U.S. Progress in Rebuilding Afghanistan Detectable Amid Tragedy

A U.S. Air Force F-16C performs an aerial patrol over an Afghan district in support of Operation Freedom's Sentinel in March. A U.S. Air Force F-16C performs an aerial patrol over an Afghan district in support of Operation Freedom's Sentinel in March. Tech. Sergeant Gregory Brook/U.S. Air Force

Despite continued deadly bombings, official corruption and stalled economic development, the 17-year-old U.S. effort to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan has “helped set the stage for progress,” a watchdog reported amid a grim litany of negative indicators.

“The U.S. experience in providing support for private-sector development in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2017 vividly illustrates the difficulties of pursuing … goals by promoting economic development in a war-shattered economy,” wrote the team run by John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, in its quarterly report released Tuesday. “Early optimism, nourished by the apparent end of decades of violence, was deflated as the passing years confirmed that Afghanistan had not in fact become a post-conflict nation. It still has not.”

The authors were able to address a bombing in Kabul that killed 31, including 10 journalists, as recently as April 30, calling the acts “cowardly.”

Most of the report’s assertions reflected points of frustration, including:

  • The actual strength of the Afghan security forces has dropped by 35,999 over the past year;
  • As of Jan. 31, 14.5 percent of the country’s total districts were under insurgent control or influence—the highest level recorded since SIGAR began receiving district control data. (Some 56.3 percent of districts were under Afghan government control or influence.);
  • Since SIGAR began receiving population-control data in August 2016, Afghan government control has decreased by roughly four percentage points, and the overall trend for the insurgency is rising control over the population;
  • The United Nations recorded an average of 55.9 security incidents per day—nearly four incidents per day higher than the same period two years ago--from Dec. 15, 2017 to Feb. 15, 2018;
  • Air operations in 2017 caused 631 civilian casualties including 295 deaths—the highest number of civilian casualties from air strikes recorded in a single year, according to the U.N. assistance agency (though those figures were disputed);
  • Despite a 63 percent increase in Afghan land under opium-poppy cultivation and an 88 percent increase in raw opium production in 2017, USAID has said it will not plan, design, or implement any new programs to address the economic dependency on the crop even in government-controlled areas;
  • Afghanistan will need to add 400,000 jobs annually just to keep pace with new entrants to its labor market—a situation described by an International Labor Office consultant report as a “socio-economic time bomb;"
  • Afghanistan received a score of 15 on a 0-100 scale in the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International (0 means “highly corrupt” and 100, “very clean”);
  • Afghanistan is experiencing substantial rainfall deficits likely to have adverse effects on crops, particularly wheat, according to USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

“Nonetheless,” the report said, “U.S. efforts to set up basic economic infrastructure, laws, and policies—undertaken in concert with allies and international organizations—helped set the stage for progress. Those successes included building Afghan government capacity in public financial and macroeconomic management, dynamic growth of sectors like telecommunications and construction, and Afghanistan’s accession to the World Trade Organization.”

SIGAR’s work to date has identified about $2.1 billion in savings for the U.S. taxpayer, the watchdog said.

In his introduction, Sopko addressed the clash his office had earlier with commanders on the ground over how much Afghan government data could be declassified for release by SIGAR. Among them are the assigned, or actual, force strength of the Afghan security force, which the latest figures show to be falling sharply over the last year. 

“I met with General John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to discuss the increased classification of data for the quarterly report over the last two quarters,” he wrote. “While maintaining that [United States Forces-Afghanistan] obliged to accede to the requests of the Afghan government concerning the classification of Afghan data, General Nicholson agreed that USFOR-A would strive to provide publicly releasable information for SIGAR.”

Also released is SIGAR’s third installment in its “Lessons Learned” series on Afghanistan. Among the 12 lessons is the assertion that it “is not realistic to expect robust and sustainable economic growth in an insecure and uncertain environment.” Another is that “establishing the foundational elements of an economic system at the beginning of a reconstruction effort sets the stage for future success” and another is that “any new economic system which represents a break with a host nation’s past knowledge and practice must be introduced carefully and with sufficient time to ensure adequate buy-in and the development of the robust institutions required to maintain it.”

Spending too much money too quickly, the lessons report added, “can lead to corruption and undermine the goals of both the host nation and the United States, while reducing funding too abruptly can hurt the economy.”

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