SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts — In light of the developments in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, many question the effectiveness of U.S. intervention in foreign countries as well as the politics of war and U.S. foreign policy. Although past U.S. aid efforts in Afghanistan, particularly reconstruction efforts, have drawn criticism in light of the current crisis in Afghanistan, it is important to remember the gains of U.S. aid in Afghanistan while noting the shortcomings to inform future aid endeavors.
US Aid in Afghanistan
U.S. foreign aid to Afghanistan is well documented. Since World War II, only Israel and Egypt have received more foreign aid than Afghanistan. In the years ranging from 1946 to 2019, Afghanistan had received about $135 billion worth of aid from the U.S. Military aid constitutes the majority of aid to Afghanistan. Of the $4.9 billion in aid Afghanistan received in 2019, more than $3.6 billion came in the form of military assistance. In that same year, Afghanistan was also the number one recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
SIGAR Reports Capital Asset Waste and Misuse
According to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) extensive analysis of aid to Afghanistan, the U.S. did not properly spend all of the aid to Afghanistan. SIGAR found that of the $7.8 billion that the U.S. invested in capital assets for reconstruction since 2008, including buildings, vehicles and aircraft, approximately 30% ($2.4 billion) was spent on assets that were abandoned, not used at all or “not used for their intended purposes.” Afghanistan used approximately 15% ($1.2 billion) of the assets for the initial purpose and only about 4% of assets ($343 million) stood in adequate condition. SIGAR states that, at the time of the report’s 2021 publication, it was unable to determine the status of various other assets.
US Reconstruction Projects in Afghanistan
The U.S. invested in several Afghan facilities, including hospitals and military facilities. The Salang hospital in Parwan province cost almost $600,000; today, Afghanistan does not use the hospital for the primary purpose. In April 2020, SIGAR found that the hospital was lacking staff, furniture and doors and noted pipes leaking and walls cracking.
The most expensive asset is the Tarakhil Power Plant, which USAID funded “at a cost of $335 million.” SIGAR’s investigation found that the nation does not use the plant as the initial purpose directs and the plant faces deterioration. The power plant’s usage and output improved in the five-year time period “between SIGAR’s 2015 reports on the facility and the 2020 follow-up.” However, “during the winter of 2019-2020,” SIGAR found that it was “underutilized,” functioning at less than 80% of its full capacity.
SIGAR’s 2021 report states that part of the issue is that the U.S. did not take into account “whether the Afghans wanted or needed the facilities or whether the Afghan government had the financial ability and technical means to sustain” the facilities in the long term. Such is the case of the Wardak National Police Training Center that costs almost $100 million. While SIGAR finds that Afghans did use the training center for its primary purpose, the center is deteriorating because no one has the responsibility or resources to conduct maintenance.
Shortcomings of Reconstruction Aid in Afghanistan
The current story around foreign aid to Afghanistan revolves around the United States’ inability to adequately distribute resources. SIGAR’s Special Inspector General John F. Sopko publicly states that the report reveals “a pattern of U.S. agencies pouring too much money, too quickly, into a country too small to absorb it.”
There is also criticism around the fact that the U.S. entrusted private, for-profit contractors with various construction projects. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that the Department of Defense did not always have the adequate groups or staff on hand to manage its contracts and oversee its private negotiations in Afghanistan.
The GAO report lines up with one of the conclusions drawn in the SIGAR report. The Department of State did not have the necessary knowledge and resources to head a successful strategy in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the Department of Defense has “the necessary resources and expertise to manage strategies, but not for large-scale reconstruction missions with significant economic and governance components.” SIGAR concludes that there was “no single agency” that “had the necessary mindset, expertise and resources” to enact an effective strategy and oversee the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
Progress Versus Expectations of Afghan Reconstruction Aid
The debate around the United States’ occupation of Afghanistan is an extremely political one. The Borgen Project Spoke with Brandeis University professor of international relations, Dr. Kerry Chase, who specializes in international political economy and U.S. foreign economic policy. Professor Chase stresses the point that the U.S. spent the most on counter-terrorism and combat operations against the Taliban. While the U.S. did spend a lot on the economy and reconstruction in “absolute terms,” the U.S. did not show an absolute commitment to real nation-building, she says.
When it comes to reconstruction efforts, Professor Chase acknowledges the shortcomings of the U.S. agencies and their strategies: “I think it is pretty clear that poor strategic planning on the U.S. side and corruption on the Afghan side both contributed significantly.” However, Professor Chase points out that it is still important to recognize the achievements of U.S. aid in Afghanistan despite the cost and the fact that the current conversation surrounding U.S.-Afghan relations tends to overshadow the progress. “At the same time, I think what’s lost in the current debate is that significant changes and improvement in Afghan infrastructure and society did occur, though not to the extent that many would desire.”
Improvement and the Future of US Reconstruction Aid
Despite the apparent flaws in past aid to Afghanistan, there is no doubt that the Afghan economy has seen significant growth since the U.S. lent a helping hand. Before the U.S. withdrawal, the quality of life in Afghanistan has improved vastly since 2001. The improvements include decreasing infant mortality rates and rising numbers of children attending school. Furthermore, the size of the Afghan economy has nearly quintupled. Despite COVID-19, the Asian Development Bank projects that Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) will “rebound to 3% in 2021” and increase to 4% in 2022. However, the forecast is unclear in light of the Taliban capture of the capital city of Kabul in August 2021.
Professor Chase also states that the United States anti-Taliban and foreign aid efforts did not meet expectations of the world considering the extensive time period of U.S. presence in Afghanistan and all the money poured into the state. But, at the same time, expectations were too high. The U.S. did not build “a robust and stable anti-Taliban alternative that could stand on its own two feet and many [had the unreasonable expectation]that it would be more robust than it was.”
Looking to the Future
Past U.S. aid efforts in Afghanistan present many lessons for future endeavors. Both USAID and the DOD do not see large-scale reconstruction missions as likely in the future. However, while recounting the shortcomings and misjudgments of U.S. aid in Afghanistan, it is vital to remember the accomplishments of U.S. aid in Afghanistan. The aid was not without benefits — Afghanistan made strides in several key sectors with the assistance of the U.S. Now, allowing the lessons of past efforts to inform future endeavors, the U.S. can continue forward in reducing global poverty.
– Gene Kang