A U.S. government watchdog has painted a bleak portrait of two decades of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, saying that administrations consistently "underestimated" the time required to rebuild the country and "misunderstood" its context during the United States' longest war.
In a report published late on August 17, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) concluded that the U.S. intervention in the war-torn country had "bright spots," such as lower child-mortality rates, increases in per capita gross domestic product, and increased literacy rates.
But it also questioned whether these gains were "commensurate" with the $145 billion spent over the past 20 years to try to rebuild Afghanistan to be a sustainable democracy after U.S. troops left.
The assessment comes as thousands of civilians desperately try to flee Afghanistan after Taliban militants seized the capital, Kabul, and toppled the Western-backed government on August 15 just days before the final U.S. soldiers were to leave the country.
Critics have called out the administration of President Joe Biden, who defended the U.S. military withdrawal, blaming the Taliban's takeover on the Afghan government and arguing that it was in the U.S. national interest to end the mission.
"If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak," John Sopko, the special inspector general, wrote in the report.
SIGAR said the document, titled What We Need to Learn: Lessons From Twenty Years Of Afghanistan Reconstruction, was based on 13 years of oversight work, including hundreds of interviews with current and former U.S. and foreign government officials, implementing partners, contractors, and experts.
It identified seven areas of failure of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, including a lack of a coherent strategy for what Washington hoped to achieve.
The U.S. government also "consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan, and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly," which SIGAR said "increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs."
Among other lessons, the report found that the U.S. government "did not understand the Afghan context," including socially, culturally, and politically.
"Rarely did U.S. officials have even a mediocre understanding of the environment, much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions," and that ignorance was often due to a "willful disregard for information that may have been available."
Asked about the report, national-security adviser Jake Sullivan emphasized its findings about the large amounts of resources provided to Afghanistan.
Despite "hundreds of billions of dollars spent, huge number of forces trained, huge amounts of capability provided, huge amount of advising and assisting," the Afghan security force "was not prepared with the will to stand up and fight for itself," he told a press briefing.
"And that is a collection of decisions taken over the course of many years."
As the Western-backed government in Kabul collapsed, Biden's approval rating dropped by 7 percentage points to the lowest level of his seven-month-long presidency, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
The national survey, conducted on August 16 after the collapse of the Afghan government, found that 46 percent of American adults approved of Biden's performance in office.