Trying to come to terms with President Trump’s proposal to increase the US military budget by an additional $54 billion I ran across a 2015 article in ProPublica – We Blew $17 Billion in Afghanistan. How Would You Have Spent It? – And boy did it blow my mind. It is estimated that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will eventually cost American taxpayers $4 to $6 trillion, if not more. The truth is that everything we spent in these unnecessary wars is a waste but the $17 billion that fell through the cracks is unconscionable, especially when the President wants to cut programs for the poor, children and elderly to give the military an additional $54 billion.
The U.S. government has wasted billions of dollars in Afghanistan, but until ProPublica in 2015, no one has added it all up. Project after project blundered ahead ignoring history, culture and warnings of failure. And Congress has barely blinked as the financial toll has mounted. Here’s just what the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found. ProPublica listed all of the US programs in Afghanistan and their waste and across the page government programs where the money would have been better spent. See for yourself how that money could have been used at home as well as the actual ProPublica article in its entirety via the web link below.
Behold, American taxpayer, what happened to nearly a half billion of your dollars in Afghanistan:
One example of the many: In 2008, the Pentagon bought 20 refurbished cargo planes for the Afghan Air Force, but as one top U.S. officer put it, “just about everything you can think of was wrong.” No spare parts, for example. The planes were also “a death trap,” according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. So $486 million was spent on worthless planes that no one could fly. We did recoup some of the investment. Sixteen of the planes were sold as scrap for the grand sum of $32,000. That’s six cents a pound.
You’d think someone would have been in trouble.
Nothing happened to anybody in charge of that spectacular screw up. No general even had to make an embarrassing appearance on Capitol Hill. Congress made not a peep. Even worse, such jaw-dropping waste without a shred of accountability is not an anomaly. It has happened in Afghanistan again and again, and, you guessed it, again. Some of the more outlandish examples have briefly seized the attention of the news media, but really, the running tab for the waste has mounted out of sight of the taxpayers footing the bill.
And what a bill it is. There’s a widely held idea of “just” as in “just a few million.” Like the military officer who wrote that the $25 million blown on a fancy headquarters nobody used was “probably not bad in the grand scheme of things.” But those millions add up. To billions.
The problem, contrary to popular assumptions, is not unscrupulous contractors. Follow the long trail of waste and you’ll be standing at the doors of the military, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. It’s their bad decisions, bad purchases and bad programs that are consistently to blame.
ProPublica examined more than 200 audits, special projects and inspections done by SIGAR since 2009 and built a database to add up the total cost of failed reconstruction projects. Looking at the botched projects collectively — rather than as one-off headlines — reveals a grim picture of the overall reconstruction effort and a repeated cycle of mistakes.
- In just six years, the IG has tallied at least $17 billion in questionable spending. This includes $3.6 billion in outright waste, projects teetering on the brink of waste, or projects that can’t — or won’t — be sustained by the Afghans, as well as an additional $13.5 billion that the average taxpayer might easily judge to be waste. Exhibit A for “You be the judge”: $8.4 billion was spent on counter-narcotics programs that were so ineffective that Afghanistan has produced record levels of heroin — more than it did before the war started.
- Often the programs’ ambitions were out of whack with the reality of life in Afghanistan. After the invasion, the U.S. rushed forward with bold plans to create a democratic, fiscally secure, ethical government and society — out of whole cloth. It was the same country-building bravado that had earlier tripped up the U.S. in Iraq when it dismissed the local culture and ignored corruption.
- “Pie in the sky” projects, as one USAID worker called them, were routinely launched without any thought to the financial and technological ability of the Afghans to maintain them. It turned out that the Afghans couldn’t afford most of them, so even the best programs could end up becoming waste.
- None of the programs were required to prove they had even limited success. Officials tracked dollars spent, not impact. For instance, no one evaluated whether Afghan security forces actually learned to read and write after going through a $200 million literacy program.
- Those who signed off on the failed projects appeared to suffer no consequences. As head of SIGAR John Sopko puts it: Reconstruction efforts are “like a child sports game where everyone gets a trophy.”
