A new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found the $70 billion American campaign to secure Afghanistan deeply flawed in several crucial respects, particularly its failure to adequately train local police and military forces to secure the country against a resurgent Taliban and invading Islamic State.
The Wall Street Journal presents the report in a harsh light by declaring the United States has “bungled” the Afghan mission due to “poor planning, training, and oversight.”
That isn’t quite how Special Investigator General John Sopko puts it in the report—in fact, he goes out of his way to “urge it is necessary not to dwell upon failure but to learn the lessons from the last 16 years and improve security sector assistance efforts.”
However, it’s a grim report filled with deeply frustrating accounts of inadequate preparation and clumsy execution, especially in light of the immense financial and human cost of the operation. It might not be easy for officials like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, formerly a top general in Afghanistan, to digest.
For example, one criticism leveled in the report is that Afghan personnel were not compensated properly or consistently, and their bureaucracies were riddled with corruption.
“They are not going to fight if they know they are not going to get paid,” Sopko said while rolling out his report. He noted that the widows of some Afghan soldiers have resorted to offering sexual favors in exchange for pension benefits. These are maddening revelations given the enormous sum of American money spent on the operation.
A great deal of that money sank into bureaucratic quagmires. One instance highlighted by the SIGAR report is a $486 million program intended to furnish the Afghan Air Force with 20 Italian-made G-222 transport aircraft. The planes had serious performance and maintenance issues and were chronically short of spare parts. The program was scuttled after the Defense Department realized it might cost another $200 million to obtain the spare parts needed. After flying only a tiny fraction of the planned service hours, 16 of the 20 planes were scrapped at the Kabul airport—by an Afghan construction company which paid a grand total of $32,000 for the scrap.
The report concludes that the U.S. government was “ill-prepared to conduct security sector assistance programs of the size and scope required in Afghanistan.” Models developed for training in other environments failed catastrophically when applied to the Afghan force, which has enormous problems with poor educational background, low morale, high rates of personal dysfunction, and a staggering attrition rate. PowerPoint programs devised for NATO operations in the Balkans proved ineffective with trainees from a population that boasts only a 30 percent literacy rate.
SIGAR also found that the program for training Afghan police and military forces was started much too late—it didn’t really get organized until 2006. Instead of working closely with the Afghan central government to develop professional security forces, the U.S. military spent a great deal of time partnering with militia groups. This may have been effective in the initial mission to overthrow the Taliban, but it wasn’t a good model when the Afghan operation transitioned to nation-building.
The militia groups have proven dubiously loyal to the central government, with many of them trusting and respecting U.S. special operators much more than their own national authority. They also have an unfortunate tendency to devolve into criminal gangs and abuse civilians in ways that contribute to the disintegration of civil order in Afghanistan. Also, the militia-centric approach leaves Afghanistan with a shortage of the highly-trained support personnel vital to the modern Western model of warfighting, although SIGAR noted Afghan special forces units have been performing quite well against the Taliban.
The multinational character of the mission against the Taliban has been praised over the years, but in practice, SIGAR found the maze of different national priorities and regulations from the NATO countries involved to be a hindrance. The participating nations weren’t all in Afghanistan for the same reasons, shared no coherent unified objective, and had different standards for troop deployment that confused their Afghan partners.
The Afghan government comes in for copious criticism in the report as well. Indeed, one of the Inspector General’s criticisms of U.S. officials is that they grossly underestimated the importance of training Afghanistan’s civilian government and police forces, because they put such an emphasis on the military. The level of corruption in Afghan government institutions was sadly underestimated. The resulting weakness of Afghan civil service institutions is greatly hindering the country’s ability to resist the Taliban resurgence.
Some of the American trainers assigned to Afghan police units didn’t have law-enforcement backgrounds. Sopko spoke of one trainer who resorted to watching American crime dramas on TV to learn how to teach the Afghan police.
The SIGAR report delicately but firmly criticizes the “environment of politically constrained timelines” for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, suggesting that knowledgeable commanders in theater were painfully aware that the short withdrawal timelines advanced during the Obama administration didn’t give them enough time to finish the job. Their efforts were shifted into short-term urgent projects, such as helping the Afghans fend off Taliban attacks, rather than long-term programs to develop the military power and institutional strength Afghanistan needs to survive on its own.
As the report puts it:
The U.S. military was unable to maintain a ‘gold standard’ training program at the speed of politically driven milestones and, therefore, expediency overtook professionalization. This situation continues today, as senior U.S. officials highlight the significant stress placed on the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] due to the increased and sustained operational tempo of the fight, and describe sustainment and operational readiness of soldiers and police in the field as a significant weakness.
The report criticizes both the Obama and Bush administrations for failing to understand “the complexities and scale of the mission to construct the Afghan security forces in a country suffering from 30 years of war, government misrule, and significant poverty and underdevelopment.”
“It’s not that the enemy is so strong, but that the Afghan government is so weak,” as a former DoD official described the problem. SIGAR takes it as a positive sign that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani send some (figurative) heads rolling in his military after a string of bloody attacks on his forces in April 2017, although the skeptical reader might wonder why Ghani still needed a wake-up call so late in the game.
In a similar vein, the U.S. government is praised for getting tough with Kabul in January 2017 and withholding financial support until some corrupt officials were removed and systemic changes were made. One of the lessons drawn by the Inspector General report is that the U.S. needs to be more aggressive in developing civilian institutions in partner nations, which can be a much more delicate task than training combat units.
A stronger American hand in local politics may also be needed to prevent political factions from interfering with the task of developing a disciplined, efficient national military force. In short, it’s too easy for ambitious politicians in the capital city to use security forces as political footballs, while warlords out in the hinterlands siphon off the best equipment and fighters to suit their own ambitions.
A poignant concluding recommendation made by the report is that the U.S. military needs to develop better career paths for the military personnel sent on partnership training missions. As it stands, training and advisory missions can seem like career dead-ends for U.S. personnel, which makes the best trainers understandably eager to seek other assignments as soon as possible, producing a high turnover rate that disrupts the positive relationship between American trainers and their local students.
If the most urgent task in Afghanistan is to make the Afghan government and military strong enough to defeat the Taliban, we should want our best people devoting themselves to that job for as long as it takes. And since empowering Afghan forces is the only way America is likely to get out of Afghanistan, the urgency of that task cannot be overestimated.