Blaming The Afghans One Last Time

U.S. watchdog SIGAR told true stories about the trees of the Afghanistan war. It avoided talking about the forest—and the people trying to survive the changing ecosystem.

Blaming The Afghans One Last Time
Propaganda poster circa 1943, Office of Emergency Management. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Edited by Sam Thielman

I USED TO USE THE REPORTS, TOO. They were everything a national-security deadline reporter wants: a thoroughly-footnoted accounting of a specific disaster in a distant war, usually accompanied by an unfathomable amount of money. When I was at WIRED, where I was expected to post at least twice a day, the reports came as a relief. That day, I would meet the unofficial quota. Contractor Bills U.S. AND Taliban To 'Guard' Afghan Road, U.S. Watchdog Finds. That might get homepage pickup. But as the reports piled up over the years, it became clear that they obscured more than they exposed.

This piece will rant about the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). You're either on board while I sort out what it is about SIGAR that has bothered me for over a decade, or you're not. No hard feelings either way, as our topic today is very niche. I’m going to try saying something about a 20-year-long war, and how I hope that war won't be remembered.

SIGAR, pronounced like the thing you smoke, was a congressionally chartered monitor of how U.S. "reconstruction" money in Afghanistan got spent. That is: SIGAR did not audit or critique the actual warfighting, but rather how the U.S. spent money building infrastructure and institutions in the "aftermath" of warfighting, which in reality was simultaneous with warfighting.

Multiple times a year, SIGAR published what was effectively Consumer Reports on a military occupation. Massive, congressionally-funded project X was behind schedule by Y and over budget by Z million dollars. Congressional/military priority A made B amount of progress compared to this quarter last year. As well, SIGAR's investigations got shady contractors suspended or barred from doing business with the U.S. government—scroll down to Appendix D, Table 1—and a few criminally prosecuted. They should get credit for that.

SIGAR's mandate determined its focus—which is also to say that SIGAR's mandate determined what SIGAR neglected. Consumer Reports: Occupation Edition was written for Congress (that is, staffers on the relevant committees), with the occupation's managers also interested in their reviews. It was not written for Afghans. It wasn't really even written for the American public, except insofar as the public might be micro-focused on what was up with refurbishing Khost City's power grid and such. I never once heard such micro-focus outside of a symposium or a newsroom. The questions I heard the most from Americans were variants of Why are we losing? Why do we keep doing this? When can we stop? From Afghans it was: How could you do this? Those were not among the questions SIGAR addressed.

SIGAR told true stories about the trees while avoiding the forest – and the people trying to survive the changing ecosystem. The way to do so, often, was to present the Afghans as incapable and thieving. That Khost City-power-grid example, which I picked at random from SIGAR's website archive, concluded that the U.S.' engineering improvements delivered more electricity, but "due to the GIRoA [the U.S.-backed Afghan regime, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] and local operators' limited capability to sustain the infrastructure and the considerable safety hazards which negatively impact the operation of the facilities, there is risk to the U.S. Government's investment of $1.6 million."

This blinkered focus runs throughout what may be SIGAR's final (I think?) consumer report, released Thursday, titled "Why Afghanistan's Government Collapsed." The war ultimately failed, SIGAR tells us, because of "endemic corruption"—a phrase SIGAR reserves for the Afghan government and never its American patron. In sheafs of reports for something like 15 years, SIGAR presented corruption as the central problem of the war, and SIGAR meant the Afghans' corruption. American corruption, the inevitable corruption of an endless-war economy, got treated as unfortunate, marginal, or exceptional, rather than as context for Afghan political, economic and security decisions.


Finally, the Afghan government’s high level of centralization, endemic corruption, and struggle to attain legitimacy were long-term contributors to its eventual collapse. The Bonn Conference, convened in late 2001, established a process for the construction of a new political order in Afghanistan that involved the adoption of a new constitution and democratic elections. Forged between various factions of the Afghan polity, the agreement that emerged from Bonn centralized power in the Afghan presidency. By investing so much power in the executive, Afghanistan’s political system raised the stakes for political competition and reignited long-running tensions between an urban elite eager to modernize and conservative rural populations distrustful of central governance.

The attentive reader will notice that the composition of the Afghan government during the 2001-2021 Republic isn't something the Afghan government created. The force that "centralized power in the Afghan presidency" was the United States and its many, many allies at Bonn. The "various factions of the Afghan polity" involved were the warlords whom the Taliban defeated in the 1990s civil war. Among the early actions of these U.S.-aligned warlords were massacres of thousands of Taliban prisoners.

SIGAR writes that the U.S. did not "resolve the issue of corruption" because doing so "required the cooperation of Afghan elites whose power relied on the very structures that anticorruption efforts sought to dismantle." That makes the U.S. sound like a passive observer to the "very structures" it built. You can blame Hamid Karzai's brother for turning Kandahar into his fiefdom and letting the opium trade flourish. But that was all possible because he was a CIA asset. SIGAR lingers a bit on infamous Kandahar "police chief" Abdul Raziq, another narcotrafficker, who presided over "systemic torture, forced disappearances, and summary executions of civilian detainees." But "[o]n the other hand," SIGAR continues, "Raziq’s ruthlessness kept Kandahar Province relatively secure." It also means U.S. officials were willing to accept such war crimes as the cost of securing a crucial province.

