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How to ensure operational failure: divide the responsibility

This week John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, delivered his report about U.S. security sector assistance programs in Afghanistan since 2001. It’s the story of a monumental policy failure.

The cost to the United States taxpayer so far is more than $18 billion. The money was supposed to equip the Afghan military and police with weapons, vehicles, and aircraft. Despite the enormous budget, the results of the assistance program are dismal. And the long-term damage to Afghanistan is incalculable.

Outwardly, U.S. policy was to rapidly equip the Afghan security forces. In reality, Sopko said, “the United States was unprepared to take on the responsibility of equipping a force at the scale required in Afghanistan.”

For example, the Afghan military and police have just 38 armored ambulances for 352,000 authorized personnel. The Afghan Ministry of Defense has asked for more armored ambulances but hasn’t receive them. Yet in 2017 alone, the U.S. Army sent 287 surplus armed ambulances to be destroyed, rather than provide them to the Afghan military.

The root cause of the policy disaster? Divided responsibility.

There was never a unified, well-managed approach to helping build the Afghan security forces. Instead, U.S. assistance was a “patchwork of programs” that involved dozens of U.S. entities and international partners.

Chaos ensued because no one was in charge. No single person, agency, military service, or country was responsible for overseeing U.S. and international efforts to develop the Afghan military and police. “Even within the U.S. government, no organization or military service was assigned ownership of developing key components of the mission,” Sopko said.

Each NATO country involved in the Afghan mission picked its own approach to training, advising, or assisting the Afghan security forces and the ministries of defense and interior. “This impeded the standardization of security assistance programs and failed to optimize the international community’s significant contribution,” Sopko said.

Finally, according to Sopko, U.S. forces lacked a monitoring tool to assess their Afghan counterparts. Without adequate feedback, problems with the security assistance program couldn’t be identified or fixed.

The “lessons learned” report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction is here.


Richard L. Cassin is editor at large of the FCPA Blog.

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