What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction
(Source: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction; issued Sept. 29, 2021)
The U.S. government has now spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society. The Department of Defense (DOD) has also spent $837 billion on warfighting, during which 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured. Afghans, meanwhile, have faced an even greater toll. At least 66,000 Afghan troops have been killed. More than 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and at least 75,000 have been injured since 2001—both likely significant underestimations.

The extraordinary costs were meant to serve a purpose—though the definition of that purpose evolved over time. At various points, the U.S. government hoped to eliminate al-Qaeda, decimate the Taliban movement that hosted it, deny all terrorist groups a safe haven in Afghanistan, build Afghan security forces so they could deny terrorists a safe haven in the future, and help the civilian government become legitimate and capable enough to win the trust of Afghans. Each goal, once accomplished, was thought to move the U.S. government one step closer to being able to depart.

While there have been several areas of improvement—most notably in the areas of health care, maternal health, and education—progress has been elusive and the prospects for sustaining the progress that was made are dubious. The U.S. government has been often overwhelmed by the magnitude of rebuilding a country that, at the time of the U.S. invasion, had already seen two decades of Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban brutality.

Since its founding in 2008, SIGAR has tried to make the U.S. government’s reconstruction of Afghanistan more likely to succeed. Our investigations held criminals accountable for defrauding the U.S. government; our audits and special projects reports identified weaknesses in programs before it was too late to improve them; our quarterly reports provided near real-time analysis of reconstruction problems as they unfolded; and our lessons learned reports identified challenges that threaten the viability of the entire American enterprise of rebuilding Afghanistan, and any similar efforts that may come after it.

SIGAR has issued 427 audits, 191 special project reports, 52 quarterly reports, and 10 comprehensive lessons learned reports. Meanwhile, SIGAR’s criminal investigations have resulted in 160 convictions. This oversight work has cumulatively resulted in $3.84 billion in savings for the U.S. taxpayer.

After conducting more than 760 interviews and reviewing thousands of government documents, our lessons learned analysis has revealed a troubled reconstruction effort that has yielded some success but has also been marked by too many failures. Using this body of work, as well as the work of other oversight organizations, SIGAR has identified seven key lessons that span the entire 20-year campaign and can be used in other conflict zones around the globe.


Click here for the report’s interactive format, on the SIGAR website.


Click here for the full report (140 PDF pages), on the SIGAR website.

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