America’s two decade long war in Afghanistan is over. The Taliban has taken Kabul, president Ashraf Ghani has fled, and planes are flying out of Kabul airport bearing American allies and personnel. The speed at which the U.S.-backed Afghan government fell is only shocking if you haven’t been reading the U.S. government's own reports, which for years have been documenting its failed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The U.S. has wasted billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and millions of hours trying to rebuild Afghanistan, and recorded its failures in stunning detail in reports available to anyone who wants to read them.
Whenever I think about the U.S. government's failure in Afghanistan, I remember the goats. In 2013, a government project meant to kickstart Afghanistan's economy granted Colorado State University $1.5 million to start a goat farm in Herat Province, Afghanistan. It bought five cashmere-producing Italian goats and transported them to Afghanistan for the purposes of breeding them in large numbers and turning Afghanistan into a cashmere-producing hotspot.
But CSU ran into problems immediately. It had 300 goats, only nine of them the expensive cashmere goats from Italy. The college was bad at farming and the expensive Italian goats caught a disease that killed most of them. Worse, they were spending $50,000 a year to feed the rest, an incredible amount of cash to spend on an animal that will eat almost anything.
When CSU tried to turn the farm over to locals and told them what it was spending to feed the goats, the Afghan called the farm a “poisoned chalice.” Keep in mind that Afghan farms have been raising goats for generations and already had cashmere-producing animals.
According to a goat expert who testified in the fallout, the college “had no idea what they were doing and the CSU staff determined what the project should cost, despite no one at CSU having any experience with cashmere.”
We know about the goat farm and other failed efforts because of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a government agency that started keeping track of the war and its material costs in 2008. Since then, the agency has kept detailed records of its investigations into the more than $144 billion the U.S. set aside for reconstruction in Afghanistan.
The office has produced special reports, such as the one about the goats, and quarterly reports for more than a decade. The history of the war is in those thousands of pages of documents. It’s a story of hubris, corruption, and abject failure. The warning signs were there to anyone who wanted to read them.
There was Camp Leatherneck, a U.S. Marine base in Helmand Province. It cost $36 million to construct the 64,000-square-foot command center. It came with an air conditioning system, expensive electronics, and office furniture. The U.S. never used it and couldn’t decide if it should demolish the facility or turn it over to the Afghans. The Pentagon eventually turned it over to the Afghan national army, leaving behind 420,000 water bottles, but setting fire to 10,000 MREs, and destroying 7,500 computers. The Pentagon left the televisions untouched.
Contractors working in Afghanistan loved to cut corners. In one incident, contractors constructing barracks for the Afghan National Army insulated the buildings with a highly flammable spray-on polyurethane foam, a safety violation so flagrant its use in construction is banned internationally. SIGAR called out the error but the military wouldn’t fix the problem.
“The typical occupant populations for these facilities are young, fit Afghan soldiers and recruits who have the physical ability to make a hasty retreat during a developing situation,” then Major General Michael Eyre said in a 2014 memo to SIGAR, implying that people could simply escape from burning buildings if they had to. Eyre wrote this memo after some of the buildings had already burned to the ground.
These are just some of the stories detailed in the SIGAR reports. There are hundreds more. A SIGAR investigation recently led to the busting of a ponzi scheme. There’s the hundreds of millions of dollars in missing weapons and ammunition. There’s the damning investigation into how America’s counternarcotics efforts made poppy plants more profitable than they’d ever been.
Afghanistan was always going to end this way. Anyone reading SIGAR’s quarterly reports and myriad investigations could see the broader picture—that America's occupation of Afghanistan was a disaster, and that our hold there was weak.
What’s happening now is a tragedy and worse is to come. Desperate Afghans rushed a plane leaving Kabul airport. Some clung to the sides. Four fell to their death. Interpreters and allies are getting left behind or languishing in limbo and waiting for a chance to enter the U.S., and the Taliban is back in power.
The Taliban swept through the country in days, but America’s failure in Afghanistan didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow moving tragedy that played out over two decades. We know because it’s all in the reports, explained in painful and excruciating detail.