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SIGAR, Sopko remarks – US lessons learned in Afghanistan, dated 15 January 2020

January 16, 2020

Summary – The lessons learned from lessons learned exercises is that lessons are rarely learned.  SIGAR’s assessment of US lessons learned in Afghanistan is, however, a brutal and necessary read.  The “annual lobotomy” relates to personnel turnover every year and highlights the failure to preserve expertise.  Other, more damning, indictments of US military, economic and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are also offered.  Major problems (security, human rights, corruption, terrorism, rule of law, drugs) will not magically vanish in the event of a US/Taliban peace deal…

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has produced an assessment of US lessons learned in Afghanistan over the last couple of decades.  It makes essential but grim reading.  I have attempted to distil the key points here.  My own experiences of Afghanistan both in and out of the country are microcosms of many of the points made here.  In late 2001, I was a Balkans/Eastern Europe analyst dragged into the post-9/11 emergency as a first step in “growing” UK MOD Afghan expertise instantly.  The points made are blunt and the lessons do not (or should not) come as a surprise.  They should also be seen as applying to the efforts of other countries in Afghanistan.  Looking at you, United Kingdom.  I have added some of my own brief comments in brackets.

SIGAR Overview:

With military and civilian staff deployed in-country rotating every year (80% of US embassy staff leave each summer, US military are there for 12 months), new people arrive with best intentions but little knowledge of what predecessors were doing.  [Comment: Absolutely correct to point this out, but how to fix?  I am guessing that most analysts, military, diplomats and civil servants do not want to spend five years of their career in Afghanistan.  There was discussion and effort to address this around ten years ago – some of the US senior military personnel stayed longer – 15, 18, 24 months.  But surely hard to enforce?].

SIGAR calls this the “annual lobotomy”.  Agencies struggle to see the wood for the trees – hard won lessons go ignored – in 2008 SIGAR found a USAID paper reviewing assistance given to Afghanistan over 1950 – 1979.  The lessons were still highly relevant but neither USAID or the State Department were aware of the study.  [Comment: conversely, when I reported for the first time as an Afghanistan analyst in London in early November 2001, I requested to start reading through the files immediately, so I could brief myself up – it was very much self-help in those days.  The response was “what files are they, then?”.  There were no significant files or database – Afghanistan was someone else’s civil war, there was no British embassy there, no UK strategic interest…]

When assessing “progress”, many claims do not stand even basic scrutiny – e.g. the 3 million girls and 5 million boys at school.  The data comes from Afghan government and is not independently verified.  Another example of child mortality rates dropping before based on a World Health Organisation estimate that had limited data – maternal mortality rates based on a survey of only 4 districts (out of approximately 400).  SIGAR was concerned that US accountability were, in some cases, actually going backwards.  Example – $1 Billion was spent on rule of law.  In 2009 there were 27 performance metrics to enable assessment.  By 2013 there were no performance measurements at all.  [Comment: Yes, but in the same way “money spent does not equal progress made”, numbers of metrics assigned does not equal effectiveness nor accuracy of measurement.]

SIGAR key lessons learned

Successful reconstruction is incompatible with continuing insecurity – fighting should be contained and agencies move quickly – there is a narrow window before insurgency emerges.  Reconstruction should be undertaken in the more secure areas first.  [Comment: Don’t know.  It seems superficially hard to disagree with.  But rushing in with Quick Impact Projects is also problematic and limited in effect when you don’t know the terrain, the society or the priorities.  Example given to me from Faryab – dig a well in one village but in doing so, inadvertently drain the wells of four neighbouring villages.  You don’t know the terrain – geographic or human – until you have been there a few years.  In the ISAF HQ in 2006 a concern was the risk of alienating the problematic parts of the country where the Taliban were operating.  By prioritising and rewarding the “good” areas with money and construction, you risk pushing people in the “bad” areas towards the Taliban when there is no reconstruction, economy or job prospects].

