Last October, the top official at the United States Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, got on a call with the agency’s contractors in Afghanistan. Weeks earlier, the Afghan government that the U.S. had spent 20 years and $145 billion to build had capitulated to the Taliban in spectacular fashion.
After the last U.S. troops had left the country following a chaotic and deadly evacuation, USAID encouraged its partners to use remaining program funds to ensure the safety of their staff, including by covering living and evacuation costs. Days later, the agency issued a stop-work order, instructing contractors to cease all nonhumanitarian operations in Afghanistan except for those “concerning safety and security,” according to an internal memo.
Now, Power offered thanks for everyone’s hard work. “We value you,” she told contractors, according to multiple people who were on the call. The contractors, many of whom were still scrambling to help their Afghan colleagues leave the country, had been hoping for more specific guidance. They said they had submitted questions to the agency before the call, asking for instructions on how to pay staff at a time when the country’s banking system had collapsed. USAID had prohibited contractors from using informal money transfer systems, known as “hawalas”; it took two more months for the agency to authorize them on a case-by-case basis. In December, the agency also authorized the use of foreign currency to pay Afghan staff, a reversal from earlier guidelines.
On the call, contractors flooded Power with different versions of the same question. “She had zero answers,” said one, who, like all other contractors interviewed for this article, asked not to be named to discuss internal conversations. “She looked like a deer caught in the headlights. … She had no idea what was happening on the ground.”
Another participant told The Intercept, “We were blindsided by how much the senior level of USAID was unaware of what was going on with tens of thousands of its employees.”
Many development professionals had welcomed Power’s arrival at an agency that they felt was in dire need of reform. A former journalist and United Nations ambassador, she is the highest-profile official to ever lead the agency and the first to also sit on the National Security Council. But her failure to answer the contractors’ questions was just another disappointment to those who had hoped her background would boost the agency’s influence on foreign policy. During the turbulent U.S. withdrawal last August, Power had been uncharacteristically silent. As Politico noted in a profile last fall, she “didn’t even tweet about it.”
USAID’s unpreparedness following the withdrawal, however, runs much deeper than the person at the helm. It reflects long-standing structural issues within the agency and is in line with the chaos that plagued various divisions of the U.S. government, starting with the State Department, to which USAID’s work is subordinated. Unlike the secretaries of state and defense, the USAID administrator is not a Cabinet-level position, and development work has long been treated as a tool of diplomacy, serving rather than shaping political priorities.
“USAID is a Lilliputian, with a bunch of Gullivers running around,” Bill O’Keefe, an executive vice president at Catholic Relief Services, a USAID partner, told The Intercept.
For two decades, the agency has been the face of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. To tens of thousands of Afghans employed on USAID projects, it was the agency they had believed in and worked for, often at enormous personal risk, that ultimately betrayed them.
A spokesperson for USAID wrote in an email to The Intercept that the agency remains committed to working in Afghanistan.
“We care deeply about the people of Afghanistan and the future of the country,” the spokesperson wrote. “We are indebted to all Afghans who have worked for positive change in their country. USAID will continue to support humanitarian assistance, as well as essential services such as health, education, and livelihoods. We remain committed to finding ways to support women and girls in particular. ”
“Administrator Power has been immersed in the details of the challenges faced by USAID local staff and implementing partners,” the spokesperson added. “[She] has been a vocal and persistent advocate for addressing them.”
Many of the failures that characterized USAID’s handling of the withdrawal were consistent with issues that had defined its work in Afghanistan for years. USAID contractors described the agency as an unwieldy apparatus run by bureaucrats who are divorced from the reality on the ground. USAID’s staff mostly operates from Washington or from inside the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The work is outsourced to contractors, who go into the field and hire their own local staff, and is debilitated by unrealistic timelines and wasteful spending imposed by legislators looking to tout quick successes — hardly a sustainable model for development.
USAID’s Afghan workers were not on calls with Power and other agency officials last fall, so it was the contractors who had to report back to them and field countless messages and requests from help from people the agency had effectively abandoned. “USAID put everything on us,” one contractor said.
“What can I say to them? ‘We have failed you in every single way?’’’
In emails and recorded calls shared with The Intercept, Afghans who worked on USAID projects talked with growing desperation about not having the money to feed their families and about their fears of being targeted by the Taliban for having worked with the U.S. government. “Sometimes, I feel regret working for the U.S.,” one of them wrote, adding that he was hiding in Kabul after the Taliban had repeatedly visited his family looking for him. “Please do not leave us behind.”
In awkward and at times testy exchanges, the contractors, the effective intermediaries between the agency and its workforce, could offer only apologies.
“We still don’t have any guidance,” one told Afghan staff over and over on one call last fall. “We’ve been asking these questions since August. … I am just sorry.”
