Unfortunately, the Afghan government is losing despite such cooperation. Last month Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko cited the challenge of “continued insecurity.” Although Washington has spent tens of billions of dollars so far on Afghan security forces, the latter are “basically playing whack‐a‐mole following the Taliban around Afghanistan.” The Kabul government controls less territory; its armed forces abandoned rural outposts to protect provincial capitals; and road connections between major cities are tenuous.
It wasn’t just the quantity of cash. Noted SIGAR, “The United States currently lacks a comprehensive strategy to guide its reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. It also lacks overarching plans with clearly defined metrics to guide its work in a number of key areas such as anticorruption, counternarcotics, health, education, gender, rule of law, and water. The lack of planning and related strategies means the U.S. military and civilian agencies are at risk of working at cross purposes, spending money on nonessential endeavors, or failing to coordinate efforts in Afghanistan.” Moreover, the DOD acknowledged, noted SIGAR, that “U.S. forces in Afghanistan lacked the capacity to administer, oversee, and close contracts to ensure proper performance.” Oversight has become increasingly difficult as security has deteriorated. Yet “the Afghan government cannot survive without continued donor financial assistance.”
Overall, Afghan public confidence continues to fall. The Asia Foundation’s survey last year found 29.3 percent of people believed the country was moving in the right direction, down from 36.7 percent the year before. That’s the lowest level from the poll’s start in 2004. The problems they cited were insecurity (48.8 percent), unemployment (27.5 percent), corruption (14.6 percent), economy (10.4 percent), and bad government (8.7 percent).
Afghanistan came in at 111 of 113 in last year’s World Justice Project survey on the Rule of Law Index. The country rated particularly poorly on corruption and criminal justice. U.S.-funded programs found inadequate or poor government services ranging from prisons to schools to business licensure to vehicle registration.
Moreover, warned SIGAR, “Current economic growth remains far below what is necessary to increase employment and improve living standards, according to the IMF.” In particular, “per capita GDP is falling, employment opportunities are limited, and the budget is pressured. Afghanistan’s labor market is unable to absorb what the World Bank estimates are 400,000 people entering the work force every year.” A quarter of job‐seekers are unemployed, almost treble the number when the U.S. was increasing military force levels in 2012.
Overall, SIGAR cites the World Bank in noting “that past gains are eroding: poverty, unemployment, underemployment, violence, out‐migration, internal displacement, and the education‐gender gap have all increased, while services and private investments have decreased. High levels of crime and corruption undermine Afghanistan’s delivery of public services, deter private investment, and are the by‐product of weak institutions.” At the same time, “the IMF added that Afghanistan’s inadequate infrastructure and human capital, and large illicit narcotics sector were also notable elements preventing robust and inclusive economic development.”
Afghanistan comes in at 183 of 190 countries in the World Bank’s 2017 Doing Business report: problems include getting construction permits, connecting to electricity, registering property, trading across borders, and enforcing contracts. Indeed, explained SIGAR, “It is considered the second‐to‐worst country in protecting minority investors.” The security challenges facing Afghanistan make regulatory reform even more important, but the many difficult changes required seem unlikely if not impossible.
The government’s fiscal sustainability is in doubt. Kabul does extremely poorly on revenue collection, and is still highly dependent on foreign donors—domestic revenues cover less than half of expenditures. Moreover, the afghani is depreciating. Indeed, reported SIGAR, “Donor countries were expected to finance approximately 69 percent of Afghanistan’s $6.5 billion 2016 national budget, mostly through grants.” And the U.S. and allied governments have “pledged to maintain assistance to Afghanistan at or near current levels through 2020.”
Yet the government is almost singularly unable to competently manage large ifnancial transfers. On‐budget aid, delivered directly to the Afghan government, are intended to increase efficiency, but reduce accountability. So, noted SIGAR, “Given the evidence that the Afghan government still cannot manage and protect these funds and may not use them appropriately, the Department of Defense is planning to reduce some of its on‐budget assistance.” SIGAR cited lack of government management capacity, transparency, and internal controls as well as corruption. When funds were conditioned, SIGAR noted that USAID admitted that “it cannot identify funds directly related to compliance or noncompliance.” USAID gave money to the Ministry of Public Health even though there was “little assurance that MOPH is using these funds as intended.”
