What We Need To Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction

10 04 2022

17 August 2021

An exceptional team I had the honor of leading has written a 20-year retrospective about the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan and the lessons the U.S. refused to learn along the way. Afghanistan’s trajectory is deeply unsettling and much of it is our fault. Understanding how we got here is important.

Our report details how the U.S. government struggled to develop a coherent strategy, understand how long the reconstruction mission would take, staff the mission with trained professionals, account for the challenges posed by insecurity, tailor efforts to the Afghan context, and understand the impact of programs. 

We conclude that the U.S. government’s reluctance to prepare for these missions ensures that it will continue to improvise its way through them with dire consequences. 

After Vietnam, we said we’re never doing this again, so the U.S. government chose not to prepare for future large-scale efforts to stabilize fragile countries. We closed training houses, changed curricula, and decimated our government institutions that had practice in these kinds of wars. As we say in the report, declining to prepare for the next Vietnam “did not prevent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; instead, it ensured they would become quagmires.” 

With the Afghanistan mission winding down, the U.S. government is again concluding that we’re never doing this again. But history suggests otherwise. In fact, the U.S. is always undertaking smaller state-building missions all over the world—these days often in Africa. It’s only a matter of time before such a mission escalates, and the U.S. government won’t be ready. We hope our report illustrates the perils of not preparing and justifies more investment in our own institutions between these large missions.

An interactive summary of the report is available here: https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/what-we-need-to-learn/

The full PDF is available here: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-46-LL.pdf



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