The Brown University war cost project calculated that since 2001, the United States has spent $2.26 trillion in Afghanistan—an investment that ended the United States’ longest war in a chaotic and humiliating manner.
There is no shortage of benchmarks for calculating the cost of the longest U.S. war. Blood is by far the most precious indicator. In contrast, the treasure is insignificant. But with the influx of Afghans into the Kabul airport and desperately fleeing Taliban rule spreading all over the world, the huge amount of funds the United States is trying to build Afghanistan into a free and democratic country deserves thorough scrutiny. Otherwise, you may forget the lesson and repeat the same tragedy.
The cornerstone of any nation-building effort is security. If people feel insecure, instability, corruption and corruption will become rampant, while the formal economy is shrinking.
As early as 2001, due to more than two decades of war before the US-led invasion in October of that year, the Afghan economy fell into ruins.
The Brown University war cost project calculated that since 2001, the United States has spent $2.26 trillion in Afghanistan. The largest part—nearly $1 trillion—was consumed by the Department of Defense’s overseas emergency response budget. The second largest item—$530 billion—is the estimated interest expense on funds borrowed by the US government for the war.
However, despite these trillions of dollars, Afghanistan is still one of the smallest formal economies on the planet. Last year, President Ashraf Ghani stated that 90% of the population lived on less than US$2 a day.
At the same time, the informal economy is booming. After the U.S. military ousted the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan consolidated its position as a major global supplier of opium and heroin-as the Taliban wins again, it is likely to keep this crown.
If this is not bad enough for the United States, then the Afghan army and the government it was supposed to protect have now collapsed. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, and the Taliban took a selfie behind his desk. This is the return of the US$2 trillion investment to the United States: a 20-year war ended in chaos and humiliation.
Since 2001, the United States has allocated more than $144 billion for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Most of the funds went to private contractors and non-governmental organizations responsible for the implementation of plans and projects by the US government to establish Afghan security forces, improve governance, help economic and social development, and combat illegal drugs.
The most serious failure of these reconstruction efforts-and the most expensive-was the $88.3 billion spent on training and equipping the Afghan army from May 2002 to March this year.
The mission of the Afghan army is to repel the Taliban and other armed groups, such as Al-Qaida and ISIL, which pose an existential threat to the US-backed Afghan government. However, in the face of the Taliban’s offensive, this 300,000-strong army quickly laid down its weapons, which exposed the country’s soldiers’ lack of confidence in the institutions they serve and the government they vowed to defend.
Afghanistan’s unique historical and cultural factors undoubtedly helped shape this result. However, the ineffective monitoring and evaluation of U.S. efforts should also be blamed on “big bucks.”
This is why the US Congress established SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan. Since 2008, it has been auditing and evaluating Washington’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The reports it produces are known for their foresight and tendency to take no action when emphasizing waste, fraud and abuse.
For example, a 2017 report on the United States’ efforts to train Afghan security forces found that Washington’s “political constraints” schedule “always underestimated the resilience of the Afghan insurgency” and overestimated the capabilities of the Afghan government forces. SIGAR stated that the United States has also made mistakes, trying to transplant advanced Western weapons and management systems into a basically illiterate combat force-making Afghanistan dependent on the US military for a long time instead of building an Afghan army that can fight independently. SIGAR also found that the tools used to monitor and assess the progress of training in the United States masked “intangible factors such as corruption and will to fight.”
Last month, SIGAR released its 10th report on Afghanistan’s “lessons learned”. “In an unpredictable and chaotic environment such as Afghanistan, poor oversight or improper implementation may threaten relations with local communities, endanger the lives of U.S. and Afghan government personnel and civilians, and undermine strategic goals,” Inspector General John F Thorpe Section wrote in the executive summary. .
This report has 324 pages, which is intensive but important to read. In the wreckage of the slow-motion train in which the United States intervened in Afghanistan, Sopko sat in the front row, highlighting areas where he might feel the real impact of his office work.
“It is almost self-evident that the United States regularly participates in large-scale reconstruction efforts,” he wrote. “If the United States finds itself involved in another one—even years or decades later—the findings, lessons learned, and recommendations presented here may prove useful.”
It’s really useful. However, for Afghanistan, these lessons came too late.