If this accounting wasn’t bad enough, consider this: SIGAR has only examined a small percentage of the $110 billion effort to rebuild and remodel Afghanistan. The waste totals are likely much higher. Still, it’s often hard to grasp what this kind of money means to the average American. Perhaps the most meaningful way to underscore what has been lost is to look at what the money could have paid for at home.
To set the scene, in 2010, as the U.S. was drastically increasing its investment in Afghanistan, a quarter of America’s homeowners — more than 11 million — were underwater on their mortgages, and the country hovered near a 10 percent unemployment rate. Congress was routinely gutting federal programs.
- The $14.7 million spent on a storage facility the military never used? That could have paid for about 9,800 rape kits to be tested — enough to clear the backlog for the entire state of Tennessee.
- The $456,000 police-training facility that was so poorly constructed it literally melted in the rain? That could have funded more than 180,000 dinners for low-income kids, enough for an entire summer.
- The $335 million spent on a power plant that the Afghans don’t use? That could have paid for permanent housing for 37,000 homeless Americans and $250,000 grants to 20 small-business owners to help them commercialize new technologies.
Take the money wasted on those worthless planes, plus that spent on an unused consulate, and fixing the buildings constructed with hazardous materials. That could have restored the $714 million cut from the National Institute of Health’s budget, which funds scientific research into new treatments for disease. Despite such trade-offs, there’s been little collective outrage from either the public or Congress about the massive waste in Afghanistan.
The military, the State Department and USAID provided detailed public responses to the findings in each of SIGAR’s reports, sometimes disputing the conclusions and recommendations. The reports and their responses can be read here. This week a Defense Department spokesman told ProPublica that the Pentagon “disagrees with the assertion that $17B in projects are ‘questionable.'” Often those responsible for the failed projects treat SIGAR’s findings like unnecessary niggling. Their rejoinder, in essence: “Hey, it’s a war zone, what do you expect?” There’s little time spent on pondering the bigger question: If it’s a war zone, why were we pouring billions into reconstruction?
Under the chapter – Fingers in Ears: Ignoring History, Advice and Culture Link – the ProPublica article points out that the U.S. is a slow learner. Again and again, the U.S. disregarded expert advice, the local culture or past mistakes in both Afghanistan and Iraq — sometimes, ignoring all three in a single failed project. First of all, large-scale projects are almost impossible to achieve success when there was still active fighting, as anything big drew the attention of the insurgency. “Very frequently on those PowerPoints you would see this pipeline that already had been reconstructed had been blown up again. Or an electricity grid,” said former U.S. Ambassador William Taylor, who worked as director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office from 2004 to 2005. “That led us to several lessons in Iraq that have general applicability, which are: Smaller projects at the local level, by and large, are to be preferred.”
That didn’t stop the U.S. years later from trying to build a nationwide electricity system in Afghanistan that crossed through Taliban strongholds at the height of fighting. Or sinking billions into roads that spanned the country and were routinely blown up by insurgents. Officials also identified over-gifting as a problem in Iraq. Iraqis would give a “head nod” to whatever the U.S. offered, because they weren’t footing the bill, former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Iraq’s inspector general. Once the projects were built, the Iraqis couldn’t pay to operate or maintain them. And yet in Afghanistan, the military, the State Department and USAID repeatedly defended unsustainable projects by saying that the Afghans had agreed to them.
Corruption also prominently undermined the security forces in Iraq and many efforts at governance. SIGAR, however, said the U.S. moved forward for years in Afghanistan with no strategy in place to deal with corruption, a failure investigators found baffling. “Something that quite’s pertinent to Afghanistan that we could have learned in Iraq is the problem of the local culture of corruption,” said Charles Tiefer, who investigated reconstruction on the Commission for Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there was the military, the State Department and USAID’s frequent failures to consider the local culture in either country, a costly misstep that caused many ill-considered projects to tank.
The chapter – Building in our Image: An Overly Ambitious Effort from the Start Link – speaks for itself. In 2011, a task force of financial gurus brainstorming business projects for the military had an idea: Alternate fuels! That’s what Afghanistan needs to jumpstart its economy and bring in foreign investors.
