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The Shocking Waste Hidden Inside the $126 Billion Afghan Reconstruction

"Congress has appropriated $126 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction since Fiscal Year 2002," wrote Special Inspector General John F. Sopko in testimony delivered in May to the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management. By 2014, he added, inflation-adjusted appropriations for that purpose "had already exceeded the total of U.S. aid committed to the Marshall Plan for rebuilding much of Europe after World War II."

So much money, spent so fast, inevitably generates many examples of projects poorly or wastefully executed. Afghanistan reconstruction is no exception, as the ongoing work of Sopko's office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) makes clear. Here are a few of the most head-smackingly absurd.

The $43 Million Gas Station

According to a 2015 SIGAR study, the U.S.-funded Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) "spent nearly $43 million to construct a compressed natural gas (CNG) automobile filling station in the city of Sheberghan, Afghanistan." A similar station in Pakistan "costs no more than $500,000 to construct," making the Afghan counterpart some 86 times as expensive. Yet the Department of Defense (DOD) was "unable to provide an explanation for the high cost of the project or to answer any other questions concerning its planning, implementation, or outcome."

Those who decided to spend those millions didn't seem to realize that "Afghanistan lacks the natural gas transmission and local distribution infrastructure necessary to support a viable market for CNG vehicles" or that "the cost of converting a gasoline-powered car to run on CNG may be prohibitive for the average Afghan."

In summation, the SIGAR study concludes, "it is not clear why TFBSO believed the CNG filling station project should be undertaken.…In fact, an economic impact assessment performed at the request of TFBSO found that the CNG filling station project produced no discernable macroeconomic gains and a discounted net loss of $31 million."

The 'Melting' Practice Range

SIGAR also reported that U.S. Central Command had in 2012 constructed a dry fire range (DFR) in Wardak province for the Afghan Special Police Training Center, at a cost of nearly half a million dollars.

The project "replicates a typical Afghan village and is used to conduct simulated police search and clearance exercises." Yet within four months of completion, the DFR "began to disintegrate." The report explains "these 'melting' buildings were the direct result of the construction contractor...using substandard bricks and other building materials" Unsurprisingly, "this problem was compounded by poor oversight on the part of the responsible U.S. government officials."

The incompetent contractor was paid in full—a total of $456,669—even though the range "was not constructed according to contract requirements, and…as a result, water penetration caused its walls" to quickly fall apart.

Agents of the Regional Contracting Center at Forward Operating Base Shank, who directed the project, claimed to have conducted inspections during the construction, yet a review of site visit reports turned up "no reference to any of the building deficiencies that resulted in the DFR's deterioration."

Only after the range was finished and paid for did an inspector realize that "the facility is completely unsafe.…It appears the contractor intentionally used different materials and construction standards to cut costs or/and fraud the government."

The 'Uninhabited and Uninhabitable' $60 Million Marriott

Eleven years after a plan for a Marriott Hotel complex in Kabul was launched with $60 million from the U.S. government's Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), Sergio Gor—chief of staff to Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who chaired the May hearings on Afghanistan reconstruction waste—visited the site. "I walked the halls of this deserted, unfinished shell of a dream," he said. The structure featured "barren rooms, empty elevator shafts, and no electric power." The hotel and adjacent apartment building planned by the same developer (for $30 million more from OPIC) today are "uninhabited and uninhabitable."

Despite being abandoned, the would-be Marriott remains a drain on U.S. funds. "Our government now spends an unknown amount every week to protect these multistory buildings" because of how close they are to America's embassy, Gor explained in his written remarks to the subcommittee.

"The failed hotel structure now requires 24/7 security both from us and Afghan security services," says Gor. "Its proximity to our embassy makes it a very dangerous building. If left unattended it could be used to orchestrate attacks and launch rocket propelled grenades at U.S. personnel." People on the ground told Gor that the embassy was "seeking to acquire the land, demolish the infrastructure, and start anew."

The real estate development project is an all-too-typical example of "poor planning, no oversight, money wasted, and, the worst part of all, absolutely zero accountability," says Gor. "Every day that we distribute money, people squander or steal it, and no one is ever held accountable."

The Electrification Project With No Power Source

Dhawa RezkynaDhawa RezkynaIn its latest quarterly report, SIGAR writes of a huge U.S.-funded electrification project known as the Northeast Power System Phase III (NEPS III). It was a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), whose "mismanagement of the contract has resulted in the U.S. government spending almost $60 million on a power-transmission project that is not operational because land-acquisition and right-of-way issues have not been resolved, and because there was no contract provision to permanently connect the system to a power source."

