Latest SIGAR REport

With impeccable timing, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued his latest report today. As regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of SIGAR, so rather than comment myself on his report, I’ll just cut and paste the summary his office sent to me. I think that it says all that nearly all that needs to be said – the only thing I’d change would be the last paragraph, which in my opinion, rather than ‘let’s do this better next time’, should say instead ‘don’t do this kind of thing ever again’.

Here goes:


Today, SIGAR released its 11th lessons learned report, What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan ReconstructionThe report examines the past two decades of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, drawing on SIGAR’s 13 years of oversight work.

Key Points:

— Twenty years later, much had improved, and much had not in Afghanistan. If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that could sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture in Afghanistan is bleak.

— There is no doubt, however, that the lives of millions of Afghans had been improved by U.S. government interventions, including gains in life expectancy, the mortality of children under five, GDP per capita, and literacy rates, among others. Despite these gains, the key question is whether they were commensurate with the U.S. investment or sustainable after a U.S. drawdown. In SIGAR’s analysis, they were neither.

— The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan. No single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan.

— The bureaucratic disarray over who should and would ultimately own the strategy made it more likely that senior U.S. officials would struggle to address basic challenges in that strategy. The most fundamental of questions were continuously revisited, including who America’s enemies and allies were, and exactly what the U.S. government should try to accomplish. The ends were murky, and grew in number and complexity.

— The U.S. government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.

— U.S. officials prioritized their own political preferences for what Afghanistan’s reconstruction should look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve. U.S. officials created explicit timelines in the mistaken belief that a decision in Washington could transform the calculus of complex Afghan institutions, powerbrokers, and communities contested by the Taliban.

— Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the United States built in Afghanistan were not sustainable. Over time, U.S. policies emphasized that all U.S. reconstruction projects must be sustainable, but Afghans often lacked the capacity to take responsibility for projects. In response, the U.S. government tried to help Afghan institutions build their capacity, but those institutions often could not keep up with U.S. demands for fast progress. Billions of U.S. reconstruction dollars were wasted in Afghanistan as projects went unused or fell into disrepair.

— Counterproductive civilian and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The U.S. government’s inability to get the right people into the right jobs at the right times was one of the most significant failures of the mission. It is also one of the hardest to repair. U.S. personnel in Afghanistan were often unqualified and poorly trained, and those who were qualified were difficult to retain.

— Persistent insecurity severely undermined the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The absence of violence was a critical precondition for everything U.S. officials tried to do in Afghanistan—yet the U.S. effort to rebuild the country took place while it was being torn apart.

— At several points over the last two decades, rising insecurity forced policymakers to accept problematic compromises in the development of the country’s official uniformed security forces.

— The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly. Ignorance of prevailing social, cultural, and political contexts in Afghanistan has been a significant contributing factor to failures at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.

— U.S. officials rarely had even a mediocre understanding of the Afghan environment, much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions. Many mistakes were borne from a willful disregard for information that may have been available. In many cases, the U.S. government’s very purpose was to usher in an orderly revolution that would replace existing Afghan social systems with western or “modern” systems. If the intention was to build institutions from scratch, understanding and working within the country’s traditional systems was unnecessary.

— U.S. government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation (M&E) to understand the impact of their reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Unless and until agencies are permitted to dramatically increase their staffing levels for program oversight and M&E, the only way to ensure that sufficient time and attention is dedicated to M&E would be for agencies to significantly limit the scale and complexity of the programming they undertake.

— There will likely be times in the future when insurgent control or influence over a particular area or population is deemed an imminent threat to U.S. interests. If the U.S. government does not prepare for that likelihood, it may once again try to build the necessary knowledge and capacity on the fly. As seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, doing so has proven difficult, costly, and prone to avoidable mistakes.

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12 thoughts on “Latest SIGAR REport”

  1. Such wonderful things and yet that relatively numerous and well armed government force promptly crumbled, much unlike the Najibullah led government.

    As if Kabul didn’t have a past of having a pretty modern outlook population before 911.


  2. “Today, SIGAR released its 11th lessons learned report…”





    Reminds me of the Medieval European version of the “Lesson’s learned” – papal bulls against simony and sodomy.

    Come to think about it, akschuyally you don’t *need* to write 11 volumes to tell the world and the American “public” that the occupation of Afghanistan by their “Good Empire” had been characterized by corruption (cutting both ways) and/or utterly moronic.