The problems are many and overwhelming. SIGAR explained that “the questionable capabilities of the Afghan security forces and pervasive corruption are the most critical. Without capable security forces, Afghanistan will never be able to stand on its own. Without addressing entrenched corruption, the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government will remain in a perilous state.” Sopko warned that not resolving these two “risk areas” could cause the entire effort to fail.
Unfortunately, evidence backs his assessment of insecurity. Americans have provided $70.6 billion to enable the Afghans to defeat the Taliban—on top of Pentagon spending on the war itself. Fighting has increased. Reported SIGAR, “Armed clashes reached their higest level since UN reporting began in 2007, and marked a 22 percent increase over the same period in 2015.” There were 6261 “security incidents,” a jump of nine percent over the previous year.
The government controls only 57.2 percent of the country’s districts, which hold about 64 percent of the population. The rest are contested or under Taliban control. The number under Kabul’s control is down 6.2 percent from just August and almost 15 percent from November 2015. In assessing these numbers SIGAR generously concluded that security “has not improved this quarter. The numbers of the Afghan security forces are decreasing, while both casualties and the number of districts under insurgent control or influence are increasing.” SIGAR reported that the Taliban believe last year’s combat season to be successful, and thus demonstrated little interest in returning to peace negotiations.
DOD claimed that the Afghan security forces are doing better, while acknowledging that the police lag behind the army. But, explained SIGAR, “DOD reported the inability of ANDSF leaders across the forces to effectively command and control operations, coupled with poor discipline of junior leaders in some units, hinders effectiveness in nearly every ministry functional and ANDSF capability area.”
Moreover, SIGAR “found the effectiveness of the [local police], tasked with defending their local communities, was hindered by lack of logistical support—supplies often were diverted, delayed, of inferior quality, or heavily pilfered—which increased the likelihood of attrition.” The National Engineer Brigade was “incapable of operating independently.” Widespread illiteracy made training of Afghan forces difficult.
Overall, SIGAR pointed to “capability gaps in key areas such as intelligence, aviation, and logistics [which] are improving, but still hinder effectiveness.” Corruption, too, reduced the effectiveness of security forces, as both army and police personnel sold ammunition, fuel, and weapons to the Taliban. Afghan special forces are more effective but over‐used.
Moreover, the total number of security personnel has declined. The army is officially at 86.3 percent of its authorized strength and the police are at 94 percent. However, the army has significant problems with attrition and “ghost” employees. SIGAR noted that “Reports of ‘ghost’ soldiers and police continue to surface.” Last month 30,000 such “ghosts” were kicked off the rolls. The Afghan forces have thwarted repeated Taliban attempts to take and hold major cities, but at the price of giving up other, less populated territory.
The second biggest problem is corruption. In SIGAR’s view, “corruption cut across all aspects of the reconstruction effort, jeopardizing progress made in security, rule of law, governance, and economic growth.” In this way, corruption undermined the entire mission.
In Transparency International’s 2015 report, Afghanistan came in at 166 of 168 countries, trailing only Somalia and North Korea. Warned SIGAR: “Corruption has eroded state legitimacy, weakening the government’s ability to enlist popular support against the insurgency, discouraging foreign investment and economic growth, as well as seriously diminishing Afghan military capability.” Nine of ten Afghans say corruption is a daily problem; six of ten say it is a major problem. A majority of Afghans paid bribes to various government entities. Estimates of total losses range from $30 billion to $60 billion.
Late last year the group Integrity Watch Afghanistan reported that 71 percent of Afghans believed corruption had worsened over the previous two years. The government initiated efforts to combat corruption, but even the High Office of Oversight and Anti‐Corruption lacked sufficient authority and independence. IWA concluded that “the Afghan government has failed in the fight against corruption.” The group concluded that “Lack of political will and inappropriate institutional arrangements were amongst the key factors behind the total failure.” IWA figured that Afghans had paid $2.9 billion in bribes, up from $1.9 billion in 2014.
It has been difficult for Washington to achieve more, since, noted SIGAR, “security and political goals consistently trumped strong anticorruption actions.” Moreover, U.S. aid has exacerbated the problem.
Explained SIGAR, Washington “failed to recognize that billions of dollars injected into a small, under‐developed country, with limited oversight and strong pressures to spend, contributed to the growth of corruption.” Amid the flood of foreign money “Controls were sometimes insufficient to prevent embezzlement, bribery, fraud, and other forms of corruption—by both Afghan and international actors—that drained resources from the reconstruction effort.”
