A Taliban attack on a party at a hotel in Kabul on Wednesday night killed 14 people – nine of them foreigners – and initiated a siege with Afghan Security Forces that lasted for hours.
The attack on the Park Palace Hotel was the most brazen of this year’s spring fighting season. While an obvious reminder of the challenges facing the security services as US and other NATO allies step back, it's also a reminder of how fragile Afghanistan remains, even after $110 billion in US aid.
Of that money, $62.5 billion went toward building Afghanistan’s security forces. Yet the Taliban is still potent. And though the country made considerable steps forward over the last decade, much of that money was wasted due to mismanagement, lack of oversight, and corruption.
Whether the US and Afghanistan learn from these mistakes will be critical to on-going efforts to develop the war-torn country. And for the US, any lessons learned could prove vital for future foreign aid and development efforts – provided the negativities aren't airbrushed away.
“By any objective standard Afghanistan has been transformed, fiscally, politically, and socially from 2001 to today,” says Karl Eikenberry, who served in Afghanistan as both the head of the US-led military coalition and, later, as US ambassador. “Even with impressive gains, you still have a country that, by many indices, is poor and toward the bottom of the scale when you do global comparisons.”
Despite the tens of billions spent on training and equipment, monitoring organizations continue to express concern about the capabilities of Afghanistan's police and military, as well as the country's struggle to pay for their needs. Many predict Kabul still won't be able to fund its security forces without outside assistance by 2024.
Still, over the past 13 years Afghans have undoubtedly seen improvements. Paved roads went from less than 50 miles to nearly 8,000 miles. The average life expectancy climbed from as low as 44 years by some estimates to 60 years. Access to clean drinking water jumped from just 4.8 percent of the population to more than 60 percent. Women, particularly those in cities have experienced unprecedented access to education. During the Taliban’s rule, almost no women were in school and today nearly 3 million are enrolled in schools.
Still, many of the statistics that herald progress neglect important caveats. For example, of the nearly 8,000 miles of paved roads, the World Bank estimates that about 85 percent of them are now “poor shape and the majority cannot be used by motor vehicles.” And in 2011, when 2.4 Afghan girls were enrolled in school, as many as 19 percent of those 2.4 million students were absent for most of the school year or “permanently absent,” meaning they hadn’t attended school for three years.
“We spent too much money too fast in too small a country with too little oversight. When you combine those four things you’re going to see a lot of waste,” says John Sopko, Inspector General of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an organization created by Congress to oversee US spending Afghanistan.
Part of the initial rush to spend came in part from the focus on military operations in the country where long-term sustainability was not always the main concern. For those in the military, Eikenberry says the focus is often on short-term solutions that “stop the shooting.”
“For the United States, efforts in Afghanistan weren’t motivated first and foremost by the efforts to create an accountable government of Afghanistan, a state that functioned well, a robust growing economy, or for the country to build a rich civil society. Those were all byproducts of an effort that began with Al Qaeda,” says Eikenberry.
Moving forward, whether in Afghanistan or other places where the US provides foreign aid, the question will be whether the US can learn from mistakes it made in Afghanistan. The US government and military have written numerous “lessons learned" reports, but Sopko says that all too often they’re ignored when the next crisis rolls around.
That's an unfortunately old tradition. Sopko points to a 1988 USAID report reviewing their assistance mission in Afghanistan from 1950 to 1979, the year the Soviet Union invaded. Sopko says that report provided a good road map, including marking out the likely pitfalls of a future aid effort in the country. But it was ignored.
“One of the first lessons learned from Afghanistan is that before anyone starts designing programs in Syria or wherever, read the lessons learned reports that are already out there,” says Sopko.