    But dem SIGAR reports are mostly an exercise in proper Western self-pity. They’re not very serious, nor will they change the fact that the Americans can’t be bothered to think of other peoples as anything other than reflections of themselves.

    The basic nuts and bolts is that it just says that the Taliban were genuinely better leaders than the United States and their quislings in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

    By far, my favorite story is about a *special* school, built in the unique American fashion (pg. 72):

    “Although some missteps in Afghanistan were the result of unavoidable assumptions about unknown aspects of Afghan society, in other cases decision-makers seem to have made unnecessary assumptions about the Afghan context that could have been easily verified. U.S.-built schools provide a case in point: The design of some U.S.-funded schools required a crane to install a heavy roof, but cranes could not be used in the mountainous terrain that is characteristic of many parts of the country. Local Afghan contractors were also unfamiliar with U.S. construction methods, leading to sometimes shoddy workmanship. Adapted designs featured lighter roofs that did not require cranes, but the less robust construction was unable to support heavy snow loads, rendering them unusable.396 U.S.‑built schools were also required to have entrance ramps and extrawide doors to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, even though they were sometimes constructed in rugged terrain that was itself inaccessible to wheelchairs.397 NGOs argued that such building standards pushed costs higher for U.S.-built schools, which reportedly cost four to five times as much as those built by European nonprofits. 398 In other cases, planners selected unsuitable construction sites, such as steep slopes or riverbeds, which they could have avoided if they had consulted a topographic map or aerial imagery.399

    These unforced errors involved basic aspects of the Afghan environment, such as terrain and climate. The U.S. government was even less adept at perceiving and adapting to the country’s social and cultural environment.”

    There’s a particularly spicy statement on a page in the same chapter, where they talk about patronage networks of the warlords post-1989 and how, when the Taliban deposed certain warlords to great applause, the US put the same criminals back in charge with even more money than before. And they SOMEHOW expected them Afghans, who had lived under a traditional, tribal structure, to just accept corruption as “deviant” like Americans do (well… told to do, but reality is different…).

    The US so-called “elite” and adjacent to it service strata misjudging this somehow, even though it can be understood even indirectly by people with no special education, can only be explained as ideological/religious blindness. Or stupidity, incompatible with the very definition of “sapience”. Or – Highly Likely ™ – their own complicity in corruption schemes they feign to decry.


  3. Just to show, that “the American public” ™ and produced by it “expert community” is truly incapable of “learning” it lessons, here’s a bunch of proofs and evidence on the same topic – corruption schemes in buildings of schools, losing the battle for the “hearts’n’minds” to the Taliban and US personnel cluelessness/corruption. About which I (and, in theory, the rest of the “world”) learned waaaaaay back in 2015.

    I’m talking about the story of Haji Lala and “his” school.

    “Afghanistan’s long war against the Soviet occupation fomented roving, well-armed mujahideen militias. After defeating the Soviets in 1989, they turned on each other — jockeying for money and influence by setting up checkpoints, robbing, raping, and pillaging. They were no longer known as mujahideen, but as topakiyan, or warlords.

    Among them was Habibullah Jan, who seized land in what is now Zhari district. Habibullah Jan set up checkpoints along the critical Highway 1, and the money he amassed from his checkpoint “taxes” brought him more arms and more men, but also a reputation for theft and brutality. Many locals loathed him.

    In spring 1994, a warlord tied to a trio of commanders including Habibullah Jan kidnapped two women from a checkpoint near the home of a cleric named Mullah Omar. Enough was enough. Mullah Omar gathered a band of religious guerrilla forces to free the women, only to find their naked corpses at the checkpoint. Fueled by the community’s outrage, they purged the area of the hated warlord and imposed Islamic law and order. The Taliban was born, with Mullah Omar at the helm. Within two years, the Taliban had seized Kabul.

    Habibullah Jan had fled the country, but when the Americans overthrew the Taliban in 2001, he returned and reimposed his checkpoints. With more than 2,000 men under his command and, soon, a seat in parliament, he became the most powerful man in Zhari. When his old foe the Taliban began to surge in 2005, the Americans turned to him for help.

    To put it plainly: The U.S. allied itself with a warlord so oppressive and kleptocratic that he helped create the Taliban in the first place.

