War Stories

The One Big Thing Biden Got Right About Afghanistan

A new Pentagon report is scathing in its conclusions about the 20-year war.

An Afghan man wearing U.S. military gear stands in front of rubble putting his right hand to his head in apparent dismay
An Afghan security official stands guard a day after a car bomb explosion in Kabul on Aug. 4. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

In a highly detailed report released Tuesday, Pentagon auditors concluded that the prospect of building a stable, peaceful Afghanistan was “elusive” from the start and that the U.S. government was never “equipped to undertake something this ambitious in such an uncompromising environment,” no matter how much money it spent.

The 122-page report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, tends to confirm President Joe Biden’s view that the mission was doomed to fail, regardless of how much longer U.S. troops were kept there. But the timing of the release is sheer coincidence. The report, titled What We Need to Learn: Lessons From Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction—based on interviews with more than 700 officials and a review of thousands of documents—has been in the works for many months and is the 12th “lessons learned” report conducted by SIGAR, which was created in 2008 to monitor waste, fraud, and abuse in the Afghanistan war.

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The latest report is a critique not so much of the military operations but rather of the premise underlying the war: that U.S. troops could someday leave Afghanistan in a good enough place to thrive as a functioning state.

It concludes that the U.S. presence improved Afghanistan’s conditions in medical care, women’s health, and the environment, but not so much in any other aspect of life—and that even in the few successful realms, the “prospects for sustaining the progress that was made are dubious.”

The U.S. failed in every aspect of its strategy, and often for reasons that are endemic to the way that its bureaucracy functions or to the limits—social, political, and economic—of Afghanistan. The failures were so broad and deep that they raise “questions about the ability of U.S. government agencies to devise, implement, and evaluate reconstruction strategies” in any foreign country. “No single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan,” the report adds—nor were multiple agencies able to divide powers and responsibilities with one another.

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In what may be the most damning section of the report, the authors note that rebuilding Afghanistan “required a detailed understanding of the country’s social, economic, and political dynamics”—yet U.S. policymakers in Washington and field workers on the ground “were consistently operating in the dark.” As a result, they

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clumsily forced Western technocratic models onto Afghan economic institutions; trained security forces in advanced weapon systems they could not understand, much less maintain; imposed formal rule of law on a country that addressed 80 to 90 percent of its decisions through informal means. … Without this background knowledge, U.S. officials often empowered powerbrokers who preyed on the population or diverted U.S. assistance away from its intended recipients to enrich and empower themselves and their allies. … [Thus,] projects intended to mitigate conflict often exacerbated it, and even inadvertently funded insurgents.

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This failure was aggravated by pressures in Washington to rack up successes very quickly. Officials poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan, mistakenly believing that more money would yield faster results, when in fact the cash just swelled the corruption. When officials realized this fact, they tried filtering the money through unofficial channels—and, as a result, the few honest officials in the Afghan government never learned how to manage their own agencies.

U.S. personnel policy also deepened the morass. Washington’s “inability to get the right people into the right jobs at the right time” marked “one of the most significant failures of the mission.” On those few occasions when the right people came along, they were rotated into a different job after a year, leaving their successors to start from scratch—a bureaucratic rule that the SIGAR report likens to “annual lobotomies.”

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To make matters worse, the U.S. never set up ways to monitor and evaluate whether its programs were having any effect. The report notes, “The absence of periodic reality checks created the risk of doing the wrong thing perfectly: A project that completed required tasks would be considered ‘successful,’ whether or not it had achieved or contributed to broader, more important goals.”

Finally, the U.S. military never established a semblance of security in many parts of the country. Although SIGAR was not set up to audit the military side of the war, the report does note—as many officers and officials have warned for more than a decade—that security was the prerequisite for all the social, political, and economic goals of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Few people, in or out of the country, are going to fund a business, make long-term investments, or take other serious risks if they have to worry about their security. Over the 20 years of the war, this worry was never alleviated.

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Throughout the report, some former U.S. and Afghan officials are quoted at length. Two remarks stand out as particularly telling. Jabar Naimee, who was governor of four Afghan provinces, told a SIGAR interviewer:

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In the majority of districts, we never even heard the real problems of the people. We made assumptions, conducted military operations, brought in government staff, and assumed it would lead to security and stability.

And, in a broader observation, Stephen Hadley, deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, admitted:

We just don’t have a post-conflict stabilization [another phrase for “nation building”] model that works. Every time we have one of these things, it is a pick-up game. I don’t have confidence that if we did it again, we would do any better.

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Quite apart from the way Biden pulled out of Afghanistan (and I’ve been among those who are critical of his way), he was right, and has long been right, that the widening mission of the 20-year war—from ousting the Taliban, killing bin Laden, and training the Afghan army to creating a democratic government and a civil society—was doomed to failure and that no amount of time or money would ever have changed that.

Every couple of decades, the United States winds up getting involved in one of these wars—and forgetting the lessons that an earlier generation supposedly learned. This comprehensive, well-written study should be kept permanently on the shelves of the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department, and in all the other agencies, so the mistakes aren’t repeated yet again.

For more on what went wrong for the American effort in Afghanistan, listen to this episode of What Next.

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