U.S. Drive to Stabilize Afghanistan Mostly Failed, Watchdog Says

(Bloomberg) -- Stabilization efforts that have been at the heart of military and foreign policy in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded in 2001 have largely failed, according to a report by a government watchdog.

Projects were poorly planned or mismanaged, fostering widespread distrust by Afghan civilians, the report issued Thursday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found. Many projects, the report found, faltered after American troops left an area.

“Progress toward stabilization is slow and messy,” Inspector General John Sopko said in the prepared text of a speech to be delivered at the Brookings Institution on Thursday. "At best, it results in small gains that require constant reinforcement to avoid reversals."

President Donald Trump, who had long argued that the U.S. should withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, agreed last August to a Pentagon request to send as many as 4,000 additional American troops, including special forces, to the beleaguered country. He also gave commanders in the field more authority to strike the Taliban as well as Islamic State and al-Qaeda terrorists.

Deadly Attacks

Sopko’s latest report follows a series of attacks in the country, including an explosion on Wednesday in the southern city of Kandahar that left at least 16 people dead. Military officials have characterized the assaults as evidence that militants are becoming increasingly desperate.

Stabilization involves “stopgap” measures, like building schools to “demonstrate the government is working on behalf of the community,” according to the report. It said that more than $4.7 billion was spent on such efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and the Defense Department from 2002 through 2017.

Sopko’s report describes an effort that has suffered from overambitious goals and unrealistic timelines.

“When the promise of improved services raised expectations and failed to materialize, Afghans who saw more of their government through stabilization projects actually developed less favorable impressions of it, perhaps a worse outcome than it the government had not reached into their lives at all,” the report found.

The inspector general said that the military largely drove planning and focused on the most dangerous districts first, a strategy he questioned. The military ignored concerns from USAID, according to the report, leading a worker for the agency to comment that the military “expected us to be bags of cash.”

‘Pulse and a Master’s’

“Under pressure from the military, USAID built schools in places where they could not be monitored, the government could not maintain and staff them, and students attended only sporadically, if at all, due to insecurity," Sopko said in prepared remarks for his speech, which was timed to be delivered with the release of the report.

The demand for progress in Afghanistan brought an influx of aid workers, some with little more qualification than "a pulse and a master’s degree," according to the report. It strained USAID, which had more than 20 percent of its worldwide staff deployed to Afghanistan by 2011.

Stabilization efforts were more effective in areas where the government had control and the projects were more modest and carefully monitored, according to the report.

Earlier this year, Sopko’s team reported that, as of January, the central government controlled about 56 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. Insurgent groups, primarily the Taliban or other militants, controlled about 14.5 percent, the highest recorded since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

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