Two years ago, on August 31, 2021, the United States completed its mission in Afghanistan, ending twenty years of military and state-building intervention in what has come to be known as America’s longest war. The fact that the United States has spent two trillion dollars in Afghanistan cannot be undone. Much has been written — and much remains to be written — on the failings of that mission that led to the US-backed Afghan government swiftly crumbling and the Taliban seizing power in the days leading up to America’s departure.
One body that has been especially critical of the US mission in Afghanistan is the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Founded in 2008 as a government watchdog, SIGAR has built a reputation of being a thorn in the side of the US mission, consistently turning attention to its many shortcomings, such as poor oversight of projects implemented by a litany of dubious subcontractors, lack of understanding of local settings, weak collaboration amongst internal government agencies and with other governments, and — as is often repeated — the inability to deal with endemic corruption that foreign aid only exacerbated. In other words, SIGAR has become synonymous with US failings in Afghanistan.
However, viewing SIGAR as the harbinger of American shortcomings obscures the fact that SIGAR also plays a crucial role in sustaining the US Empire. SIGAR is borne from, and part and parcel of, US foreign policy that seeks to extend US influence and power abroad. In the deceptive game of global power politics, the role of a US government watchdog is to legitimize America’s efforts on the global stage.
The Unasked Questions
Before the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, the purported role of the office of SIGAR was to independently monitor the projects and activities of the US mission. SIGAR still continues to monitor the role previously played by that mission. According to its website, SIGAR pursues this objective by, first, promoting the efficiency and effectiveness of reconstruction programs and, second, detecting and preventing waste, fraud, and abuse. SIGAR has been responsible for audits and investigations in cases where it believed corruption or fraudulent activities were at play.
SIGAR deserves tremendous credit for fulfilling this mandate under very difficult conditions and of laying bare the failings of reconstruction efforts before an American audience that has been less than keen to have such findings rubbed in its face. However, it is in this role as watchdog that an illusion of accountability is also created. While some questions get asked, others never come to the surface. How do we weigh the potential gains brought about by promises of US intervention (mostly in urban areas) against the generation of Afghan women, men, and children killed or maimed (largely in rural areas) by US forces in the name of this “progress”? Importantly, does the very notion of “state reconstruction” serve as a smokescreen for US imperialism abroad?
What’s at stake with SIGAR is the politics of knowledge production — knowledge of how the US is to be held accountable for its botched efforts in Afghanistan.
Such questions are never picked up by SIGAR. The reports produced by SIGAR do not interrogate the moral integrity of the US mission but rather produce an extensive list of “if only’s” that can be understood as roadblocks between intervention efforts and ultimate success. In its written response on Jun. 15, 2023, to US Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), SIGAR documented some lessons of the failed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. If only the United States focused on corruption in the early stages of the mission; if only the United States better coordinated efforts internally and internationally; if only those tasked with reconstruction had a better understanding of the local setting; if only monitoring and evaluation of projects was taken seriously, perhaps the ultimate outcome may have turned out differently (the list rings with an undeniable sense of irony given that these concerns had been raised since the very time reconstruction efforts themselves took off).
In this way, SIGAR directs moral, ethical, and legal accountability toward a roster of shortcomings in the implementation of US military and civilian assistance. Those critical of the intervention have thousands of pages of documented failures at their disposal. The painstaking details of SIGAR’s reporting allows one to get lost in the myriad of fine details on how different parties — US contractors, local sub-contractors, and US and Afghan officials — did their dirty work and subverted US efforts. These reports help to create a discourse of accountability whereby critics can vent their frustrations on US failings. Yet, SIGAR’s inquiries never go as far as questioning the legal and moral legitimacy of either the US-led invasion in October 2001 or the subsequent state reconstruction exercise. These ventures are taken for granted. They reside beyond the realm of scrutiny and accountability.
Disassociating the acts of violence surrounding the initial US-backed occupation in Afghanistan and the decision to socially re-engineer Afghan society in the mold of US notions of progress (i.e., their “bad old habits” had to be replaced with “best practices”) from the humanitarian and development assistance that flowed therefrom ensures that certain forms of US imperial violence avoid the spotlight. What’s at stake with SIGAR is the politics of knowledge production — knowledge of how the US is to be held accountable for its botched efforts in Afghanistan.
The Missing Language in SIGAR’s Accountability Project
SIGAR provides a language and discourse that feeds the ways in which US failures are understood. This discourse bends, distorts, and filters criticism on the US mission in Afghanistan so that the final product is itself regulated by the dictates of US Empire. Successful imperial conquest is not simply an exercise of brute force (though force certainly plays a big role, as any Afghan victim of US military violence can attest). A sophisticated, imperializing mission requires internal mechanisms that can process, absorb, and neutralize criticisms and frustrations, thereby providing an image of accountability and, thus morality.
The admonition of the late American intellectual and activist Audre Lorde that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” warns of the dangers of critiquing the Empire through its own devices. That some criticisms (e.g., of poor project delivery) are prioritized over others (e.g., of the violence that precedes a “reconstruction” mission) is not a shortcoming of SIGAR. Rather, it is woven into the very fabric of producing knowledge that assumes the virtues of US Empire while deliberately ignoring the imperial violence that lies at its foundations.
To use the discourse of US Empire to analyze the many failures of Afghanistan reconstruction — sophisticated as those analyses may be — is to sustain that Empire. In creating an image of accountability, SIGAR ultimately re-produces and re-enforces the legitimacy of the US Empire from which it was borne. Just as courts in autocratic regimes play a vital role in sustaining autocratic leadership by legitimating its overall operations, so too can a government watchdog reaffirm the Empire that it so scrupulously interrogates.
This is not to say SIGAR’s efforts are for naught. Rather, skepticism about SIGAR’s ability to be a true “watchdog” (in the widest sense) may prompt a more foundational, more authentic critique of the US mission in Afghanistan, one where we don’t miss the forest for the trees. SIGAR’s focus on exposing US failures in Afghanistan begs that we also subject SIGAR to that same scrutiny to unearth the ways in which it too reproduces the very Empire it seeks to hold to account. After all, one of the key questions we all need an answer to is: Was America’s 21-year military campaign in Afghanistan legally justified to begin with?