If there's a perfect metaphor for the United States' failed effort to build a capable state and military force in Afghanistan after toppling the Taliban, it's probably the saga of the G-222 aircraft.
In 2008, as part of the ongoing effort to supply the newly formed Afghan Air Force with transport planes, the U.S. purchased 20 of the Italy-made Aeritalia G-222 planes for about $486 million and had them delivered to Kabul. Unfortunately, no one seemed to anticipate that the planes would have difficulty in the dusty environment of Central Asia. Less than five years after the fleet arrived, 16 of the planes were scrapped—for six cents per pound. (The other four were put into storage at a base in Germany.)
And that's how the U.S. military turned nearly half a billion of taxpayer dollars into $32,000 of scrap metal.
That America's post-9/11 military excursions into Afghanistan and Iraq were massively wasteful in terms of blood and treasure is not exactly a controversial opinion. An NBC News poll conducted last month found that 61 percent of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan was "not worth it." Indeed, even President Joe Biden seems to agree—the effort was not serving any "fundamental national security interest of the United States," he said last month after the last American troops finally departed from Afghanistan.
Still, reckoning with just how massively wasteful the conflict was is a necessary exercise—and one that will hopefully inform future U.S. foreign policy decisions. With any luck, the United States will survive another 20 years without an event like the ones that unfolded on September 11, 2001, but there will inevitably be future calls for military action. When they come, Afghanistan must be remembered not only as a military defeat but as a warning about the inevitable corruption and waste that come with any large-scale government project.
There is and probably never will be a full accounting of the estimated $2 trillion that America spent on the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—in fact, even that figure is overly rosy since it doesn't account for the long-term interest costs incurred by the borrowing that was used to finance the wars. But the closest estimate we have comes from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which Congress created in 2008 to oversee the handling of a mere $140 billion appropriated for the nation-building phase of the Afghan misadventure. Since then, SIGAR has produced dozens of reports (mostly ignored by Congress) investigating money being wasted in Afghanistan—including the one detailing the G-222 aircraft mess.
As of December 2019, SIGAR had audited about $63 billion of Afghanistan reconstruction spending. Of that total, it concluded, "a total of approximately $19 billion or 30 percent of the amount reviewed was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse." An update published in October 2020 added another $3.4 billion to the amount wasted.
The losses tallied by SIGAR over the years are large and small, serious and comical. America spent $43 million to build a compressed natural gas filling station that was originally supposed to cost $50,000. Fraudulent sales of meal cards from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul cost more than $3 million over five years. More than $7 billion that was supposed to stop narcotics trafficking "appears to have done very little to stem the production and exportation of illicit drugs," SIGAR deadpanned in one report. A $280 million program that was supposed to help 75,000 Afghan women enter the workforce ended up aiding just 60 of them. And $3.6 million was spent on a failed attempt to broadcast matches of buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan that's sort of a cross between polo and basketball with a headless goat as the ball.
And, remember, SIGAR was only auditing the reconstruction efforts. So its accounting does not include boondoggles like the $50 billion the Pentagon spent to build and deploy mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles in Afghanistan, only to scrap thousands of the quasi-tanks that cost up to $1 million each. It also does not account for the staggering amount of American military gear that was lost, stolen, or given away during the occupation.
If the levels of waste, fraud, and abuse uncovered by SIGAR's relatively limited review of Afghanistan are representative of the entire, $2 trillion war effort, the amount of wasted money is truly staggering. As much as $600 billion might have simply vanished—much of it presumably into the pockets of military contractors and other unscrupulous profiteers.
Worse, some of that waste was a feature and not a bug. The money had been allocated, so it had to go somewhere.
"One unidentified contractor told interviewers he was expected to dole out $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county," The Washington Post reported in 2019 as part of its Afghanistan Papers exposé. When the contractor asked a visiting congressman if the lawmaker would have been able to responsibly spend that kind of money in his district, "He said 'hell no.' 'Well, sir, that's what you just obligated us to spend and I'm doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.'"
"Spending was the mission, and we succeeded at it on a grand scale," journalist Matt Taibbi wrote recently in his Substack. Indeed, it's probably best to think of the Afghanistan war not as a war at all—at least not after the initial phase of the conflict had ended with the Taliban being deposed—but as a massive social engineering program run by a largely unaccountable government bureaucracy—one that has never successfully passed an audit but keeps getting budget increases anyway.
In that context, incompetence and waste would be expected. If the federal government outlined a plan to dump $2 trillion into America's poorest cities over the next 20 years, conservatives would (correctly) want to know how the money was being allocated and where it was going. Liberals would probably have some of the same questions if a new federal program was going to shower cash exclusively on the counties that voted hardest for Donald Trump in 2020. Twenty years after 9/11, we've stopped asking some basic questions about parts of our government. Why do we still have to take our shoes off at the airport? Why do I need to carry my passport if I'm driving into Canada for a day? How is all that money being spent in Afghanistan?
The real tragedy of the post-9/11 wars is, of course, the American, Iraqi, and Afghan lives that ended in pursuit of…well, we're not really sure. But a secondary tragedy is the failure—a failure that lasted for nearly two decades—of the media and Congress to ask the tough questions about how America's finite fiscal resources were being deployed to pay for it all and to listen to the auditors who were warning about the waste and fraud all along.
The lives are gone for good. But the other losses can at least offer some lessons for the future. Never again became a catchphrase that summed up American resolve in the wake of the terror attacks of 20 years ago. Now, it could serve as a reminder not to repeat the mistakes that followed too.