Unchecked corruption undermining US goals – The US is guilty of fostering corruption with a persistent belief that if you throw money at it, you automatically get better results – success as measured by money spent.  The Taliban were helped by early US “alliances of convenience” with warlords – this perpetuated human rights violations and corruption.  It drove many Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.  It is important to address corruption at the outset – “do not flood a small, weak economy with too much money”.  [Comment: Many countries were guilty of pointing to the amount of money they had donated to Afghanistan without demonstrating the money had been well spent.  One person’s “don’t flood the economy” is another person’s “failing to clothe, house and protect the population”…]

After defeat of Taliban there was no clear reconstruction strategy or single PoC – From 2001-2006 reconstruction was underfunded and understaffed.  After 2006 there was a massive over-correction.  Billions of dollars were poured in, distorting the economy and fuelling corruption.  There was a lack of skills for key tasks – the US military was given the job of training a civilian Afghan police force.  They were not trained or resourced to do this type of type and in some circumstances turned to US TV cop shows for guidance in designing the training programme.

Politically driven timelines – Unsurprisingly, the DOD was not skilled at developing a national economy – political demands divorced from reality.  [Comment: the military are often guilty of saying “yep, can do”, as a knee jerk response to a task they are given.  They are designed and trained to respond to an order in this way.  But with tasks that require social, economic and political nuance they can often find themselves out of their depth and without the skills sets to acknowledge weakness or say “well, hang on, this is not really our area”, or “no, we can’t do this unless we also have x, y and z.”  I am exaggerating to make this point.]

Mitigate “annual lobotomy” impact – 80% of US embassy staff depart each year.  This meant a permanent lack of institutional knowledge.  For assessing progress the US government defers to on the ground assessments, requiring each DOD, embassy, State Department to “mark their own work”.  This leads to reports that are much rosier than reality or simply irrelevant.

Reconstruction needs to be based on deep understanding of the historic, social, legal and political traditions of Afghanistan – Many US personnel did not know difference between Taliban and Al Qaida, they lacked knowledge of Afghan society, local dynamics and power relationships.  In the short-term, more in-depth pre-deployment training necessary.  In the longer term it is necessary to ramp up the knowledge base for future ops, identifying academic experts willing to lend knowledge at short notice in support of operations.  There is a dearth of experience in key US agencies – they need the vital combination of long-term institutional memory and recent experience.  It is important to listen to people with experience developed over time.

Recommendations to Congress

  • Need to urgently plan for post-Taliban peace deal – a number of serious threats will not miraculously disappear. If US military pull out they will likely be transferring to the State Department a budget of $4 Bn.  State is as yet unprepared to take this on.
  • Need to worry about: military and counter-terrorism capabilities of the Afghan security forces, the rights of Afghan women, rule of law, corruption, alternative livelihoods for farmers beyond poppy.
  • Crucial issue – the problem of reintegrating Taliban fighters (possibly as many as 60,000?) back into society.
  • This all at a time where there is a deteriorating security situation and decreasing staffing.
  • There will remain a need for rigorous assessment and strong oversight – identify best and worst performing projects.
  • Need a finalised anti-corruption strategy (as of December 2019 it is still “under development”).

Final comments – the biggest decisions are made when least is known

I have found that, while relatively easy in hindsight to point out when things have gone wrong, it still remains very difficult to actually fix things moving ahead.  In my part of the UK MOD it became common practice to talk about “lessons identified” rather than “lessons learned”, as a tacit admission that, as military and civilian personnel rotated through, the chances were that many lessons would fall by the wayside.  My main lesson from the early part of the campaign was that the biggest and most far-reaching strategic decisions (do we invade or not?  Where do we put our troops?  Who are good guys?  Who are bad guys?  Who do we support and give money to?) were taken when least was known about the country.  My wild assertion based on experiences of twenty years ago is that most NATO countries probably have only intelligence analyst per country – if they are lucky.  For some regions there might only be one analyst covering a half dozen countries.  There may be a couple more analysts for major subjects, e.g., Russia and China but, otherwise you only get more analysts to throw at the problem once a war has begun or immediately the crisis has arisen.  Then of course, it is often too late and the biggest decisions are made when least is known.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna Boreson permalink
    January 16, 2020 3:42 pm

    Well done! 👍

    Skickat från min iPhone

    > 16 jan. 2020 kl. 14:35 skrev afghanhindsight : > > >

  2. Monica Jerbi permalink
    January 16, 2020 6:46 pm

    Very interesting read with many lessons learned on corruption already learned elsewhere. One thing caught my eye: ” in 2008 SIGAR found a USAID paper reviewing assistance given to Afghanistan over 1950 – 1979.” That statement is dumbfounding. The report should have easily been found in USAID’s Development Experience Clearinghouse per I am just curious what the breakdown was. Was the report misfiled, classified, etc.? How is it possible SIGAR didn’t find it until 2008? What is the back story there?

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