Ashraf Ghani, the final president of the 2001-21 Republic, gets it really bad from SIGAR. A whole section of the report denounces Ghani for "Govern[ing] through a Highly Selective, Narrow Circle of Loyalists, Destabilizing the Government at a Critical Juncture." All of that seems pretty accurate. But once again, the relevant context for Ghani and his governance style lies in the throwaway aside that Ghani was "a former World Bank official and a favorite of many in the international community." Ghani wasn't elected, even after a 2014 election filled with so much fraud an EU official likened it to "a North Korea situation," and had to be installed through "last-minute negotiations led by then-Secretary of State John Kerry and personal intervention by President Barack Obama." An official of the Republic, Habiba Sarabi, tells SIGAR, "Especially after 2014, [Afghan people] don’t believe in democracy [or] elections.” (Five years earlier, when Hamid Karzai's final presidential election featured widespread fraud, U.N. envoy Kai Eide told U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, "I am going to tell the ministers that there was blatant foreign interference in the Afghan election. What I will not say is it was the United States and Richard Holbrooke.")

Ghani was the latest Afghan technocrat that the U.S. thought was, frankly, controllable. This was exactly the logic at the Bonn Conference behind making Karzai president in late 2001. It's been conveniently forgotten, so many years after the U.S. grew exasperated at Karzai for his own exasperation with the U.S. military killing so many Afghans, that the U.S. wanted Karzai because he seemed to be a technocrat. When he wasn't enough of a technocrat, the U.S. found another person who seemed to be a technocrat to replace him. Ghani was supposed to be an alternative to the corruption the U.S. located not in itself but in Hamid Karzai.

It seems not to have occurred to U.S. officials that a World Banker skilled at impressing western donors in international fora would be an insular, blinkered and autocratic leader. A former senior Afghan diplomat memorably tells SIGAR, "For God’s sake, we had provinces falling, and [Ghani] would still bloody hold National Procurement Council meetings for 4 hours." Washington installed and maintained a banker as Afghan president. It doesn't get to shake its head in contempt when he flees for the Abu Dhabi St. Regis instead of rushing to the front like Volodomyr Zelensky.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the report comes from the detail with which SIGAR recounts the collapse of the Afghan Republic in the summer of 2021. Hamdullah Mohib, one of the Republic's most important U.S.-backed security potentates, told the watchdog "that until the week leading up to the collapse, the government considered itself to be the dominant party." If I was still a deadline journalist, I would probably lede with that.

Here SIGAR at least gets within field-goal range of the appropriate context. Ghani and the other officials of the Republic didn't really think the U.S. would leave, since U.S. hand-wringing about withdrawal was a feature throughout 20 years of war, and each time the U.S. ended up staying, under cover of winding down the war. SIGAR confirms that "some U.S. Embassy Kabul staff did not fully accept the withdrawal of U.S. military forces" and other unnamed Washington officials backchanneled messages to Ghani indicating that the withdrawal was a bluff. Why would a client government, so habituated to waiting out rhetoric from its patron about departing a protracted war, believe that this time the U.S. meant it? And beneath that assumption lay hard material facts. As SIGAR recounts, the World Bank found that "donor grants"—foreign money—"were equivalent to 52.06 percent of the country’s 2020 expenditures, while domestic revenues were equivalent to 39.79 percent."

Like Karzai before him, Ghani governed within structures established by the United States. His economic and political base was not in Afghanistan, it was in Washington and Brussels. Everything that doomed the Afghan Republic occurred within a western context that shaped Afghan choices. Often, those choices were predatory, as with the $1 billion pyramid scheme known as the Kabul Bank. ("A $1 billion bank collapsed, and the U.S. adviser swore to me it was financially sound," a U.S. Treasury official would later tell SIGAR.) Those practices were normalized and excused by the same U.S. institutions that saw Abdul Raziq as keeping Kandahar Province "relatively secure."

SIGAR, unfortunately, reflected that blinkered quality. It didn't ignore the evidence pointing to U.S. structural responsibility for Afghan corruption. It just relegated that evidence to the sidelines. SIGAR cites a 2015 study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute finding that "[t]he significant amount of aid and vast international military spending post-2001 has re-ingrained a culture of aid-rentierism: the Afghan elite competes internally for political rents from the international community.” A different investigative watchdog might have used that central structural dynamic as the basis for understanding why the Afghan government was doomed.

