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

Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan

24 02 2021

2 February 2021

I’m proud to announce the publication of our SIGAR lessons learned report detailing the challenges donors faced as they tried to build a credible electoral process in Afghanistan over the last two decades, at a cost of $1.2 billion. The report is based on hundreds of U.S. government documents and interviews with more than 100 people, including US and European officials and implementing partners who provided and oversaw the assistance—as well as more than 50 Afghan officials, parliamentarians, and candidates.

We found that the return on the U.S. investment was poor. Electoral security is steadily deteriorating; election commissions are chronically weak; the voter registry is vulnerable to manipulation; fraud permeates the entire electoral cycle and especially the dispute resolution process; election observers lack the training and experience to hold election officials accountable; election technology is merely creating another means of contesting the elections; and donor support is lopsided. Donors spend most of their money right before an election, and it drops off soon afterward as they move on to other priorities. So they miss critical opportunities to build credible electoral institutions and staff between elections. This donor rollercoaster model is common in electoral assistance globally, and it’s often sufficient to ensure elections take place, but frequently not sufficient to help make them more credible.

I’m honored to have led such an extraordinary team of analysts who brought this report together. Now we begin the hard part of convincing donors that their assistance will be more effective if they focus on building electoral institutions, not just preparing for Election Day.

Here is an interactive summary of the report: https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/elections/index.html

And here is the full PDF version: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-16-LL.pdf

Stabilization: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan

15 06 2018

24 May 2018

A team I had the privilege of leading at SIGAR has finished a comprehensive lessons learned report on the U.S. effort to stabilize contested Afghan districts from 2002-2017.

Our analysis reveals the U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of its stabilization strategy. We found the stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians. As a result, by the time all prioritized districts had transitioned from coalition to Afghan control in 2014, the services and protection provided by Afghan forces and civil servants often could not compete with a resurgent Taliban as it filled the void in newly vacated territory.

The full report is available here: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-18-48-LL.pdf

An interactive summary of the report is available here: https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/stabilization/index.html 

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