National Security & Defense

Afghanistan’s ‘Evil Omens’

Afghan security forces in Khogyani district, August 2015. (Noorulla Shirzada/AFP/Getty)

It’s not often that you hear a government official use the phrase “evil omens.” It’s even rarer to hear the phrase from an official appointed by President Obama. And it’s nigh-unprecedented to hear it from an Obama appointee describing the dire deterioration of what was, at one point, a key foreign-policy priority for the White House.

Since 2012, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko has done the grim, thankless work of looking at what the federal government’s massive investment in Afghanistan’s future is yielding. He and his team have found taxpayer money spent on soybeans that won’t grow, weapons that Afghan military forces lost, a $2.9 million farming-storage facility that was never used, and a $456,000 training center that “disintegrated” within four months. He’s documented the Afghan government’s inability to pay for basic services, curtail opium production and the drug trade, or utilize the country’s natural resources.

Today in a speech at Harvard University, Sopko summed up 15 years’ worth of lessons from the Afghan war and reconstruction. His conclusion? There are “evil omens for the future of a desperately poor and largely illiterate country.”

In the speech, an advanced copy of which was provided to National Review, Sopko specifically pointed to a perpetually dangerous security situation that has made it impossible for any other aspect of Afghan life to thrive, citing an Afghan Ministry of Education report that fighting has closed 714 schools, denying more than 2.5 million children their education.

He does not see much evidence that the Afghan government can fix this state of affairs on its own:

Afghanistan has had the lead responsibility for its own security for more than a year now, and is struggling with a four-season insurgency, high attrition, and capability challenges. Heavy losses in the poppy-growing province of Helmand have required rebuilding an Afghan army corps and replacing its commander and some other officers as a result, a U.S. general said, of “a combination of incompetence, corruption, and ineffectiveness.”

Afghanistan’s precarious security situation makes it particularly difficult to determine precisely how the money the U.S. and foreign governments provide for the country’s reconstruction is spent. Sopko and his two-dozen staffers in Afghanistan are generally confined to the U.S. Embassy, and must take a helicopter even to get to the airport, because the roads are so unsafe. Large parts of Afghanistan are effectively off-limits to foreign personnel, whether they are managing projects or responsible for oversight functions. Sopko said his office works around that danger by using Afghan-government employees, using GPS technology, and working with a local nongovernmental entity.

“Security concerns are not the consequences of large, set-piece battles, but are more like the death of a thousand cuts,” he said in the speech. “The Taliban and other insurgents repeatedly carry out hit-and-run assaults on Afghan army and police checkpoints and small outposts, capturing weapons, inflicting casualties, and eroding the credibility of the government in Kabul.”

RELATED: In Afghanistan, Taliban Controls Most Territory Since 2001

Even the most dedicated hawk must groan at the limited returns seen on America’s gargantuan expenditures in Afghanistan. Since fiscal year 2002, Congress has appropriated more than $113 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, paying for roads, clinics, schools, civil-servant salaries, and Afghan military and police forces. That total does not include U.S. military spending on the country. Adjusted for inflation, the amount we’ve spent to reconstruct Afghanistan now exceeds the total amount we gave to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Western Europe after WWII.

#share#There’s a lot of blame to go around. First and foremost, the Afghan government that appears to have largely squandered all of that foreign aid. Some would argue that the Bush administration’s ambitions in the country after toppling the Taliban were never realistic. And Pakistan and Iran have remained constant thorns in the side of those ambitions.

But the Obama administration deserves plenty of the blame as well. Back in 2007, introducing himself to the country that would soon make him president, Obama contended that the war in Iraq was hindering our efforts in Afghanistan.

EDITORIAL: In Afghanistan, Obama Starts to Face Reality

“When I am President,” he declared, “we will wage the war that has to be won, getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Back then, Obama insisted that ending the Iraq war would “direct badly needed resources to Afghanistan,” which was being destabilized by “a mix of terrorism, drugs, and corruption.”

As it became clear just how difficult cleaning up the mess in Afghanistan would be, Obama’s promise to “wage the war that has to be won” morphed into a pledge to “end two wars.” Suddenly, the president seemed uninterested in wasting any more time, money, or American lives on the intractable Afghan problem. But he also recognized that abandoning the country would probably lead to the eventual return of Taliban rule.

Even the most dedicated hawk must groan at the limited returns seen on America’s gargantuan expenditures in Afghanistan.

The result was a drifting, muddled approach designed to keep Afghanistan on the back burners of foreign policy, behind the outreach to Cuba, the Iranian nuclear deal, and the seemingly perpetual, futile efforts for a lasting ceasefire in Syria. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has shrunk, but in October, Obama announced that, “Instead of going down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul by the end of 2016, we will maintain 5,500 troops at a small number of bases, including at Bagram, Jalalabad in the East, and Kandahar in the South.” Just enough forces to be a target, not enough forces to alter the country’s balance of power.

Sopko pointed out that Americans and Afghans have achieved great things in the past decade and a half. But those accomplishments came at great cost, and any future U.S.-military interventions will face the difficult question of how to avoid replicating the extraordinary disappointments left in their wake.

“Despite ongoing violence, the Afghan people are healthier, better schooled, and less impoverished than they were 15 years ago,” Sopko said. “We can learn from those successes. But it is the disappointments and failures that threaten achievement of objectives and stewardship of taxpayers’ dollars, so they deserve our keenest attention.”

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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