Failings that Led to the Collapse of Afghanistan Now Fund the Taliban and Prevent Allies from Entering the United States

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has just issued two devastating reports to Congress on American Failures in Afghanistan. Both should be required reading for everyone in the U.S. national security community.

The first is has a remarkably bland title for its contents: Testimony of John F. Sopko Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. It was presented as part of Sopko’s testimony to the Committee on Oversight and Accountability of the U.S. House of Representatives on April 19, 2023. The testimony is available here.

The sheer blandness of the title hides the fact that it is probably the best and frankest description to date of the problems that led to the collapse of the Afghan government and forces – and a sweeping Taliban victory. Unlike far too many other reports, it does not focus on the final days of the Afghan government or the problems in evacuating Americans and Afghans out of the airport in Kabul.

This testimony for the record is actually a detailed report that builds on more than a decade of SIGAR’s warnings to Congress about the major problems in the U.S. military and civil aid efforts. It traces the key causes of the collapse that were triggered by the decision of the United States to leave Afghanistan under the Trump and Biden Administrations, and by the fact the United States engaged in unilateral peace negotiations with the Taliban—and an agreement to leave the country—because it could not deal effectively with the Ghani government.

It shows, however, that the United States had little other choice in dealing with Ghani, and that the collapse of the Afghan government and forces were the result of policies that began long before both the Trump and Biden Administrations, which led to major failures in building up effective Afghan forces and governance, as well as massive corruption.

It highlights the unrealistic (dishonest?) level of official U.S. and Afghan reporting on the course of the fighting, the exaggerated success of military and civil efforts, the failures of the Ghani government to provide effective leadership, the critical impact of rushing out the contractors and U.S. air support that allowed the Afghan forces to survive, and a wide range of other issues that mirror image many of the same failures in the U.S. interventions in Vietnam and in Iraq after 2003.

It is not a full analysis of the longer-term reasons why the U.S. effort in Afghanistan consistently failed in so many ways from 2002 onwards, although SIGAR has issued other reports that examine these issues in more depth. It does, however, show that the key reasons for the collapse were not the mistakes of either the Trump or Biden Administrations but part of a broad failure to create either effective U.S. civil and military aid and to help create an effective Afghan political system and structure of governance.

The title of the second report is somewhat less bland than the first. It is titled The 2023 High-Risk List. It too was testimony for the record that actually a detailed report. The full document is available on the SIGAR website.

Nothing about the report’s title, however, alerts the reader to its actual contents. It focuses on five ongoing risks that show continued U.S. failures to deal with the collapse of the Afghan government and forces and how the United States has not learned from these failures. The risks involve every aspect of current U.S. policy to deal with the country and its people:

1.) Taliban interference with the UN and NGOs

 2.) Reliance on trust funds and multilateral organizations

 3.) Loss of oversight

 4.) The Afghan Fund

 5.) Evacuating Afghan allies

The contents of this High Risk report are as devastating in their own way as the previous testimony on the reasons for the collapse of the Afghan government and forces. It provides three critical warnings about the current U.S. and international aid effort. One is that there is no evidence the Taliban can use aid wisely or without serving its own ideology, particularly in ways that exclude women for any role in the aid process. A second is that the United States has not taken the steps necessary to ensure that billions of dollars in U.S. and other aid are going to Afghanistan in a form that the Taliban can manipulate and use, and that others can take through corruption.

Worse, SIGAR not only cannot get meaningful data on how aid or other funds from international organizations are being used, SIGAR cannot get such data from within the Executive Branch of our own government. The U.S. government has clearly failed to learn that the only way to fight corruption in the use of aid is to halt the flow of money until it is clear it can be used honestly and effectively – a form of “conditionality” that SIGAR recommended for well over a decade before the Afghan collapse.

The final risk, however, is equally tragic, and is touched upon in the testimony report as well. Tragic as the failures to evacuate the Afghans who served with United States and allied forces may have been during the final days in Kabul, that tragedy has not ended. The High Risk report makes it brutally clear that the U.S. government still lacks an effective way of bringing deserving Afghans to the United States.

The U.S. government has not provided adequate staff or created effective and timely procedures for handling such cases. Worse, SIGAR reports the end result is that there is now a new form of Afghan corruption: former U.S officials and members of the military who sell recommendations to Afghans that are either deserving refugees desperate to come to the United States or ones that to do not deserve any special treatment but can pay.

Put bluntly, enough is enough. We don’t need partisan debate over the collapse or academic studies of the lessons of war that ignore the sheer depth of our failures over two decades and do not produce real reforms. Most importantly, the “collapse” clearly isn’t over. We are still wasting billions of dollars, and we are still failing Afghans who often risked their lives to work and fight beside us.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy