The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government watchdog group that chronicled America’s failures in the country, has released a new report summing up two decades of war. The 140-page report, titled What We Need to Learn: Lessons From Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction, is a damning list of failures. It tells the story of an ineffectual empire with no plan, no will to learn, and no idea how to do anything but spend money.
Much of the report is a brutal condemnation of a historic failure, and some of the anecdotes—one of which explains how officials used the TV shows Cops and NCIS to teach policing concepts—are simply mind-boggling. “The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly,” the report states. And, it says, “U.S. government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts.”
The report, based on hundreds of interviews and done by a government entity that has studied the war in Afghanistan for more than a decade, portrays the United States as a country that attempted to do nation building in a nation it didn’t understand and didn’t care to learn about. It said that the turnover within the rebuilding efforts’ ranks was such that the U.S. made the same mistakes over and over again, which SIGAR likened to an “annual lobotomy.”
“U.S. officials rarely had even a mediocre understanding of the Afghan environment, much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions,” it said. “Many mistakes were borne from a willful disregard for information that may have been available.”
From the very beginning of the report, which tallies the dead and the amount of money spent, the report explains how the U.S. government failed its own people and, more importantly, the people of Afghanistan: “The U.S. government has now spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society. The Department of Defense has also spent $837 billion on warfighting, during which 2,433 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured,” the report said.
“Afghans, meanwhile, have faced an even greater toll,” it said. “At least 66,000 Afghan troops have been killed. More than 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and at least 75,000 have been injured since 2001—both likely significant underestimations.”
The report has seven lessons it wants America’s leaders to learn from Afghanistan. In a list, they feel like a tallying of major failures. According to SGIAR, the U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve, set unrealistic timelines that fostered corruption, poured money into unsustainable infrastructure projects, hired and trained the wrong people poorly, and underestimated the violence that would plague an occupied country.
It’s a big-picture report with specific anecdotes that explain how terrible America’s efforts were. Facing a shortage of cops to train local civilian forces, America hired helicopter pilots to do the job. Helicopter pilots knew little about policing and had to be trained themselves. “The training many military advisors did receive was not even Afghanistan-specific,” the report said. “With such a training deficiency, some policy advisors turned in desperation to television shows like Cops and NCIS to become more familiar with policing.”
In 2009, when America realized it didn’t have enough people to build out the country’s infrastructure, “it tried to mass-produce these teams by taking chemical warfare response units and giving them a four-week-long PowerPoint training, with poor results.”
When these chemical warfare experts turned their sights to civil engineering, they began to turn in policy proposals with information copied from each other and the PowerPoint slides. “Another senior military officer told SIGAR that some justifications even included references to ‘sheikhs,’ indicating they were being copied from proposals written in Iraq.”
Staffing ambitious projects were a perennial problem in Afghanistan, the report found. The more than $144 billion the U.S. spent in the country on reconstruction went, largely, to buildings. It often couldn’t find people to do the jobs it needed done. “The United States government repeatedly undertook new projects without first guaranteeing enough personnel resources were available to see them through,” it said. “At one point, a USAID employee noted that the organization was so desperate for additional staff that they were hiring anyone with ‘a pulse and a master’s degree.’”
Those who did come to work didn’t stay very long, and by the time a competent person had gotten a handle on their job, it was often time for them to go home. “With personnel taking critical information with them as they rotated out, the reconstruction effort essentially experienced an annual lobotomy, as newly arriving staff made the same mistakes as their predecessors,” SIGAR said.
SIGAR documented the various problems of America’s war in Afghanistan for 12 years. The mistakes of the past were available for any U.S. official or general who cared to learn. According to SIGAR, its warnings were mostly ignored. "The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan,” the report said. "The most fundamental of questions were continuously revisited, including who America’s enemies and allies were, and exactly what the U.S. government should try to accomplish. The ends were murky, and grew in number and complexity."
As new political parties and new leaders took control in America, new ideas would come to Afghanistan and overturn years of work. There was no consistent plan or strategy in place to follow through. “U.S. officials prioritized their own political preferences for what Afghanistan’s reconstruction should look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve,” SIGAR said.
According to the report, U.S. officials viewed the existing social structures in Afghanistan as archaic. They needed to be replaced. "In many cases, the U.S. government’s very purpose was to usher in an orderly revolution that would replace existing Afghan social systems with western or ‘modern’ systems."
SIGAR did not immediately return Motherboard’s request for comment.