A few years earlier a geological survey had found that the northern part of the country was blessed with natural gas reserves. Commercializing that resource would be a boon for Afghanistan, the task force figured, particularly since the country relies on imported gasoline it can barely afford.
It seemed like a good idea on paper. But, as expert after expert has noted, Afghanistan is not the U.S. It’s not even Pakistan. Getting the gas out of the ground and moved around the country would be a feat. There is no distribution system in Afghanistan for that kind of compressed gas — and building one in a war-torn country that has trouble keeping the lights on with generators was an expensive, if not laughable, notion. But that didn’t seem to matter. The task force sunk $43 million into a proof-of-concept gas station anyway.
Then there was another very key problem: no customers. The average Afghan would have to shell out more than an entire year’s worth of salary to convert their cars to run on compressed natural gas. It costs about $700 and most Afghans bring home $690 annually. So unsurprisingly, the only people who used the station were the 120 Afghans the U.S. paid to convert their cars.
The scale of what that project wanted to achieve was inappropriate in almost every aspect, and ProPublica found, it wasn’t unique in that regard. Afghanistan is at the bottom of almost every conceivable development ranking. Yet much of the reconstruction effort has seemed as if the U.S. and its allies were trying to create a new Afghanistan in their own image — both in the Western ideals superimposed on the Afghans and in the sheer ambition of the projects.
These 80 Countries Had a Lower GDP Than the $17.1 Billion We Blew in Afghanistan
The chapter: Over-Gifting: Afghans Can’t Afford, Don’t Need What They Got – is self-explanatory. In a 14-year flurry of giving, the U.S. built the Afghans an array of big-ticket projects, but whether they could afford to maintain, or even operate, this largess was rarely considered in any meaningful way. The World Bank ranks Afghanistan’s ability to pay its bills as one of the world’s[GB1] lowest. Right now, the country is significantly propped up by foreign aid whose future is uncertain. International donors have so far only committed at current levels through 2017.
A former SIGAR official listed three key tests for sustainability: Do they have the money? The technical capacity? The political will? “Afghanistan generally fails all three.” American “over-gifting” was a problem on virtually every project. Consider health care. In 2011, the inspector general for USAID issued a bleak assessment of the ability of the Afghans to sustain any of the agency’s health programs. The Afghan government paid the tab for just 6 percent of the nation’s health care expenditures.
Yet USAID replaced a hospital in Gardez with a new, larger facility, saddling the Afghans with at least a 180 percent, and possibly as much as a 524 percent, increase in that annual bill. (Or it will when the hospital is finally completed. It’s years behind schedule.) Not far from that hospital, USAID replaced another that had cost $98,000 per year to run with one that costs $587,000 annually — nearly six times as much.
Sure, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health agreed to fund the new hospitals, but USAID didn’t address a fundamental question: Could it actually afford to do so? Without donor money, the answer is unequivocally “no.” And that’s the answer for almost every single aspect of the Afghan government, according to a dozen of military and civilian Afghan experts.
One of the largest, most notorious, capital projects in Afghanistan is roads. So far the U.S. and other donors have spent more than $4 billion total on multiple projects to build more than 5,700 miles of them. Yet the U.N. says 85 percent of the country’s roads are undrivable. The Afghans do little to care for them. USAID tried to mold the Ministry of Public Works into a competent bureaucracy, but so far it remains ineffective. There’s about a “$100 million maintenance gap and inadequate technical staff” at the ministry for “routine, periodic, preventive, emergency and winter maintenance,” USAID told SIGAR. Adding to their quick deterioration: the roads were built to U.S. weight standards, but Afghan trucks are notoriously overweight, Sopko said.
The chapter: Doomed to Repeat: An Afghan Security Force That Can’t Maintain Its Numbers, Buildings, Equipment. Even Its Front Lines. – suggests that if Afghans can’t maintain their own military whatever we do will fail. One only has to look to Iraq, where the Pentagon spent more than $20 billion to build an army and hailed it a resounding success. Until ISIS came and the Iraqi security forces crumbled.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, a far poorer and less sophisticated country, the military has replicated that training program, but tripled the investment, spending $65 billion — nearly 60 percent of the entire reconstruction budget. The plan: Create a well-schooled, 352,000-strong national Army and police force, and a robust air force able to secure the country on its own — all in a matter of years.