“What can I say to them?” that contractor later told The Intercept. “‘We have failed you in every single way?’’’
“We Owe This to Them”
Late last November, USAID informed contractors — many of whom were still struggling to get clarity on logistical questions about payments and evacuations — that they would no longer be allowed to use remaining project funds to help their staff. In a memo first made public by Politico, agency officials cited the “continued fluidity” of the situation in Afghanistan but gave no further explanation for the sudden reversal.
The funds, which had already been allocated to USAID projects meant to run through next spring, were “a drop in the bucket” for USAID, a contractor said. USAID did not answer questions about how much money was left over, but a contractor estimated it to be in the tens of millions, out of an agency budget of $41 billion in 2021. The money that wasn’t spent was returned to USAID.
In practice, the decision meant that Afghans working on those projects, who had relied on the agency’s promise of temporary support with living costs, as well as with visa application fees and tickets out of the country, were left without a lifeline. The decision went into effect a few days later and had an immediate impact on people who were already facing daunting challenges. Of nearly 10,000 Afghan USAID workers and family members who were trying to leave following the government’s collapse, only about 300 had been evacuated by early September, according to data that contractors collected and submitted to the government, per an email reviewed by The Intercept. Many of the others had gone into hiding, fled Kabul, or crossed one of the country’s land borders and were stranded in neighboring countries.
The fund suspension came just as commercial flights had resumed. One USAID project worker had booked plane tickets to Pakistan — prices for which ballooned by more than $1,000 after the withdrawal — but he could not afford them without USAID’s promised reimbursement and was forced to stay behind, a contractor who worked with him said. Others who had already fled to Pakistan faced the prospect of having to return to Afghanistan.
“Some of my staff told me, ‘We’re coming back, it makes no sense for us to stay here. I can keep my wife inside, but I have to feed her,’” a contractor told The Intercept, recalling conversations with Afghan staff about the choices they faced.
“They were terrified,” another contractor said. “It’s just vulnerability heaped on top of vulnerability. So much of it completely unnecessary.”
Several contractors stepped in to help staff on their own. Some started independent fundraisers; others spent thousands of dollars of their own money in efforts to evacuate their colleagues or cover their basic sustenance. “We are like family, and this is how we have treated this,” one said. But the contractors expressed deep anger and disillusion with USAID, whose scant guidance and sudden reversal they described as “unconscionable.”
“They couldn’t figure out a worse way to do almost everything they have done.”
“It was just the last in a long line of pulling the rug out from under our allies,” one contractor said of the decision. “They couldn’t figure out a worse way to do almost everything they have done.”
Contractors became even more furious after a call with USAID’s Afghanistan mission director, Peter Duffy, two days after the suspension of project funds went into effect. He justified the policy change by noting that the Taliban had not committed “widespread atrocities,” as anticipated, and that USAID’s Afghan staff were no longer in “a crisis situation,” people who were on that call recalled.
The USAID spokesperson told The Intercept that the agency chose to suspend the funds in favor of “more effective, case-specific guidance,” and noted that it continued to work with individual contractors to address their concerns. The description of Duffy’s comments, she added, was a “mischaracterization.”
But Duffy made similar comments later in the same call, according to a portion of it that was recorded and reviewed by The Intercept.
“This approval was conceived of and was approved during a moment of crisis and in a moment of emergency and it was not intended to be permanent,” he said. “USAID is not in a position to evacuate partner staff.”
Since taking over, the Taliban have committed atrocities, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, according to human rights observers, though they have mostly targeted former Afghan government officials rather than individuals who worked with U.S. agencies. Contractors acknowledged that retaliatory violence has so far been more limited than feared. “The widespread, specific targeting of people who are affiliated with the U.S. government has not happened to the extent that we all anticipated, and that’s a good thing,” one contractor said. “But that should not be the sole criterion for whether we’re cutting off aid.”
Contractors also slammed a policy that they said would result in people being forced to cross back into Afghanistan in the middle of a mass humanitarian crisis, and at a time when the Taliban have banned girls going to school and women working or leaving home without a male relative. They also said USAID had an obligation to continue supporting project staff, whose work had been cut short through no fault of their own.
“This is not aid. This is not charity,” a contractor said. “We owe this to them.”
The Face of the U.S. in Afghanistan
For millions of Afghans, USAID was effectively the face of the U.S. presence in the country over the last two decades.
USAID administered $21 billion in development assistance and more than $3.9 billion in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan since 2002, according to the agency. USAID initiatives in the country — which spanned the realm of education, gender mainstreaming, health, infrastructure, agriculture, governance, and economic growth programs — employed tens of thousands of Afghans over the years. Overall, the U.S. invested $145 billion in the reconstruction effort — an unprecedented sum, albeit a fraction of the $837 billion the U.S. government separately spent on the war.