SIGAR isn't interested in that story, and I suspect that owes less to a conscious choice than to the tacit assumptions of its mandate. Consumer Reports might have reliable insights about the merits of this or that product, but it's never going to say that consumerism itself, let alone capitalism, is the fundamental problem every bargain-hunter is trying to solve. SIGAR wants to provide policymakers with helpful guidance to make the U.S. a better occupier next time. The fundamental contradictions of occupation aren't going to be as visible as the "endemic corruption" of the client state. I worry that future historians will look to SIGAR’s body of work and consider it the whole story of the war.

BUT THE MOST TRAGIC ASPECT of SIGAR's misperceptions of the war concern the interviews it conducted with U.S. officials.

SIGAR conducted lots of candid appraisals of Afghanistan with diplomats, generals, security bureaucrats and others involved with the enterprise of a 20-year war. Years ago, Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post sued to acquire the transcripts of them. He saw a litany of deceit and delusion so staggering in its aggregate that he (and/or his editors) likened it to the Pentagon Papers. Here's Whitlock in the foreword to the book he wrote based on it:

[SIGAR] redacted portions of the documents and concealed the identities of most of the people it interviewed. But the interviews showed that many senior U.S. officials privately viewed the war as an unmitigated disaster, contradicting a chorus of rosy public statements from officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department, who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan.

Speaking frankly because they assumed their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials confessed to SIGAR that the war plans had fatal flaws and that Washington had wasted billions of dollars trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation. The interviews also exposed the U.S. government's botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan's thriving opium trade.

Many of those interviews described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said officials at military headquarters in Kabul—and at the White House—routinely distorted statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was plainly not the case.

We'll never know what would have resulted if SIGAR had actually blown the whistle on all the generals and ambassadors and secretaries and senior directors, and told Americans that their leaders were lying. What would have happened if SIGAR had investigated the CIA and military officials who permitted Abdul Raziq to conduct his systemic torture, forced disappearances, and summary executions of civilian detainees?

Instead, Thursday's SIGAR report quotes the inspector general, John Sopko, who fretted to legislators in January 2020, “We have incentivized lying to Congress and by that, I mean the whole incentive is to show success and to ignore the failure and when there’s too much failure, classify it, or don’t report it.”

Sopko said that the month after Whitlock published the Afghanistan papers in the Washington Post. None dare call that endemic corruption.

SPEAKING OF MYOPIA in the service of a bankrupt enterprise, George Packer takes a few shots at me in this Atlantic piece arguing that the depravities of Russia obligate America to police the world, or however he'd phrase it. But then he approvingly quotes, for its "prudent sense of limits," the famous John Quincy Adams "go not into the world seeking monsters to destroy" speech, which is typically treated as the intellectual wellspring of American isolationism. "Align U.S. policy with the universal desire for freedom, but maintain a keen sense of unintended consequences and no illusions of easy success" is the way Packer actually phrases it, which says to me this piece needed another draft. This is “A New Theory of American Power”? Do Good Stuff And Be Careful To Not Do Bad Stuff?

Packer doesn't bother with anything I've written about Russia and Ukraine. He just sort of points and gawks at REIGN OF TERROR without arguing anything. The final line of my book, about how it's difficult to see America as more than the War on Terror, seems to have rubbed him the wrong way. Accordingly, I suspect George's problem with REIGN is that it traces how delusions like his own—he was one of the premiere journalistic advocates of the Iraq occupation—contributed to driving the United States away from whatever democracy can be said to exist here. Packer's piece is especially muddled toward the end, but he contends that "a decent world isn’t possible without liberalism, and liberalism can’t thrive without U.S. engagement." But Cold Wars don't revitalize American liberalism, they become weaponized slogans like Race Mixing Is Communism chanted in defense of segregation, and they give the annihilation of places like El Mozote or My Lai a perverse ideological justification. Wars on Terror don't revitalize American liberalism, they license the NYPD to prey on Muslim communities, while liberals write articles about the war's prospects for spreading liberalism. I suppose these are lessons we'll have to keep on remembering. Luckily, there's a whole book about it.

ROZINA ALI wrote a harrowing New York Times Magazine story following up on the theft of an Afghan baby girl by a Marine Major, Joshua Mast. This section stopped me in my tracks:

Mast, meanwhile, left an excited message at the Virginia attorney general’s office, explaining that a group of former Marines, “sponsored by a very wealthy American” he did not name, had volunteered to help get the baby out. They would pay Afghan guards at the airport. “They’re Christians,” Mast said of the former Marines in the voice message I obtained. Pray for their safety, he implored.

Who funded the theft of Baby L?

LAST THING: Tell your local comic book shop you want a copy of Betsy Braddock: Captain Britain #1 by Tini Howard and Vasco Georgiev. You can do it while you're pre-ordering WALLER VS WILDSTORM! BB:CB is one of my most anticipated comics of 2023, and the more everyone pre-orders it, the more stories Tini and Vasco will get to tell about Betsy, her girlfriend Rachel Summers, her big dumb brother Brian and the meaning of being a national hero. I really can't wait for this one, and if you like this newsletter or REIGN OF TERROR, I bet you'll like it too.