An official report blames Afghanistan’s internationally supported, now-defunct government for failing to recognize that the United States intended to withdraw from the country, one of several factors contributing to its rapid collapse in August 2021 before the Taliban seized power.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which examines the U.S. investment in the conflict-torn nation, produced the report through interviews with current and former American officials as well as experts and former Afghan government officials.
U.S.-backed former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani governed the country through a “highly selective, narrow circle of loyalists,” destabilizing the government at a critical juncture, SIGAR found.
The report said the Afghan government’s high level of centralization, endemic corruption and struggle to attain legitimacy were long-term contributors to its eventual precipitous collapse.
“The fact that the United States had supported Afghanistan for 20 years and that Afghanistan had been highly dependent on external support for much of its modern history, made it all the harder for Afghan politicians and leaders to envision a future without such support,” the report said.
The evaluation noted Washington also failed to resolve the issue of corruption and to achieve its key goal of building stable democratic, representative, gender-sensitive, and accountable Afghan governance institutions.
The report noted the United States had appropriated $145 billion for the reconstruction of Afghanistan as of June 2021, including $36.3 billion for governance, social and economic development. However, the government dissolved when Ghani fled the country in the face of the Taliban’s rapid takeover and U.S.-led NATO troop withdrawal.
“The rapid disintegration of Afghan security forces and the Ghani administration in August 2021 represented the dramatic conclusion of a two-decade, U.S.-led effort to develop and westernize Afghan society,” SIGAR said. “Over nearly 20 years and three U.S. presidencies, the United States had vacillated on the issue of military withdrawal.”
The report found that the Afghan government had received “mixed messages” from U.S. policy makers and others in Washington, rendering it unprepared for the foreign troop withdrawal.
The Trump administration’s decision to exclude the Ghani administration from peace talks with the Taliban made it “appear weak and abandoned by its primary ally, while bolstering the legitimacy” of the Islamist insurgency.
“U.S. efforts to build and sustain Afghanistan’s governing institutions were a total, epic, predestined failure on par with the same efforts and outcome in the Vietnam war, and for the same reasons,” Chris Mason, associate professor of national security at the U.S. Army War College, told SIGAR.
The U.S. reconstruction efforts, however, made some progress toward achievement of Afghan governance objectives before the collapse of the government, SIGAR said.
“In both the public and private sectors, the combination of available opportunities and the training and education provided by the United States and its international partners led to increased human capital and institutional capacity. Capacity building was imperfect, but did yield some results,” the evaluation said.
It added that “residual elements” of the former Afghan government, including the central bank and ministries of finance as well as health “still exist and are functioning, although their sustainability is uncertain.”
Since returning to power 15 months ago, the Taliban have dismantled ministries and departments meant to promote free speech and rights of Afghans, particularly those of women.
The radical ruling group has enforced its own interpretation of Islam to govern the country.
Women have been largely excluded from public life. They are required to cover their faces when in public and undertake long road trips only if accompanied by a male relative. Public parks, baths and gyms are closed to women. Teenage girls are barred from attending secondary schools beyond grade six.
SIGAR said it provided a draft of the report to the U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense and U.S. Agency for International Development for review and comment. The watchdog received official written comment from the State Department but the others did not submit any comments, it said.
“In communications with the government of then-Afghan President Ghani, high-level officials in the Biden administration made clear that the United States was preparing for a full withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan,” the report quoted the State Department as telling SIGAR in a written reply.
The letter stressed that “the standard by which the U.S. government succeeded or failed in its political objectives needs to be wholly reconsidered in this report.”