Afghans who were employed by U.S. government agencies are eligible for special immigrant visas, known as SIVs, which are intended for people who worked with the U.S. government, granting them permanent resident status and a pathway to citizenship. But certain categories of contractors, including many who worked for USAID projects, were not initially eligible for the visas. Following public pressure, U.S. officials expanded some eligibility requirements, including the kind of contract and the duration of employment. But the SIV process has been marred by delays, and thousands of people with valid claims or pending applications remain in Afghanistan.
“USAID programs employed thousands of employees to the embassy’s hundreds,” a contractor said. “They have also sacrificed their safety and security to work for the U.S. government. If anything, they face sometimes more danger, because they have to go out into the field versus embassy and USAID mission staff who don’t. But there’s no one advocating for them.”
Crucially, Afghans working on USAID projects gave the agency credibility with the broader public.
“We were justifying what the U.S. was doing there,” an Afghan man who worked on USAID initiatives on and off for years, before finally quitting in 2015 after facing growing threats over his work, told The Intercept. “I was accused of being a spy, even amongst relatives. I couldn’t go back to my province.”
“I put my life on the line because of the projects that they brought in.”
The man, who is currently a refugee in a European country but has submitted an SIV application, asked not to be identified for fear that criticizing the U.S. might hinder his chances of relocating there. He said that his work for USAID programs, including producing public service campaigns to persuade young Afghans to join the military rather than the Taliban, put him at enormous risk. And he expressed deep frustration that his U.S. employers did nothing more to support him than provide a referral letter acknowledging he had worked for them. It was former foreign colleagues and journalists he interacted with, he said, who without official support helped him flee the country.
“My name is in the system, my name is on the projects that the U.S. government funded,” the man said. “I put my life on the line because of the projects that they brought in.”
As U.S. efforts in Afghanistan began to unravel over the summer, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, the official watchdog overseeing that effort, was documenting U.S. failures and waste in real time.
In a report that was prepared in the summer but not published until after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan in August, SIGAR noted that neither the State Department nor USAID had developed strategies to guide future reconstruction in Afghanistan should a peace agreement with the Taliban be reached. They certainly had no plans in place for a scenario other than peace.
The report notes that USAID was awaiting directions from the State Department to make plans for its work post-withdrawal. The State Department told SIGAR in July that such plans were “premature.”
A spokesperson for the State Department disputed SIGAR’s findings, which it called inaccurate. “Throughout this audit, State and USAID provided SIGAR with specific examples of consistent and deliberative planning for future reconstruction efforts, which are not referenced in SIGAR’s summarization of its findings in this quarterly report,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to The Intercept.
“Though the Department of State and USAID work together closely,” the spokesperson added, “USAID is an independent agency with its own planning process.”
In an earlier report, published in July, SIGAR remarked on the billions of dollars that had been spent on the reconstruction effort. “The extraordinary costs were meant to serve a purpose,” SIGAR wrote. Like many of the hundreds of audits published by SIGAR since it was established in 2008, the July report minced no words. “Progress has been elusive and the prospects for sustaining this progress are dubious,” it concluded.
The 140-page report went on to analyze many of the root causes of the problem, including the challenge of working on reconstruction and development against the backdrop of an active conflict, the lack of a coherent U.S. strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan, the billions wasted on unsustainable projects, money that fueled corruption and resentment, and the politically mandated focus to do “as much as possible as quickly as possible,” chasing success metrics that were disconnected from the actual impact on the ground. There were not enough qualified staff overseeing projects, few stayed long enough to see them through, and political and military strategies were often at odds with development needs.
“Progress has been elusive and the prospects for sustaining this progress are dubious.”
“The U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan could be described as 20 one-year reconstruction efforts, rather than one 20-year effort,” SIGAR noted in the report. The watchdog normally ends reports with technical recommendations, it noted, offering solutions to specific problems. “However, after 13 years of oversight, the cumulative list of systemic challenges SIGAR and other oversight bodies have identified is staggering,” it concluded this time, comparing the U.S. failure in Afghanistan to the one in Vietnam. “Rather than motivating the U.S. government to improve, the difficulty of these missions may instead encourage U.S. officials to move on and prepare for something new.”
Some of that criticism has long accompanied U.S. development work in Afghanistan.
“There was too much money going through, generally through too narrow an administrative pipeline of the central government,” said O’Keefe, of Catholic Relief Services. “They did not focus nearly enough on providing in the rural areas and parts of the country where there are serious human needs. And they should have been much more focused on grassroots kind of development, through credible, local organizations and NGOs, through municipal and local governments, as opposed to just the central government.”
