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US rebuilding effort in Afghanistan worse than ‘D-minus,’ watchdog says

The blast site inside Shahr-e-Dubai wedding hall in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019.(Xinhua Kabul/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)
January 16, 2020

U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan after almost two decades of fighting have been plagued by insecurity, personnel issues and politically driven timelines, according to the Pentagon’s watchdog for Afghanistan reconstruction.

“The constant turnover of U.S. personnel, or what we have euphemistically called the annual lobotomy, negatively impacted all of our reconstruction efforts,” Special Inspector General John Sopko told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The U.S. effort was further undermined by a lack of understanding of the “historical, social, legal and political traditions” of the country, he said.

Sopko delivered a blistering critique of American efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. At one point in the hearing, he said that if the U.S. had done more than just “showed up for class” or achieved a “D-minus,” reconstruction efforts would have worked a lot better.

The U.S. has spent nearly $900 billion on the Afghan conflict, the longest in American history. Yet the Taliban are at their strongest since being overthrown in 2001, civilian casualties remain near a record high and attacks by insurgents make it impossible for Afghan forces to secure much of the country.

The U.S. and Taliban are holding talks in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban has a political office, as President Donald Trump looks to draw down American forces. The two sides have been unable to reach an agreement so far that would set terms for an American withdrawal.

As the two sides try to keep negotiations alive after they broke down in September, the violence in the country continues. Two U.S. troops were killed and two injured when an explosive device hit a military vehicle earlier this month. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack.

For years, Sopko’s office has released a series of quarterly reports detailing deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, even as U.S. forces remained and new strategies were employed to defeat Taliban forces or bolster the government in Kabul.

A recent series by The Washington Post published detailed interviews by Sopko’s office with key U.S. military and political leaders providing far more pessimistic views about American efforts in Afghanistan compared to official public statements.

In a surprise Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan in November, Trump said peace talks with the Taliban had resumed amid a push for a cease-fire and said he would be in favor of reducing troop levels to about 8,600 from 12,000. Trump regularly complains about the cost and duration of U.S. military operations abroad.

A month after Trump’s visit, the Taliban said it wouldn’t accept a nationwide cease-fire proposed by the U.S. government.

The Pentagon at various points refused to provide Sopko with figures on Afghan force casualties and the amount of territory the Afghan government controlled compared with the Taliban. He addressed the classification of data during his hearing.

“A lot of the facts that you need, you’re not being given,” Sopko said. “They are over-classified or they’re not being collected or they’re just ignored. Turns out that everything that’s bad news has been classified over the last few years.”


(c) 2020 Bloomberg News
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