A new government report concludes that the US’s ongoing effort — now in its 17th year — to stabilize and reconstruct Afghanistan has been marred by misspending, corruption, and incompetence.

The US has spent billions and billions of dollars in Afghanistan, and has little to show for it.

Between 2001 and 2017, the US government largely failed in its massive, ambitious, and expensive effort to stabilize dangerous areas in Afghanistan. Under immense pressure to succeed in that mission, US government agencies spent far too much money, far too quickly, in a country woefully unprepared to absorb it.

Opportunities for corruption and resource misallocation flourished, making many of those projects far more harmful than helpful.

Related: The High Price of 16 Years of Failure in Afghanistan (Podcast)

That bleak assessment is the conclusion of a recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which showed just how complex the situation in Afghanistan has been, and how the US-led coalition failed to achieve its objectives.

One objective was “stabilization.” Stabilization means keeping insurgents out of an area after they have been expelled by security forces.

Experts believe that this is a key area in which the US has failed.

Anthony H. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in the Army University Press that the US has “failed to recognize” the importance of civil problems in warfare. The key goal for US military forces is to defeat the enemy, and then leave civilian issues like providing health clinics, schools, and agricultural training to humanitarian agencies.

The current revised US stability operations manual ignores not only the lessons of past wars, like Vietnam and Iraq, but also the necessity of tailoring efforts to the nature of local governments with their own social and cultural realities.

Related: US Tax Dollars Up in Smoke Over Afghanistan (Podcast)

The US effort to reduce the amount of opium grown in Afghanistan is one example.

In a previous interview with WhoWhatWhy, Special Inspector John F. Sopko said the biggest waste was the $8 billion spent on counternarcotics, which “hasn’t really accomplished much of anything.” Another recent SIGAR report on US counternarcotics efforts confirms that, in spite of these massive US expenditures, Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer.

Afghan Poppy Field

Soldiers walk through an opium poppy field in Afghanistan. Photo credit: ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Other examples of waste: $30 million for a crop program nobody wanted, and $50 million on unusable cargo planes.

According to a senior US Agency for International Development (USAID) official, spending continued even as stabilization became a “dirty word” at the agency — associated with throwing money at a problem at the military’s behest. A ridiculous example of this ineffective spending came in the form of a multi-million-dollar gas station in 2015 — no one seemed to know why it was built.

When the promise of improved services raised expectations and failed to materialize, Afghans grew more disillusioned, perhaps a worse outcome than if the government had not reached into their lives at all.

On the ground, the Department of Defense, the State Department, and USAID implemented programs without sufficient knowledge of the capabilities of local institutions, sociopolitical dynamics, and government structures.

Related: Making Afghanistan Safe — One Villa at a Time

Corrupt government officials who had access to coalition resources were able to sell those resources to the highest bidder, or strengthen their own community’s territorial position. This fueled conflicts between communities, and those who were marginalized by the power struggles found natural allies in the Taliban.

Additionally, the Obama administration created unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved in Afghanistan. They relied on poor comparisons from Iraq at the time and settled on an overly ambitious strategy. The timeline for a new surge of aid and resources was shortened from a 10-year plan, down to only 18 months. This caused profound and widespread problems down the line for planning, staffing, and programming humanitarian efforts.

The US coalition focused on development in heavily contested regions, but as a result the coalition forces were not able to properly clear, secure, and stabilize those areas. Civilian agencies were then compelled to establish their stabilization programs in areas which were just not ready for them. This caused local Afghans to doubt the government’s ability to protect them if they openly turned against the insurgents.

The US has a political and/or military stake in many countries, but the most recently prominent is Syria. On the ground Syria is a mess, despite the recent success against ISIS. Millions of Syrians are displaced in neighboring countries, and hundreds of thousands more spread around the world. There are multiple warring factions backed by other external powers making it extremely difficult to know who will benefit from a victory.

Related: Who Wants to Be a Billionaire — Afghanistan Reconstruction Edition

The Trump administration has yet to announce any strategy of its own, but has issued a presidential memorandum (“Plan to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”). However, the US strategy called for in the text of the memorandum seems to be one of “we’ll fight ISIS until we leave, and please don’t bother asking us for details.”

The situation in Syria is even more complex than the one in Afghanistan. However, SIGAR confirmed that while avoiding major military intervention in Syria, the US has become the single largest donor of humanitarian aid, spending around $6 billion that might not be getting to those who need it. Additionally, President Donald Trump’s only other idea on the Syrian war is safe zones.

Having failed in its “stabilization” efforts in Afghanistan, the US should be careful to “avoid cookie-cutter approaches” that are not applicable in Syria, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Until the Trump administration releases its plans to solve the many problems in Syria — civilian and military alike — it is important that the lessons learned from Afghanistan are taken seriously.

Related: Jailbreak: The US Paid $11 Million for an Afghan Prison With Cracked Walls

Related: How Did a US-Funded Health Facility End up in the Mediterranean Sea?

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from image by Intellectual / Pixabay (CC0)


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2 years ago

20 TRILLION into the Black Budget / Black Hole called “Military Procurement” where 50% waste & fraud is the modus operandi and the American public still somehow believes the propaganda that we are the “good guys”, and that our fiscal problems are from taking care of the poor & healthcare, NOT the wars we were lied into from an event perpetrated on America by the TREASONOUS PNAC crew who have looted of the Treasury via the Military -Industrial – Congressional Complex. Legalized bribery through unlimited campaign contributions of the military contractors keeps the money flowing to Congress which approves it as “security” – the rest of the world knows better…

2 years ago
Reply to  bob

Sure, but if we can get a few other Democratic socialists elected, all government corruption will end (not to mention that every American will have Medicare!) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the rescue!!!

/s (in case you had any doubts)

2 years ago
Reply to  MacKenzie

Who cares 20 TRILLION wasted and a few million dead based on greed & lies and YOU think it’s American Family Values…

2 years ago
Reply to  bob

My post was not to make light of your points. I am 100% against these wars. They are absolutely horrific in every way. I was basically trying to make a snide comment about how WhoWhatWhy seems to be celebrating “Democratic Socialism” as if it’s any kind of a solution.

We’ve had both Democrats and Republicans in power and nothing changes (wars, mass surveillance, the police state, debt, etc). The idea that progressivism will change things is to miss the point completely. The solution is not to put a different face on the tyranny (a woman, a minority, a progressive) but rather to dismantle centralized power.

And I fully realize that when things get to the point that they’ve already gotten to that it’s not going to be easy. Government is supposed to be transparent while people’s privacy is supposed to be respected. Instead we have the complete opposite situation. People in power don’t generally like to give up that power (as we see all throughout the world and throughout history).

Gloria Ogg
Gloria Ogg
2 years ago

Afghanistan is a waste of our money and our time. Send our troops home. We are tired of our men and women coming home dead. This war will never make any difference if we are there or not. BRING OUR TROOPS HOME.

Terry L. Clark
2 years ago

We have control of their natural resources,


We have the pipeline,


The heroin spigot has been reopened after being shut down by those darned Taliban,


And huge profits have been made by the military-industrial complex.

I’d say it’s been a resounding success, once you understand the *actual* goals!

Bill Mack
Bill Mack
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry L. Clark

Yes. Michael Parenti’s : “The Sword and the Dollar” revealed just such an analysis of U.S. foreign policy in 1984.

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