Similarly, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation reported that development efforts suffered from “the shortage of management and implementation capacity within the Afghan government, particularly at the provincial level.” Moreover, “High levels of aid, together with limited absorptive capacity and a poorly functioning public administration, meant that the international presence in Afghanistan itself became a driver of corruption.”
Half of Kabul’s spending goes to procurement, where corruption losses are enormous. Corruption is thought to eat up 20 to 25 percent of the value of procurement contracts, and the losses in Afghanistan are “almost certainly more substantial,” said SIGAR. Moreover, corruption makes it difficult to maintain projects, no matter how well constructed. Noted the inspector general, an earlier audit found that “most U.S.-funded roads needed repair and that corruption, inadequate funding, insecurity, and weak capacity limit the Ministry of Public Works’ ability to maintain Afghanistan’s road infrastructure.”
So pervasive is the problem of corruption that the Taliban often purchases weapons and supplies from Afghan soldiers, who sell their U.S.-provided materiel. Sopko reported that up to half of the fuel paid for by Washington was “siphoned off” and sold to Taliban forces. In effect, Americans are arming the very people who are killing their family members and friends.
Sopko reported that Kabul has “nonetheless taken several positive steps toward reform and correction of procurement processes.” The government claims to have saved tens of millions out of the billions that otherwise would have been lost. Such progress is welcome but remains limited. Concluded IWA, “in terms of having a clear and comprehensive strategy and the institutionalized approach to fight corruption as well as in terms of the prosecution of corruption cases, the [national government] has not been particularly successful.”
The Department of Defense Inspector General said “future U.S. direct assistance funding continues to be vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse.” SIGAR warned that with more money going to the Afghan government for budget support, “clearly there is much more work to be done by both Afghanistan and the United States to protect on‐budget aid funds from waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Even aside from corruption, management and sustainability have proved difficult. SIGAR noted that its “work strongly suggests that Afghanistan lacks the capacity—financial, technical, managerial, or otherwise—to maintain support, and execute much of what has been built or established during more than 14 years of international assistance.” The parliament recently sanctioned seven of 16 cabinet officers, who had implemented less than 70 percent of their development budgets. Of America’s $117.3 billion devoted to Afghanistan relief and reconstruction, $32.8 billion has gone for development and governance.
The money does not appear to have been well‐spent. Explained SIGAR, “The usual difficulties of contract management are magnified and aggravated by Afghanistan’s remoteness, active insurgency, widespread corruption, limited ministerial capability, difficulties in collecting and verifying date, and other issues.”
SIGAR reported on a succession of projects which failed to achieve their objectives. Even without the ongoing conflict, little that has been created is likely to survive long into the future. USAID spent almost $1.5 billion on health care. SIGAR found that the relevant Afghan agency “did not disclose data quality limitations. This lack of disclosure calls into question the extent of the achievements claimed.”
A U.S.-aided power plant was “not being operated and maintained in a sustainable manner.” Washington funded new hospitals for which operating expenses “could be five times the cost of the hospitals they replaced, a burden that neither USAID nor [the Afghan Ministry of Public Health] agreed to assume. This investment is likely unsustainable.”
In a $266 million power project, SIGAR found “material weaknesses,” “significant deficiencies,” and “instances of noncompliance.” In a $12 million “governance” project, nearly 10 percent of the costs were unsupported. USAID paid $3.1 million for a teacher training facility, which remained incomplete four years later. A project involving schools in Herat province had “problems with student and teacher absenteeism.” Several of the schools “lack basic needs including electricity and clean water, and have structural deficiencies that are affecting the delivery of education.”
The Overseas Private Investment Corporation was stuck with an $85 million bad loan for a hotel and apartment building which were found “to be abandoned empty shells.” The agency never bothered to inspect the property during its purported construction. A $280 million gender equity project drew no foreign donors, as originally planned, and the bulk of the money “may go mostly to U.S. contractors, rather than spent to directly benefit Afghan women.” A women’s cricket leadership exchange grant was not used as intended. SIGAR received a series of complaints that prime contractors were not paying subcontractors.
USAID spent $2.2 billion on roads, yet 85 percent of them “are in poor shape and a majority cannot be used year‐round. Afghanistan does not currently have sufficient funding and technical capacity to maintain its roads and highways.” The largest share of U.S. development funding went for infrastructure, yet, explained SIGAR, “the Ministry of Public Works needed structural reform, citing ongoing critical weaknesses, including a lack of skilled staff, poor communication, antiquated systems and processes, and a lack of will to implement necessary reforms.”
