Britain’s £3.5 billion support to Afghanistan between 2000 and 2020 was involved in corruption and human rights abuses and failed to achieve its primary goal of stabilizing the country’s government, an assessment by the UK government’s aid watchdog has found.
The Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) describes the two-decade aid project as Britain’s most ambitious state-building program and says decisions to spend aid on counter-insurgency operations were flawed, adding that efforts to reduce gender inequality are likely to be derailed out by Taliban.
Money was spent to meet America’s overly short-term goals, the report finds. It suggests, based on extensive interviews with senior British government officials, that Britain had little influence on US strategy, although it disagreed with the US decision to exclude the Taliban from any political settlement at a time when the Taliban were relatively weak. .
The damning new ICAI report says: “Unwilling to challenge the US approach, Britain was publicly committed to a narrative of imminent success.”
It adds: “The commitment to align with the US left Britain locked into investing large amounts of aid in a state-building process that its own analysis suggested had limited prospects of success. As one senior official told us: ‘If we have invested in a state-shaped object which cannot command the loyalty or support of large sections of the population, it will cost nothing’.”
The report says the UK spent £3.5bn. in aid over the 20 years until 2020, of which £2.5 billion was used between 2014 and 2020.
The review says: “In complex stabilization missions, large-scale financial support to the state should only be provided in the context of a viable and inclusive political solution, when there are reasonable prospects for a sustained transition out of the conflict.”
It adds: “UK aid should not be used to fund police or other security agencies to take part in paramilitary operations, as this involves unacceptable risks of doing harm. Any support to civilian security agencies should focus on delivering security and justice to the public.”
The review finds that the UK spent £252 million to fund the salaries of the Afghan National Police, describing this as a “questionable use of UK aid” because the police were primarily assigned to counter-insurgency operations rather than civilian policing. Overall, the UK spent £400m over six years helping the Afghan security services. Efforts by UK aid officials to stop the funding were rejected at the highest levels of government, the report found.
“Channeling such large amounts of funding through weak state institutions distorted the political process and contributed to entrenched corruption,” the review found. “The creation of a parallel institutional structure to manage international aid drew capacity away from the Afghan administration.” Between 2017 and 2020, the number of consultants in the Ministry of Finance fell from only 780 well-paid employees to 585, the report reveals.
It adds that Britain wrongly spent so much aid on US-designed targets that entrenched corruption and human rights abuses, including semi-paramilitary targets. It says the US itself was aware of its mistakes, with officials admitting: “The ultimate point of our failure was not an insurgency but endemic corruption.”
British government documents cited by ICAI and written as recently as 2019 “describe the situation as an extreme form of state capture which benefited a narrow group of Afghan political elites at the expense of the population as a whole”.
“Under these circumstances, there was little prospect of meaningful institutional development. A year later, in 2020, the Institute for International Development assessed that state institutions were largely unable to fulfill their mandates despite years of financial and technical assistance. Afghan leaders saw them as levers for patronage, rather than mechanisms for advancing the public interest.”
The UK, the report says, “took a predominantly technocratic approach to building the capacity of state institutions, focusing on their internal systems and processes rather than their relationship with Afghan society. It also left UK aid subordinated to rapidly changing objectives and short planning horizons in the security arena, which led to unrealistic assumptions about what was achievable.”
The scale of aid and the way it was delivered meant that in 2021, 98.7% of Afghans described corruption as a major problem for Afghanistan as a whole – up from 76% in 2014.
The report notes that Britain was aware of the problems in designing the aid programme, but “the UK’s willingness to provide unconditional support to the US meant that there was no attempt to rethink the approach to state-building, even when its prospects for success subsided”.
The review finds that the scale of aid resources channeled through central government institutions was staggering. The Afghan state spent approximately $11 billion each year, but raised only $2.5 billion from its own resources, the report states. Consistent with previous studies, it suggests that it would have taken 35 years for the state to become self-financing, leaving the Afghan state locked in an unlimited dependence on external aid.
The report finds: “Ultimately, the US decision to reach an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, setting out a timetable for the unconditional withdrawal of US troops, necessitated the abandonment of most of the objectives of the UK aid programme, despite strong sunk costs.”