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As U.S. Troops Leave Afghanistan, Experts Assess The Results Of Reconstruction


America's 20-year military mission in Afghanistan is almost over. Since that mission started, the U.S. has also been deeply involved in Afghan reconstruction, a monumental undertaking that cost billions of dollars with mixed results. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The effort to reconstruct Afghanistan was ambitious. Thousands of employees and contractors with the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies fanned out across Afghanistan to build roads and clinics, nurture opportunities for women and girls, create civil society - in other words, nation building.

LAUREL MILLER: It would certainly go in the hubris category, you know? I mean, it was constructing a state from scratch.

NORTHAM: Laurel Miller is director of the Asia program at the International Crisis Group and a former senior State Department official. She says there was a push to remake Afghanistan into something more like a secure democratic country.

MILLER: There was this idea that if you put a lot of resources into it and a lot of willpower very quickly, that you can make what we otherwise know are long-term generational developments happen on some kind of speedy timeline that fits American policy priorities. And the world doesn't work that way.

NORTHAM: The U.S. spent roughly $144 billion on reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan since 2002. At least $19 billion of that was lost to waste, fraud and abuse.

JOHN SOPKO: We funneled too much money too fast with too little oversight.

NORTHAM: John Sopko is the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which is mandated by Congress to conduct audits and investigations on efforts in Afghanistan. He says many projects were terribly mismanaged. He points to a hotel project right across the street from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that was never completed.

SOPKO: We spent millions of dollars to build this thing. It was a guaranteed loan. And the whole inside was hollow. It was a Potemkin village. And it's because the contracting officers never went out to Afghanistan to take a look. They never kicked the tires.

NORTHAM: Sopko says the U.S. built schools but often didn't look at what was being taught, focused on the number of hospitals and clinics built but didn't check if they had doctors or pharmaceuticals. But he says there were always upbeat reports about progress.

SOPKO: There was a cancer on some of our programs and for years, and we didn't hold ourselves to the honesty test, and we exaggerated for Congress, for the press, for the people back home, that it was success.

NORTHAM: But there were some honest-to-goodness successes for nation building in Afghanistan.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: The nightly newscast on TOLO TV is slick, fast-paced and often has hard-hitting political stories. It's one of dozens of TV channels now in Afghanistan. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, there was no television allowed and only propaganda and religious programs on the one radio station. Human Rights Watch Patricia Gossman, who has been traveling to Afghanistan for 30 years, says the U.S. helped nurture one of the most vibrant media in the region. She says there has also been huge progress in reducing infant and child mortality rates. Under the Taliban, most women couldn't work, and girls were not allowed to go to school. Gossman says now many have those opportunities.

PATRICIA GOSSMAN: The slow but very real struggle on women's rights - all that was due to that international presence and that support that suddenly poured in, which had never been the case in Afghanistan before.

NORTHAM: But Gossman says those gains were always fragile, even more so now that the Taliban are retaking ground.

GOSSMAN: You look now and see it all under threat. That's what's so deeply troubling. And I don't know that it will all be lost, but it's clearly under threat now.

NORTHAM: As the U.S. pulls out, Afghan forces have to defend the country on their own. The U.S. spent more than $88 billion to train them, and the Biden administration has asked Congress to keep funding that training.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.