SIGAR reports that "it is unclear whether the system will function as designed" because it cannot even be tested. "USACE officials told SIGAR that until all buildings, houses, and other structures and obstacles along the NEPS III transmission line route have been removed, they will not energize NEPS III because it may put residents at risk." In March, the Corps of Engineers produced documents showing that it had "transferred a locked and nonoperating system" to U.S. Forces Afghanistan, which in turn transferred it to the Afghan Ministry of Energy and Water.

But that's not all: In addition to finding no signs the project is capable of actually providing electricity, SIGAR found three of the 18 transmission towers it inspected "on embankments of loose soil and without retaining walls," and several of the tower foundations "exhibited faulty workmanship like exposed rebar and have started to crumble." The report concludes that "the NEPS III system may be structurally unsound and pose a risk to Afghans who live near transmission towers and lines, or work in the Gulbahar substation."

No Blood Typing for Afghan Soldiers

SIGAR also notes that the medical record keeping by the Afghan National Army (ANA) "is unreliable and often inaccurate," despite about $68 billion in overall ANA support from the United States. (In 2012, The Atlantic calculated that the U.S. government had been spending about $46,000 per Afghan soldier each year.)

Dhawa RezkynaDhawa RezkynaAs a result, between January and July 2017, "approximately 15,400 new ANA recruits did not have their blood type tested or verified before entering the ANA ranks, and the blood type of at least 9 [percent] of the total ANA force currently remains unconfirmed." Moreover, the Afghan army lacks any "official system of record that tracks the medical data of new recruits."

This may seem small, but it matters—because it means the government has no idea which soldiers have had their blood screened. "This information is critically important because successful blood transfusions for wounded soldiers require that donated blood be the appropriate type and free from infectious diseases."

Dangerous Schoolhouses

SIGAR alerted USAID that educational projects it co-funded in Baghlan province have, in at least two instances, led to hazardous situations.

One boys' high school is "in danger of collapsing" and "poses a serious danger to students, teachers, and anyone else in or near the school building due to severe structural deterioration." Nonetheless, it is "currently in use."

A site inspection found that the building "may be beyond repair or rehabilitation" and is, to boot, "located in an area of high seismic activity; SIGAR believes it is likely to collapse in the event of an earthquake and has notified the Afghan government of this issue."

Between January and July 2017, approximately 15,400 new recruits to the Afghan National Army did not have their blood type tested or verified.

A second school building in the same province was in a similar condition. But much of the structural damage there "resulted from significant blast damage, which according to interviews was caused by local criminal elements. This damage has already compromised load-bearing walls, and the surrounding walls and ceiling appear to be on the verge of collapse." This school, too, was still operating.

Futile Opium Eradication

The U.S. has spent around $8 billion specifically to eradicate opium poppies in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion. And as SIGAR reports, "from 2008 through March 20, 2018, over 3,520 interdiction operations have resulted in the seizure of" almost half a million tons of opium.

Dhawa RezkynaDhawa RezkynaThat might sound impressive. But all those seizures amount to just 5 percent of the opium produced in Afghanistan in 2017 alone.

Busted Bridge in Earthquake Territory

SIGAR reports that a bridge in Baghlan province built and then rehabilitated using Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds in 2012 is in danger of collapsing.

Some $1.6 million from CERP, part of the U.S. Department of Defense, were spent on eight bridges in the area. At one of those bridges, "SIGAR found significant structural damage that could lead to structural failure that threatens the safety of persons on or near the bridge." Another $13,267 via CERP was used "to make limited repairs," but when they were just 82 percent done, "the project was terminated."

"The bridge sits in a highly seismic area of Afghanistan, where an earthquake could cause its catastrophic failure," SIGAR notes. Yet during a visit last December, inspectors found "extensive vehicle and pedestrian traffic on" the damaged structure. Locals said its "importance for commercial traffic and access to health facilities" made it necessary to keep using it.

65 'Security Incidents' Per Day in 2017

The United Nations gathers daily reports of "security incidents" in Afghanistan, which include "armed clashes, improvised explosive devices, targeted killings, abductions, suicide attacks, criminal acts, and intimidation." As SIGAR reports, 23,744 such incidents were counted in 2017, or about 65 per day—the highest number yet recorded. "Armed clashes" constituted 63 percent of the incidents. Suicide attacks increased by 50 percent from 2016, with "targeted killings and abductions" ticking up 6 percent. The first couple of months of 2018 have seen some improvement, at least, with only 55 daily "security incidents" on average. The chaotic security situation makes on-the-ground inspection work in Afghanistan very hard to do.

$28 Million for Couture Forest Camo

Dhawa RezkynaDhawa Rezkyna"The U.S. government spent as much as $28 million unnecessarily," SIGAR's Sopko said in testimony to the Senate subcommittee, "by purchasing camouflage uniforms…that used a proprietary pattern that involved extra fees and had not been shown to be any more effective than standard patterns. In addition, the pattern chosen was designed for a woodland setting, while only about 2 percent of Afghanistan is forest."