    When Habibullah Jan was killed in 2008, his brother and trusted commander Haji Lala took over. He controlled a mix of police and militia forces, according to numerous Western and Afghan sources, and won security contracts from the Americans. By 2011, the year DeNenno arrived, Zhari had the largest local police force of any district in Afghanistan. Those police ran checkpoints, where, just as before, they shook down local residents.

    Under Haji Lala’s watch, Zhari’s police and militias have repeatedly been accused of torturing suspects and massacring civilians. One district official who was asked to collect the body of a 22-year-old man arrested by the police on suspicion of planting a bomb found the corpse riddled with marks of torture, according to a recent International Crisis Group report. “When they behave like this,” the official said, “the ordinary people are creating their own militias to guard against” the local police.

    Reached by cell phone, Haji Lala denied having any armed men under his control, let alone engaging in human rights abuses.

    Few American soldiers knew that Haji Lala and Habibullah Jan were brothers, let alone of Habibullah Jan’s role in fomenting the Taliban. “I liked Haji Lala,” a soldier in DeNenno’s unit said. “I’m pretty sure he did some bad stuff, but for us he was helpful.” He added, “I knew he was a warlord, but he was our warlord.”

    Sort of. In fact, while Haji Lala denies it, he had a reputation for playing both sides. As DeNenno put it, he “would talk offline” with Taliban commanders.

    One of the most common payments the military made was compensation. If U.S. soldiers killed an innocent bystander, or blew up a civilian’s house, or killed someone’s sheep, commanders would pay compensation. The amounts were often modest — from less than $100 to more than $25,000 — but in total they added up to more than $2.5 million, from which strongmen could take a cut. DeNenno said that Haji Lala would sometimes tell the Taliban, “Go blow up this area because we wanna get the Americans to pay for it.”

    Still, Haji Lala controlled a pro-government militia and was a leader of the Alizai, the largest tribal group in Zhari. The Americans couldn’t afford to lose him fully to the Taliban. He was, as DeNenno puts it, a “pain in the butt.” As it would turn out, he was also the man DeNenno would need to build his school.”

    In case you are wondering, whether there was corruption on the American side of the bargain – wonder no more:

    “When an accountant went to federal investigators in 2006 with evidence that one of USAID’s largest contractors, Louis Berger Group, had been defrauding the agency of millions for years, the investigation was kept under federal seal until late 2010. Only then did the Justice Department reveal that two executives had pleaded guilty to fraud and announce the deal it had reached behind closed doors: The company as a whole would avoid criminal charges and be allowed to continue winning government contracts in exchange for implementing new financial controls and paying nearly $70 million in fines. Since the whistleblower came forward, USAID has awarded the company contracts worth more than 10 times what it was fined.

    BuzzFeed News uncovered another case of corruption long obscured from public view.

    In May 2004, during the agency’s rush to build schools, a Minnesota-based Christian humanitarian group called Shelter for Life International received a $14 million contract from USAID to build 32 schools and 20 clinics. As is common with such contracts, Shelter for Life didn’t carry out the work itself; instead, it subcontracted to Five Stones Group, a for-profit company.

    By July, however, Shelter for Life “didn’t like what they were seeing,” as one former employee put it, and suspended the contract, demanding that the funds already advanced be returned or accounted for. Auditors learned that Five Stones implementer Timothy Allish spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on luxuries such as moving into and renovating a mansion and buying pricey cars, according to the former Shelter for Life employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Though Shelter for Life was able to seize back some of the assets from Allish, including four Land Cruisers and six Hiluxes, according to the former employee, it failed to recover nearly $200,000 in additional funds.”

    This article even cites Mr. Sopko in his capacity as SIGAR-chewer in charge:

    “Over the last decade, report after report has chronicled the corruption and waste that squandered taxpayer dollars across many U.S. programs in Afghanistan. But American education efforts — long seen as a shining success — have gone mostly unexamined, a truth acknowledged even by one of the U.S. officials who has investigated corruption in Afghanistan.

    “No one wants to take a hard look at education,” said John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “for fear it might turn out to be less than it is cracked up to be.””


    “As part of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, officers could spend cash lavishly with minimal oversight on humanitarian projects, part of the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, or CERP. The point: Win over locals by giving them things they wanted — clinics, schools, roads. So DeNenno had no trouble getting $150,000 to renovate a building near the base to serve as a temporary school.