But this formidable objective ignored the Afghans’ pervasive corruption, fledgling leadership, and rudimentary capabilities. Not to mention Afghanistan’s complete inability to pay the bills of such a large, modern military — which costs upwards of $5 billion per year (If the Afghans spent every cent they collected in revenue on security and nothing else, they still couldn’t cover the cost.) The Pentagon has also had a perplexing tendency to repeat mistakes made in Iraq.
The chapter: “A” Is For Effort: In Afghanistan No One Has To Prove Success – means that whatever we do will fail. For five years, USAID poured $150 million into a project with warm, but fuzzy, aspirations: helping isolated, unstable Afghan communities grow and feel more connected to their government. It was a part of the military’s broad campaign to win “hearts and minds.” In all that time, though, USAID was never able to define what, exactly, the objectives of the “Local Governance and Community Development” program were, let alone if it had met them. The agency also had a hard time keeping track of what contractors were actually doing, SIGAR reported.
That, however, didn’t stop USAID from literally doubling down on the program in 2009, increasing its budget to $373 million. SIGAR’s conclusion: scattered, small successes but no wins on any overarching goals. Ashley Jackson, a longtime non-governmental organization worker, was blunter. USAID, she said, “would have been better off setting the money on fire.”
The chapter: Consequence-Free Zone: No One Is Ever Blamed For Failure Link – obviously when there is no consequence of failure don’t expect success. As an example that site an unfinished courthouse in North of Kabul, which is a shell of rebar and cracking concrete. So instead of being the centerpiece for Afghan national security trials, a prominent place to prosecute suspected insurgents, judges preside over a makeshift courtroom in a nearby building with fold-out tables.
The Afghan contractor hired to build the courthouse had only been in business for about six months and there was very little documentation on why his company was chosen to do the work, Harmon said. The contractor hired a subcontractor that military commanders knew actively supported the Taliban. But since those commanders failed to share this information throughout the organization, the subcontractor had access to a U.S. military-controlled area for two days — a serious security lapse, according to a SIGAR report. With just basic foundation work done on the justice center, the contractor disappeared, taking almost $400,000 of U.S. taxpayers’ money with him. The military subsequently abandoned the project. The consequences for those mismanaging this misbegotten project? Nothing.
The final chapter: Success or Failure: We Spent $8 billion and There’s Now More Heroin Than Ever – sums up our success in Afghanistan. Today Afghanistan is the king of heroin. It sits on a narco throne as “the global leader in illicit opium cultivation and production,” according to SIGAR. After a 13-year effort by the U.S.to end Afghanistan’s drug trade, it is now the world leader in heroin production. Plans to promote alternative farming and eradicate poppy fields have only led to more poppies planted. Law enforcement training has been insufficient. About $109 million was spent on substance abuse treatment programs and education.
And that $8.4 billion the U.S. spent to end its reign over the last 13 years appears to have only enhanced its standing. The Pentagon, USAID and the State Department had a grand plan to eradicate poppy fields, develop Afghan law enforcement and promote alternative farming livelihoods. Yet the drug trade still “poisons the Afghan financial sector and undermines the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, sustaining criminal networks, and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups,” SIGAR found.
The drug trade feeds corruption. Dealing with both are intrinsically tied to reconstruction success, which is why the failure to have an effective strategy. When a farmer grows poppy, he pays off the local officials, and the money goes up the chain and leads to corruption of entire institutions. Part of the program was to demonstrate to the Afghans that was why they shouldn’t let the drug trade go on. Didn’t we learn from the disastrous “War On Drugs” here in America and Nancy Reagan’s laughable “Just Say No” drug campaign? Obviously not. And this is indicative to why our hold strategy under both Presidents Bush and Obama has failed. We are trying to force a square peg through a round hole and we seem surprised that it is not working. But back to ProPublica’s initial premise, think about what we could have accomplished with the billions of taxpayers’ dollars wastes in Afghanistan.