The interviews published by the Post provide a starker version of SIGAR’s previous analysis, but in many ways, they tell the same story. In its reports and testimony before Congress, SIGAR has revealed waste, abuse, and questionable judgment in a host of Afghanistan programs and projects. The interviews are stripped of the dry inspector-general verbiage and also of the strategic context within which judgments were made; senior officials frankly assess their failures to produce security, stability, or transparent and effective governance in Afghanistan. Those failures are documented in SIGAR’s reports.
But the extensive oversight mechanisms created for this massive project were not enough to force a rethink in the face of inertia, sunk costs, and short-term political calculations. SIGAR’s extant analysis of failures and missteps should have prompted a greater reckoning some time ago—if not within the executive branch, then within Congress, which regularly authorized and appropriated funds for the ongoing campaign.
This attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan was embarked on by one president and embraced, at least for a time, by two more. Each one, when faced with the decision, chose to continue down this doomed road, believing it less risky and more palatable than his available alternatives. What the Post reporting reveals is that, while this path may have been easier, it was a road that would never reach its stated destination.
The U.S. effort in Afghanistan was an undertaking of breathtaking ambition: to oust a Taliban regime that gave haven to international terrorists; to defeat those terrorists and their allies and supporters in a counterinsurgency campaign; to set up and sustain a democratic government in a society riven by years of factional war; and to promote human development, human security, and basic human rights in a country where religious extremists, drug lords, and tribal chiefs had long ruled over (and fought for control of) a beleaguered populace. The overarching result seems to be a sort of D-minus—some degree of visible achievement, but still a failing grade.
The Post’s reporting is unsparing in its depiction of “second-guessing and back-biting” among U.S. government officials about their work in Afghanistan. Field staff argued that higher-ups didn’t understand the realities they faced on the ground, didn’t give them enough leeway to be effective, or cut off resources at the wrong time. Senior staff questioned strategies chosen by their superiors or determined in internal debates in which they participated. These concerns, voiced mostly in confidential interviews with SIGAR, were no doubt honestly felt, and had real foundations.
The existence of such doubts and concerns, however, does not necessarily reveal the roots of the Afghanistan failure. This kind of second-guessing is endemic in any large organization undertaking a long-term, complex project. Field staff close to on-the-ground implementation often question how their work is valued or prioritized by central decision makers, or question how their contribution fits into the wider strategy; central decision makers often fail to see the reality of implementation on the ground, and focus their energies on the policy battles they’ve won and lost around the interagency table.