    “Military spending under the CERP program required very little paperwork for most projects. The point was to help win a war. But that flexibility means, quite literally, that the military does not know what it spent on education in Afghanistan, or what it got for its money. The military conceded that many CERP projects were not entered into “procurement database systems” but said it “does maintain extensive project records.” Last year [2014], however, the Defense Department told the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction just how little it knew: For more than 40% of CERP projects, the Pentagon could not say who ultimately received its money.

    Now – re-read the summary of the SIGAR encountered “problems” provided in maestro Robinson’s original blogpost. Then read the rest of the article. Play a drinking game/BS bingo every time there’s a “coincidence”.

    Also – pay especially close attention to the dates. Meaning – the USG and the American public (and it’s, ha-ha, “civil society”) knew about these “isolated incidents” AT LEAST back in 2015. There should have been a “lesson learned” in 2015 AD.

    Now [checks the calendar] is 2021 AD. “Lessons learned” now have their 11th volume. And it cites the same bloody (in either meaning of the word) story happening in different locale of the same country, but starry pretty much the same cast of the stock characters of the very special Afghan “Commedia dell’arte”. The Americans are playing Il Capitano, of course.


    In the end, all these SIGAR reports are just exercises of writing whole volumes on trivial subjects as a great way to distract people from important work while looking like you’re DOING SOMETHING important. There will be no reckoning for the “guilty” parties either high or low. What, dear Westerners – you want your very own 1937?


  4. Come to think about it – the US already *had* its very own “1937” aka “Big Terror”. Albeit in Afghanistan. Albeit half-arsed. Albeit totally counterproductive. Albeit – with NO rehabilitation and punishing of the overzealous punishers.

    Anand Gopal, a Pulitzer-nominated journalist for the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine who was one of the few Western journalists who managed to get himself embedded with the Taliban, and one of the even fewer who managed to score an interview with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (yes, the one and only!). In 2015 he wrote book about the American invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath – “No Good Men Among The Living” On its pages, he essentially concluded that the US had been responsible for “creating their own enemy”. Wow – “it never happened before, yet here we are again”!

    The gist of it, for the click-averse people here:

    “Within months after the US-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban effectively vanished. Al-Qaeda leaders fled to Pakistan, but the Taliban – realizing they had no chance of victory – accepted the new order. They acknowledged Karzai as interim president, surrendered arms, and retreated from politics with no plans to return. They even denounced fund-raising efforts by religious clerics in Pakistan to revive the Taliban. It wasn’t a just scheme to hold-out in hiding. They genuinely ceased to exist.

    So what led to revival of Taliban several years later?

    Here was the dilemma. The US was there to “fight terrorism”. But without the Taliban or Al Qaeda there, there was no enemy. They needed targets to bomb, homes to raid, and people to imprison. This created an incentive for local politicians to “create enemies where there were none” and report their political rivals to US intelligence branding them as terrorists. These false intelligence reports were typically rewarded with money, business contracts, and more access to American troops which meant more political power to wield US military in their favor.

    In one telling case, January 2002, two competing political groups of pro-American Afghan political officials were simultaneously massacred, arrested, and tortured by US marines. Each group had falsely tipped off the Americans, portraying the other group as Talibs. Soon Afghanistan was riddled with a bunch of regional repressive strongmen, like Gul Agha Sherzai and Jan Mohammad Khan, who fed their enemies and dissidents to the target-hungry American war machine and buffed up their own private militia with US dollars.

    Things were different in places with less US military presence. In northern Afghanistan or Istalif, for example, political rivals could not call in US troops to settle their feuds. American troops in the south brought instability, violence, and cycles of revenge. US troops raided homes and detained and tortured village elders and tribal leaders, many of whom were sympathetic to the US. This violence had nothing to do with the Taliban and everything to do with local politics which grew more sectarian in such circumstances.

    Many of the pre-Taliban war criminals had rose to power again, with full US backing, pretending to fight terrorists. Police forces morphed into the same militias and gangs of the civil war days. They’d ransack shops and homes, loot travelers, and in some cases rape and murder. It was in this atmosphere of resentment and that the Taliban re-emerged in 2004 and grew in the years to come.

    The repression led to more resentment. The resentment led some to seek revenge against the US and Afghan government by joining the Taliban. The book covers the story of a former Talib that renounced all former ties with the group and set up a local business. Police repeatedly beat him, threatened him with torture and took all his savings. He and his fellow villagers ultimately joined the Taliban. The resurgence of the Taliban made the US even more dependent on private Afghan militiamen (which ironically would sometimes pay the Taliban to withhold their attacks – meaning that the US indirectly paid the Taliban for security</strong.).

