohammed Fahim, respectively. Ultimately, the extent of the theft was estimated to be roughly $982 million.”
Government money went to legions of “ghost soldiers,” fake names designed to look like legitimate payroll so that officials could steal it. Kandahar City had 14,000 police officers on its payroll, but only 700 actual police.
Then there was the issue of capturing the hearts and minds of the average Afghan. Large portions of Afghanis simply believed that the U.S. are “infidels,” and the Taliban had a stronger message —one of jihad — compared to a vague nation-building message for the U.S.-allied state. One expert mentioned how men took it upon themselves to set a woman on fire after she was falsely accused of burning the Koran, but “I am hard-pressed to find incidents when the menfolk of Kabul spontaneously beat a suspected Taliban to death.”
“Afghan remains profoundly conservative,” an expert said. Another questioned the concept of “progress” in Afghanistan, saying “people progress towards what they value, and many Afghans valued different things than Americans.”
Some 2,456 U.S. troops were killed and another 20,666 wounded in the long war. At least 66,000 Afghan troops and more than 48,000 Afghan civilians were killed.
The final days of the U.S. in Afghanistan were like Nero fiddling as Rome burned because Afghanistan’s president in later years, Ashraf Ghani — a former World Bank official supported by Western elites — did not believe that President Joe Biden would keep his predecessor’s February 2020 pledge to withdraw troops — in part because some officials were undermining him by resisting, and others were telling him it was just a “bluff.”
“Three months we wasted because they [Ghani and his inner circle] were 100 percent sure that Mr. Biden will come and will say what Mr. Trump did was a disaster,” one expert said.
Ghani surrounded himself with yes-men who told him everything was great, and he demanded to control so much of the country personally that it wasn’t possible for him to have the information necessary to make decisions. The entire government was run by six people, one expert said. Ghani sometimes deliberately got rid of competent people, fearing they might intrude on his power, the report said.
“Ghani’s personality and leadership style were significant contributing factors to the government’s August 2021 collapse,” it said.
But it was not only Afghan officials who were sticking their heads in the sand. U.S. military officials, unwilling to admit to failure, hid the reality of the conflict from Congress by classifying information — not because of national security, but because it was embarrassing, Sopko testified.
On August 15, 2021, Ghani boarded a helicopter and fled the country. “With that, the two-decade long U.S. effort to transform Afghanistan came to a close,” the report said.