SIGAR catalogued a long list of contracting failures. An industrial park which was not completed to contract requirements and in which some required systems had not been built. The Ministry of Defense headquarters building was not completed to requirements. A Ministry of Interior construction project that did not fulfill its specifications. Of 45 DOD construction projects, 28 had deficiencies. One example was a dry‐fire range for which substandard materials were used, leading to disintegration of the buildings.
The Ministries of Defense and Interior did better in meeting conditions, but still “had a significant number of deficiencies.” The MOD made insufficient progress on 24 of 59 conditions. Among other problems, it failed to account for lost weapons. The MOI similarly failed to satisfy 37 of 74 conditions. For instance, it did not effectively investigate human rights violations, fully inventory police arsenals, and account for missing weapons.
Alas, every additional foreign‐funded project undermined sustainability. Warned SIGAR, “Each new development project that the United States and other international donors fund increases the country’s operation and maintenance costs, adding pressure to Afghanistan’s operating budget.” In some areas the problem is particularly acute. Noted SIGAR: “the Afghans cannot afford to pay for much of the electric‐power infrastructure that the U.S. reconstruction effort continues to provide.”
If there is a definition of an impossible task, it is halting drug production. Yet, in SIGAR’s view “The cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs put the entire U.S. and international investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk.” Sopko told Congress that the drug trade “not only supports the insurgency, but also feeds organized crime and corruption.”
The United Nations reported that the land under drug production in Afghanistan was up 10 percent in 2016 over the year before. Opium production jumped 43 percent over 2015, and that may underestimate total output, since farmers may be making more than one harvest a year. Moreover, the UN was unable to survey every province because of security problems. The total value of opium produced increased 57 percent. The number of poppy‐free provinces dropped. Eradication, always a tiny share of production, was down an astonishing 91 percent last year, coming in the lowest in a decade.
The U.S. provided “$8.5 billion for counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2002. Nonetheless, Afghanistan remains the world’s leading producer of opium, providing 80 percent of the global output over the past decade,” reported SIGAR. Alas, “a poor security environment has impeded counternarcotics operations.” On most major measures, interdiction results have fallen over the last decade. Although the U.S. government reportedly was working on a new strategy, there is no solution in sight and the issue has received decreasing attention in recent years.
Indeed, one wonders why the U.S. even bothers. SIGAR concluded that “Eradication efforts have had minimal impact and sometimes fostered resentment among farmers.” Moreover, “seizures are negligible compared to current production estimates.” Ironically, some “reconstruction projects such as improved irrigation, roads, and agricultural assistance can actually lead to increased opium cultivation.” Alternative‐livelihood programs have had only “mixed results.” Deteriorating security has made the effort to reduce drug production even more difficult. Overall, “The agency’s work, coupled with the sobering assessments of poppy cultivation, raise serious questions about the efficacy of U.S.-funded counternarcotics programs.”
Despite America’s expensive efforts, polls found that less than three in ten Afghans believe their nation is going in the right direction. That’s the lowest number since the question first was asked in 2004.
Why should the U.S. continue to pursue such a seemingly futile task at such great cost? One argument, advanced by Gen. Nicholson, among others, is to save the U.S. homeland from terrorist attack. In this view a Taliban victory would allow the revival of al‐Qaeda or rise of other similarly threatening organizations, such as the Islamic State, also now active in Afghanistan. Nicholson pointed to the existence of some 20 different terrorist groups and told the Senate that “our primary mission remains to protect the homeland by preventing Afghanistan from being used again as a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States or our allies.” When asked if further troop withdrawals would increase the likelihood of an attack on America, Nicholson answered yes.
However, there appears to be no dearth of havens for terrorists. Indeed, U.S. military action in Afghanistan merely pushed al‐Qaeda into neighboring Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden resided. Washington responded by killing him, not invading and occupying Pakistan. There are plenty of other chaotic lands and ungoverned spaces from which terrorists could operate. The U.S. does not have the resources and will to conquer and pacify all of them.
In fact, a Taliban victory, or a political settlement resulting in some form of stable authority throughout most of the country, would ironically offer an antidote to terrorism. The Taliban apparently was not happy with their guest, Osama bin Laden, for bringing the wrath of the U.S. down upon them, and the movement would not want to face U.S. intervention a second time.
