$ 144 billion reconstruction effort at greater risk amid uncertain Afghan future: US watchdog report

Report says uncertain funding for a post-peace settlement, declining international donors’ aid pledges can threaten viability of the Afghan state

ISLAMABAD: US government’s leading agency on Afghanistan reconstruction believes that $144 billion reconstruction effort in the war torn country was at the greater risk than ever before amid stalled talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and fast approaching troops withdrawal deadline announced by President Biden.

Since 2014, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) develops a high-risk list for the new Congress. The fourth report compiled recently has identified areas where U.S. investment in Afghanistan reconstruction is most at risk of failure.

The report also includes a comparison of the estimates of the cost of war by Brown University’s Watson Institute that claimed it was $2.26 trillion, while Department of Defense’s (DOD) Cost of War Report estimates it at $824.9 billion.

The eight areas reviewed in the new report are: increasing insecurity, uncertain funding for a post-peace settlement, the need to reintegrate ex-combatants, endemic corruption, lagging economic growth and social development, the illicit narcotics trade, threats to women’s rights, and inadequate oversight.

According to SIGAR, a reduced U.S. civilian and military presence in Afghanistan amid a deteriorating security environment could create new challenges for conducting effective oversight of U.S.-funded programs, grants, and contracts for reconstruction work.

As of March 31, 2021, cumulative appropriations for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan totaled approximately $144.40 billion. This total comprises four major categories of reconstruction and related funding: security, governance and development, humanitarian, and oversight and operations. Approximately $8.97 billion of these funds support counter-narcotics initiatives that crosscut the categories of security ($4.60 billion) and governance and development ($4.37 billion).

US military watchdog in its assessment revealed that Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces and other targets have intensified; military and civilian casualties remain high despite the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement.

Afghan security forces are also face critical capability gaps such as for aircraft maintenance that require long-term international support.  Meanwhile, U.S. troop reductions and the COVID-19 pandemic have restricted the NATO Resolute Support train, advice, and assist mission’s contact with Afghan security ministries and their forces.

Uncertain funding for a post-peace settlement is another element identified by SIGAR. It said International donors’ aid pledges have declined, and donors’ conditions placed on assistance may reduce future years’ funding—possibly to levels threatening the viability of the Afghan state.

The need to reintegrate ex-combatants is important for Afghan peace agreement—as a U.S. policy objective— this identified element of high risk for US investment could entail massive economic, social, political, and security disruptions as the Afghan government reintegrates ex-combatants from both sides into civil society. Its success will be critical for Afghanistan to achieve lasting peace and stability, the report said.

Cumulative appropriations for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan since FY 2002 rose to $144.40 billion.

The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute issued an estimate of Afghanistan war costs of $2.26 trillion, far in excess of DOD’s estimate. The Watson number includes DOD and civilian agency costs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a portion of DOD costs since 9/11 above a baseline amount, veterans’ medical and disability costs, and interest costs on war-related borrowing.

In accord with SIGAR’s legislative mandate, this section details the status of U.S. funds appropriated, obligated, and disbursed for reconstruction activities in Afghanistan. As of March 31, 2021, the United States government had appropriated or otherwise made available approximately $144.40 billion in funds for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan since FY 2002.

Total Afghanistan reconstruction funding has been allocated includes $88.32 billion for security, $36.03 billion for governance and development, $4.14 billion for humanitarian aid, $15.91 billion for agency operations.

The US government’s military watchdog believes that Afghanistan has long been perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt states, and the government’s anticorruption efforts have suffered from vague strategies and insufficient actions. SIGAR delivered congressionally mandated reports in 2018 and 2019 on the Afghan government’s implementation of its anticorruption strategy.

Since 2002, the United States has provided nearly $17.05 billion in on-budget assistance to the government of Afghanistan. This includes nearly $11.09 billion provided to Afghan government ministries and institutions, and nearly $5.96 billion to three multilateral trust funds—the World Bank managed Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), the United Nations Development Programme-managed Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA), and the Asian Development Bank-managed Afghanistan Infrastructure Trust Fund (AITF).

Afghanistan is poor and suffers from illiteracy, inadequate infrastructure, weak governance, and now, heavy impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. Narcotics production and trade remain at high levels, little impeded by government, fostering corruption and crime while providing significant revenue for insurgents.

Afghan women and girls have made progress in recent years in health, education, legal protections, and participation in public life. But discrimination persists, and possible policy changes by whatever form of government might follow an Afghan peace agreement, could undermine their gains, the report warned.

President Donald J. Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (H.R. 133) into law on December 27, 2020, providing appropriations for all agencies active in Afghanistan, including the Departments of Defense, State, and Justice; the U.S. Agencies for International Development and Global Media; the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation; and SIGAR.

Three appropriations were specifically targeted for Afghanistan, consisting of the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF), the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP), and the SIGAR appropriation. These appropriations, totaling $3.10 billion, combined with $0.73 billion from other Congressional and agency actions, make up the FY 2021 appropriations of $3.84 billion through March 31, 2021.

Inspector General Sopko while speaking at Center for Strategic and International Studies to Launch SIGAR’s 2021 High-Risk List On March 10, 2021, emphasized that heavy reliance of the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces on international donor support, the ongoing threat that corruption poses to Afghanistan’s stability, the impact that a withdrawal of U.S. contractors would have on the U.S. military’s train, advise, and assist mission supporting Afghan security forces, and the dangers that declining donor support for Afghanistan’s government, combined with ongoing corruption, pose serious threat to the sustainability and survivability of the Afghan state.

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