Helping Afghanistan's women survive and prosper has been a popular cause in Washington for more than a decade, with active support from former First Lady Laura Bush, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and top U.S. lawmakers.
Supporters have contended that helping Afghan women, who were badly mistreated by the country's former Taliban rulers, should be one of the most important goals of U.S. involvement there.
But with the official end of U.S. combat operations this week after 13 years of war, a federal auditor has concluded it is unclear how much Afghan women have benefited from the U.S. efforts or even how much has been spent on them.
A report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development failed to properly track what was spent for women's advancement in hundreds of programs.
Though U.S. officials have reported major progress in providing better education, healthcare and business opportunities for women, "there is no comprehensive assessment available to confirm that these gains were the direct result of U.S. efforts," the auditor's report said. "None of the three agencies can readily identify the full extent of their projects, programs and initiatives supporting Afghan women, or the corresponding amount of funding expended on those efforts."
It also found that responsibility for the programs was "fragmented," with dozens of offices involved to some degree but no one unit knowledgeable about the entire effort.
The issue is still relevant because the Obama administration is planning to continue — and in some areas increase — spending on Afghan women over the next four years, as part of a $20-billion reconstruction effort.
U.S. officials have for years boasted that girls' primary school enrollment has risen from virtually zero in 2001 to 80% of girls now, while maternal mortality has fallen from 1,600 deaths per 100,000 births in 2001 to 327 per 100,000 in 2013. Political participation has grown, with an unprecedented 300 female candidates running for provincial council seats this year.
But while the State Department and Agency for International Development said, for example, that 3 million girls now attend school, "they did not identify what specific U.S. program made that possible, how much was spent on the endeavor, or what the eventual outcome of the enrollment was," the auditor said.
U.S agencies say they have spent about $2 billion overall on Afghan women to date, including about $1 billion between fiscal 2011 to 2013, the period analyzed by the study. The inspector general could verify that only $64 million was spent for women in 652 programs.
The auditor found similar shortcomings in a 2010 report and urged the agencies at that time to more closely track the spending.
The State Department and the Agency for International Development disputed the inspector general's findings, saying they could "demonstrate a strong link between U.S. investments and the dramatic gains of women and girls." They said the recommended changes in the latest report would only add a layer of bureaucracy.
Pentagon officials said they agreed in part with the report's findings and would provide more detail on the spending.