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Body armor and helmets belonging to U.S. Embassy staff lay discarded at Kabul’s military airport, as the staff evacuate Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2021.
Body armor and helmets belonging to U.S. Embassy staff lay discarded at Kabul’s military airport, as the staff evacuate Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2021. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — A “victorious U.S. withdrawal” from Afghanistan was impossible to achieve because the U.S. government created unrealistic timelines to rebuild the country, leading to short-term fixes such as injections of troops, money and resources, according to the watchdog agency created by Congress to provide oversight.

U.S. officials also pushed their own political aims without taking into account what was achievable, a report released Tuesday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, concluded in its final “lessons learned.” By relying on quick-fix solutions, U.S. programs ultimately worsened the issues that they were meant to address.

“By design, these timelines often ignored conditions on the ground and forced reckless compromises 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,” according to the report.

The U.S. continued to draw down troops and resources, despite recognizing the Afghan government’s failure to address its instability, the report said.

The government’s unrealistic timelines — devised on the “mistaken” belief that the choices in Washington could “transform the calculus of complex Afghan institutions, powerbrokers and communities contested by the Taliban” — is one of seven lessons explained in the report that the U.S. must learn after almost two decades of war.

Since Congress created SIGAR in the fiscal 2009 National Defense Authorization Act to provide independent oversight on the billions of dollars appropriated for Afghanistan's reconstruction, the inspector general has systematically detailed years of waste, corruption and fraud. In the agency’s last quarterly report, SIGAR chief John Sopko provided a grim outlook on the future of a country that the U.S. has spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild. The Defense Department has also spent an additional $837 billion on warfighting, during which 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured, according to the report.

On Sunday, Taliban fighters poured into Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, ending the Afghan government’s rule of the country and signaling the final stage of the U.S. involvement there. Images struck a nerve for many Americans on Monday morning of thousands of desperate Afghans clinging to and chasing after U.S. military aircraft in an attempt to flee the country.

John Sopko has served as special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction since 2012.
John Sopko has served as special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction since 2012. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

In the midst of the chaos at the airport, the Pentagon deployed additional troops to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, bringing the total number of U.S. forces expected to be in Afghanistan to roughly 6,000 to assist with evacuations from the country.

The Taliban’s swift takeover of the country in recent days is not surprising, Sopko told NPR. For the last 10 years, SIGAR has shone a light on the Afghan National Security Forces’ weaknesses.

“I think the speed maybe is a little bit of a surprise. But the fact that the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] could not fight on their own should not have been a surprise to anyone,” he said Monday on NPR.

The SIGAR report issued Tuesday maps out a wide range of U.S. failures that led to the collapse of Afghanistan. The mission in Afghanistan was first tied to the defeat of the terrorist group al-Qaida, but the strategy expanded consistently to cover the destruction of the Taliban and corrupt Afghan officials.

A resulting weak and incoherent strategy by the U.S. government shows it was “simply not equipped to undertake something this ambitious in such an uncompromising environment,” the report concluded.

As the U.S. government built unsustainable infrastructure, billions of reconstruction dollars were wasted, and persistent violence and insecurity undermined all reconstruction efforts. The U.S. also did not understand the country’s social, economic and political dynamics, and attempted to impose Western models of governance onto Afghan economic institutions, the report found.

One of the most “significant failures of the mission” was the government’s inability to attract the right civilian and military personnel, according to the report, as well as retain qualified workers. Many U.S. personnel were poorly trained and unqualified, and there was not enough staff to oversee spending, the report said.

Finally, the report found the U.S. did not conduct adequate monitoring and evaluation to figure out what worked and what didn’t and how to improve, endangering the lives of U.S., Afghan, and coalition government personnel and civilians.

SIGAR officials said in the report that none of the policymakers the agency interviewed found it acceptable to keep the U.S. involved in Afghanistan for 20 years, the actions of these policymakers made it so that the prolonged involvement was inevitable.

“Not only did U.S. officials misjudge in good faith the time and resources required to rebuild Afghanistan, they also prioritized their own political preferences for what Afghanistan’s reconstruction should look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve,” the report said.

U.S. officials felt pressured to demonstrate progress and to increase resources for reconstruction as security crumbled, which accelerated unrealistic goals. Even when officials recognized the timelines had backfired, “they simply found new ways to ignore conditions on the ground,” the report said.

In one “short-term solution,” shortly after former President Barack Obama took office in December 2009, he ordered an 18-month surge of troops, money and resources into Afghanistan. The timeline was “sprung” onto U.S. Central Command, the report said, and commanders were given two days of notice prior to Obama’s announcement.

“The U.S. government ‘set in motion a series of events that fostered unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved in a few years and ensured the U.S. government’s stabilization strategy would not succeed,’ ” SIGAR said in its latest report, citing one of the agency’s earlier reports.

Between 2009 and 2010, spending in Afghanistan spiked more than 50%, though the U.S. had shown it could not manage their previous levels of funding.

“Enormous pressure to demonstrate progress to the Congress and the American and Afghan people distorted accountability systems into spin machines. There was little appetite for honest assessments of what worked and what did not,” the report said.

The administration of former President Donald Trump “still continued its predecessor’s tendency to draw down troops and resources with little concern for conditions on the ground,” despite the U.S. and the Taliban reaching a peace deal in February 2020 to complete the U.S. withdrawal of troops in exchange for commitments from the Taliban to continue negotiations with the Afghan government.

The report concludes a cascade of government decisions resulted in a counterproductive cycle in which “short-term goals generated short timelines, which created new problems that could only be addressed by more short-term goals.”

When all else failed, the U.S. government decided to pull out all of its troops, another short-term goal, without taking into consideration how that would impact the reconstruction mission and the personnel necessary to continue security assistance in Afghanistan.

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