Moreover, war is the perfect environment which births and fosters terrorist groups. Gen. Nicholson apparently missed the issue of causation when he testified before the Senate that Afghanistan “has the greatest concentration of terrorist organizations in the world.” More than 15 years of U.S. military action has not made the country terrorist‐free. Another 15, 20, or more years are unlikely to complete the job.
Otherwise the Taliban is of little concern to America. Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zumir Kabulov, dismissed the Taliban as “predominately a local force.” The group does not share U.S. values but as long as it does not host terrorist groups it does not threaten U.S. interests. Indeed, the Taliban would not be fighting the U.S. absent Washington’s military presence in their land.
Of course, it would be wonderful if America could create a liberal future for Afghans who desire to escape the past. Before leaving office, Secretary of State John Kerry declared: “it will take sustained engagement and effort in the years ahead to protect the progress we’ve made. We have invested significant blood and treasure in Afghanistan’s future, and we must continue to support the Afghan people as they work to build a secure and peaceful future in the months and years ahead.” But that task has proved to be far beyond Washington’s capabilities. And while worthy, that objective cannot justify continuing to expend American lives and monies. Unfortunately, ivory tower warriors in Washington have proved all too ready to sacrifice their countrymen.
The Foreign Policy Institute’s Adesnik argued that “a sustainable withdrawal of American forces depends on the readiness of Afghan troops to control and eventually defeat the Taliban.” One might as well as argue that a sustainable withdrawal depends upon the ascent of the Easter Bunny over Kabul. Indeed, even Adesnik admitted that “improved striking power … cannot resolve the internal failures that have weakened both the military and the Kabul government.”
Nor is there a military “solution for dangerous divisions emerging in Kabul,” noted Adesnik, whereby the warlord vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, kidnapped and tortured a rival. Moreover, “offensive power cannot deprive the Taliban of the sanctuary they continue to enjoy in Pakistan.” A country which also offers al‐Qaeda the sanctuary that it desires.
Policymakers need to avoid what economists call the fallacy of sunk costs. The U.S. and other nations have invested much, but those lives and money are gone. The only question is whether a continued military commitment is worth the future cost.
Retired Col. Daniel Davis of Defense Priorities noted that the “surge” under President Barack Obama accomplished “the protection of the Afghan government in Kabul and the security of select lines of communication elsewhere in the country. But it did nothing to quell the insurgency.” To the contrary, observed Davis, the level of combat actually increased. The present government is likely to survive only so long as the U.S. continues the same level of commitment.
Unfortunately, as Davis argued, replaying the past will result in the same future. Deploy another 30,000 troops and Kabul will be more secure, but “it will also cause a spike in U.S. casualties and a predictable increase in insurgent violence throughout the country. What it will not do is defeat the insurgency and end the war. If the United States expands the mission into Afghanistan at this present time, we may well end up committing our armed forces to permanent state of war.”
An American withdrawal wouldn’t leave Kabul friendless and alone. India, Iran, and China also are interested in a nation which sits uncomfortably close in their neighborhood. Russia had its own unhappy experience with Afghanistan and long backed U.S. efforts, even until recently providing logistical support. All could promote stability and combat terrorism. But if Washington isn’t going to fight a big war, Moscow prefers that American forces leave. Kabulov argued that there is no “clear‐cut answer” as to why the U.S. maintains “land bases in Afghanistan” which would allow the speedy deployment of as many as 100,000 soldiers.
Is there any hope for a democratic Afghanistan? SIGAR’s views are not entirely negative. It cited as successes training and equipping security forces which are battling the Taliban, making progress against corruption, improving education and health care, and promoting some economic development. Alas, however “laudable,” these steps, there remains “the need for vigorous oversight.” Indeed, admitted SIGAR, “challenges in Afghanistan are so widespread that sometimes there is an assumption that if you throw enough money or people at a problem, the status quo will improve.”
Sadly, experience proves otherwise. Concluded SIGAR: “If after 15 years and so much blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan, we cannot be honest about our successes and failures, we are not only leaving the Afghans in a precarious position, but also putting the entire mission there at risk.”
Washington policymakers remain committed to the war in Afghanistan. For them the conflict amounts to sending military personnel they don’t know from states they don’t visit to fight a war they don’t understand in a land they don’t know. President Donald Trump ran against just such an approach. His administration should wind up America’s longest war.