US aid policies undermined success of Afghanistan mission, says watchdog chief

America’s huge, badly-coordinated and politically-driven aid programme in Afghanistan engendered the corruption that undermined its entire mission and turned Afghans away from the western coalition, according to the head of a US aid watchdog.

“We did not really understand Afghanistan or how it worked as a country,” John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (Sigar), told a conference at the defence and security thinktank the Royal United Services Institute.

“We sent so much money so quickly into so poor a country with so little oversight we were actually giving more money than the gross domestic product of Afghanistan for so many years,” Sopko said.

“We do not want to be honest and as a result we learned how to do the wrong thing perfectly by checking boxes. We focused on inputs but never looked at the outcomes,” he said, giving the example of the US checking whether hospitals were built but not whether they were being used.

Sopko was speaking on Monday at the conference in London, where UK and US aid watchdogs shared their perspectives on why the billions spent in Afghanistan had ended with the Taliban capturing the country so easily.

Sir Hugh Bayley, a commissioner of the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (Icai), said the west did not understand local traditions, culture or capacity. He said the UK parliament needed to end its “optimism bias” and demand the truth from aid workers on the ground.

He revealed that UK diplomats had been advocating with the US for a different political approach from about 2015, but were unable to persuade the Americans to broaden the base of a centralised Pashtun-focused Afghan government.

The UK officials were in favour of attempts to pull in people who were supportive of the Taliban but also tractable. “They regret that such steps were not taken when the UK was in a position of strength,” he said.

Conceding US dominance, Sir Hugh said one diplomat had admitted to him the UK “did not have the influence at strategic level that we sought”.

“We tolerated that because this was not the third world war, because we did not face an existential threat to western democracy and our independence,” Sir Hugh said. “The implication was that if the UK had faced such a threat, the relationship between allies would have required a more collegiate system.”

Sir Hugh said the turnover of UK military, development staff and diplomats was too fast, meaning there was little institutional memory. “Insufficient attention was paid to its locally recruited staff who spoke the languages, understood the culture and who were free to mix and mingle in the local community, and who were crucially there for a long time and had much better memories of what had been tried before.”

Nigel Thornton, a lead analyst at Icai, who has interviewed hundreds of former UK diplomats and aid workers in Afghanistan, said the UK’s aid programme was intended to build a state in the service of security.

He said the UK knows from decades of learning what an effective aid programme looks like, and it took until 2016 for the country to acknowledge that it would take decades for a viable state to be built, and this would require engagement with the Taliban to secure political legitimacy.

“It is hard to build legitimacy with people when the government is kicking down their doors at night,” he said.

The UK prioritised the transatlantic relationship rather than challenge US priorities, he added.

One lesson, he said, was to “fail faster”, look in the mirror, admit the unpalatable truths and be prepared to change quickly.

The UN estimates that 28.8 million people in Afghanistan currently require humanitarian aid and is seeking $3.2bn to address the crisis this year.

US aid policies undermined success of Afghanistan mission, says watchdog chief