“The problem is that development really can’t be done in an insecure environment,” he added.
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh and an adviser to agencies and organizations working in Afghanistan, argued that USAID had become “just a contracting agency.”
“What I see is a lot of cookie-cutter projects from one country to the next, and USAID is far removed from reality, because it’s sitting in embassies, locked up, or it’s in Washington, far away,” said Murtazashvili, who once worked as a USAID staffer in Uzbekistan.
That also helps explain how an agency whose field-based work should have given it a handle on dynamics on the ground was so stunned, along with the rest of the U.S. government, by the swift unraveling of the Afghan government. “These groups that should have had their finger on the pulse of what was happening did not at all,” said Murtazashvili.
Even after President Joe Biden announced the departure of U.S. troops last April, USAID partners reached out to her for advice on new projects. “There was a lot of delusion among USAID contractors and NGOs about what was going to happen,” she said. “How can you think that you are going to continue doing this? And do you really think that you should continue doing this, given the return on your investment over the past 20 years?”
“What’s Your Legacy?”
To the Afghans who were left without a means to support themselves or fearing retaliation for having worked with the U.S. government, the reasons behind USAID’s failure matter little.
“We were abandoned,” said the man who is now a refugee in Europe.
After the Taliban took control of Kabul, the man tried to leave with his wife and children through the airport. When that failed, he spent weeks destroying all evidence of the work he had done for various U.S. projects, including dozens of educational videos. “I didn’t want to get caught with them,” he said. The process felt a bit like undoing years of U.S. work in Afghanistan.
“After so many sacrifices, trillions of dollars spent, what’s your legacy?” he said.
A 25-year-old Afghan woman who had worked for USAID echoed that sentiment. “It was for nothing,” she told The Intercept.
“After so many sacrifices, trillions of dollars spent, what’s your legacy?”
The woman, who asked not to be named because she remains in Afghanistan and is trying to leave, worked on a governance project in the city where she grew up, which she also asked not be named. She was one of two women in a group of 300 men, and her job had included an effort to bring more Afghan women into local government. It all seems pointless now.
When the Taliban took over her province, they went into her former office, looking for the women who had worked there, she said. When they didn’t find her there, they went to her parents’ home. “It’s a small place, people know each other,” she said. “They know the women because there are so few of them.”
The woman has been moving from place to place, emailing every foreigner she knows, asking for help. Her USAID contractor provided her with a referral letter so she could apply for an SIV visa, but she has not heard any updates about her application. Her former supervisors told her their only obligation was to provide her with the letter before they stopped responding to her messages, she told The Intercept. Other colleagues said they would try to help but didn’t follow up.
“We are very grateful that they have worked for the people of Afghanistan,” the woman added. “But unfortunately now they have left Afghanistan, and they know about our situation, but still they are not going to do anything for us.”
Not all reconstruction work, she and others acknowledged, was lost. Tens of thousands of girls received an education. While the Taliban would not implement the gender mainstreaming projects the woman helped craft, they would benefit from the local government infrastructure she helped to build, she said.
“Yes, very serious mistakes were made,” said O’Keefe. “But I believe very strongly that the investments in the people of Afghanistan, the professional capacity of the people, the women and girls who were educated, that does not go away.”
USAID continues to run humanitarian assistance programs in Afghanistan, focused on basic needs rather than long-term development. The agency has also looked for ways to fold some of its other work, like gender and education initiatives, under the humanitarian designation. The Office of Foreign Assets Control, a division of the U.S. Treasury Department that enforces foreign sanctions, recently expanded permissions for the kind of aid work the U.S. can carry out in Afghanistan. O’Keefe said that USAID offered modifications to Catholic Relief Services so the group could continue their work. The agency also encouraged partners to propose programs that would fall under the humanitarian assistance designation, a way to keep operating without running afoul of U.S. sanctions, according to contractors.
The USAID spokesperson told The Intercept that the agency has reviewed its Afghanistan portfolio “to identify programs that may continue in the current operating environment,” while abiding by the Treasury Department’s sanctions. “No funds are provided to the Taliban,” the spokesperson noted.
On January 11, the Biden administration announced $308 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, bringing the total since October to $782 million. But sanctions continue to be one of the greatest contributors to the deepening humanitarian crisis there. While there is technically enough food in the country, few Afghans have access to the cash to buy it. Some 23 million people, more than half the country, face extreme hunger, according to the U.N. Working with the Taliban, advocates say, is the only way to keep them from starving.
“The U.S. government, and the international community, has got to find a way to get over itself and support the administrative state and structures on the ground to prevent a humanitarian crisis,” said O’Keefe. “Twenty-three million people without a functioning government and without help is not going to be a solution that we can stand for.”