    The Taliban are in power today, not "despite 20 years of US presence", but precisely because of the form of US presence and the political order that ensued. It is a mess we created, not one that we failed to fix out of incompetency or lack of resources.”

    “BuT tHat iS dIfFerenT” (c) 1937! Because it’s run in the capitalist fashion, the US just (as usual) outsources some/most of the killing to the private contractors! That makes it oh so much superior to the un-kosher “state terror”. Yup – relinquishing state’s monopoly on violence is now moral and upstanding. Otherwise, you are dirty “commie/tankie”.


  5. And in conclusion: Everybody involved in this debacle will be sacked from their jobs forthwith…. not…

    On the contrary, they all get promotions and move on to the next project!


  6. Truly, the reality is stranger than the fiction. The mirrors are smashed and the smoke is blown away and everything that is left is a pile of smoking trash. A laughable notion that NATO mission ever attempted to reconstruct anything for anyone on their occupational territories is now no more than a fiction that never left the paper (or the digital analogue thereof).

    That poses quite an interesting challenge to those who are responsible for the country now, by accident or design. If Taliban was created by US, because of the US and also in spite of the US, what happens when US picks up their bearings and leaves them to eat the dust? All agreements are null and void, there’s no contacts, no liabilities, the government is gone full stop and I am pretty sure Pentagon right now is burning more paper every day than the entire library of Congress. Perhaps T-ban leadership now do realize that every such state in history has been taken over by intelligence and either taken down or used as an asset. They don’t have resources nor cadres.

    They will be on the same path of civil war very soon when US intelligence regains their networks and starts to reboot the entire situation from the ground up. There’s only a gap of several weeks until the same people who “left” the country for good will change their sheepskins for some different landscape and what will happen then?


  7. Professor, I was thinking about this, and I don’t think this war is really over yet. For example, the Taliban are a Pashtun organization, right? And yet there are other ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, such as Uzbeks, Tadjiks, and many others; whom the Pashtun regard as second-rate people; and I seem to recall that they don’t very much like being dominated by the Taliban.
    Hence, there may be preconditions for an ethnic-based civil war. It’s true Taliban won initially without firing a shot, but that could change later. Just like Russian Civil War (obviously, very different class and social context, but same general idea: the quiet before the storm).

    Also, never underestimate American capacity for holding a grudge and causing endless trouble for those who defeated them fair and square. Look what happened in Vietnam: After Americans lost, they continued to harass that region for many years to come; by supporting Khmer Rouge, providing them with weapons against Vietnamese; supporting Pol Pot’s seat in UN, sanctions and embargo for Vietnam, etc.

    American imperialists are utterly relentness and they never give up. Which would be an admirable quality, if their cause were just, which it is not.

    In any case, right now they are very much down in the dumps and licking their wounds, but I suspect that will only last a few days. Then they will buck themselves up, dust themselves off, and start bombing the sh*t out of somebody again quite soon. And don’t underestimate their ability to continue to fester trouble in Afghanistan and the entire region, for many years to come.


    1. If so, hasn’t that been pretty much an ongoing history there?

      The Soviets and some others thought thought the former could win on the notion that Afghans are at odds with each other.


  8. The gist of it, for the click-averse people here:
    I’m wondering to what extent you feel your click-knowledge or evidence collection–what else could click-averse mean?– is completely absent from Paul’s and his readers minds? …

    One question. If I may. I, both enjoyed, but as a student of literature also somewhat disliked dealing poems. I loved some poems a lot, but not others by the same author occasionally. Thus I felt, I should deal with this intrinsically privacy as reader in my studies more generally.

    At one point, a “maestro” in physiology was interested in my larger project. For whatever mysterious reason, one of many considering my life, he did not return from a holiday in the Alps alive.

    ‘A two thousand pound education dropped by a ten-rupee jezail’

    View at


  9. Then they will buck themselves up, dust themselves off, and start bombing the sh*t out of somebody again quite soon.

    Yavlensis, there maybe were and still are bombing campaigns by the US of A‘s world spanning ‘COM empire that escaped your attention then and now.

    If I recall correctly, AFRICOM was added and is headquartered in Germany. You feel Trump didn’t know? You feel we should pay for it?


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