As a SIGAR report spelled out, the U.S. Department of Defense "issued a local acquisition solicitation in June 2008 that included the requirement that the uniforms use the Spec4ce Forest camouflage pattern." That meant that "any vendor awarded the contract would effectively be required to purchase pre-patterned material, or obtain the rights to use the proprietary pattern."

"Neither DOD nor the Afghan government could demonstrate the appropriateness of the ANA uniform for the Afghan environment," the report continues, "or show that the new camouflage pattern did not hinder ANA operations by providing a more clearly visible target to the enemy."

Photo Credit: Dhawa Rezkyna

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  • Rockabilly||

    Would it be cynical to say I'm not shocked?

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    The most wasteful and destructive part of the federal government is the bloated military-industrial complex.

  • Nardz||

    It's dwarfed by the welfare industrial complex

  • Gilbert Martin||

    Indeed it is.

    $125 billion is wasted EVERY YEAR on improper payouts on entitlement/welfare programs due to federal government civil service employees being too incompetent to do their jobs correctly.

    Military spending incompetence can't hold a candle to that record.

  • perlchpr||

    Enh. "Wasteful", maybe. But I dunno if it's "more destructive". After all, the main purpose of the military is to blow shit up.

  • Aloysious||

    Cynical would be to ask, "That's all they wasted? Seems a little low."

  • Longtobefree||

    Really? And the left thinks this kind of idiot code is ruining our elections?

  • Longtobefree||

    Yet the Department of Defense (DOD) was "unable to provide an explanation for the high cost of the project or to answer any other questions concerning its planning, implementation, or outcome."

    Hints:
    Corruption
    Bribes
    Graft
    US Tax Dollars
    Incompetance
    all of the above.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    It is exactly these kinds of exposes of government waste that informed my earliest stirrings of libertarianism. As a kid, I remember watching John Stossel on TV, fascinated and angered by his stories of taxpayers buying $30,000 coffee makers and $800 hammers for our government betters.

    What was Nancy Pelosi's famous line? "There's nothing left to cut!" Yeah, right.

    There's a scene in Starship Troopers where the main character makes a mistake that gets one of his people killed during a live fire training exercise. He is punished by being publicly whipped. That is exactly what needs to happen regularly to wasteful government officials. Also, tarring and feathering needs to be revived. I'd bet the problem would correct itself immediately and budgets would shrink by 90% or more.

  • perlchpr||

    I like the idea of flogging for government employees who fuck up. But I don't want to rule out the wood chipper.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    It is exactly these kinds of exposes of government waste that informed my earliest stirrings of libertarianism. As a kid, I remember watching John Stossel on TV, fascinated and angered by his stories of taxpayers buying $30,000 coffee makers and $800 hammers for our government betters.

    What was Nancy Pelosi's famous line? "There's nothing left to cut!" Yeah, right.

    There's a scene in Starship Troopers where the main character makes a mistake that gets one of his people killed during a live fire training exercise. He is punished by being publicly whipped. That is exactly what needs to happen regularly to wasteful government officials. Also, tarring and feathering needs to be revived. I'd bet the problem would correct itself immediately and budgets would shrink by 90% or more.

  • Rich||

    "Neither DOD nor the Afghan government could demonstrate the appropriateness of the ANA uniform for the Afghan environment," the report continues, "or show that the new camouflage pattern did not hinder ANA operations by providing a more clearly visible target to the enemy."

    Hmm. Perhaps the approvers could be tattooed all over with their pattern.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    I can't decide. Is Afghanistan a quagmire or a money pit?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Silly wabbit. It's both!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Money pit with a quagmire built right in the middle.

  • ThomasD||

    Should have built the wall around Afghanistan. Apparently we could have made it out of money.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    As much as I enjoy a yearly article on new and wondrous ways of wasting money beyond the normal pallets and corruption, there's no shock here. The US has no role in Afghanistan other than saving face and pretending everything is just fine. The only way to stop the corruption would be to leave, and not only would that be tantamount to being evicted, ir would open the floodgates of Congressional hearings.

    No, better to keep piling on. The only way for bureaucrats to save their skin is to move up the bureaucratic ladder to some other position and hope the exit is delayed long enough that your successors will be in charge and held accountable.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Congress has appropriated $126 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction since Fiscal Year 2002," wrote Special Inspector General John F. Sopko in testimony delivered in May to the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management. By 2014, he added, inflation-adjusted appropriations for that purpose "had already exceeded the total of U.S. aid committed to the Marshall Plan for rebuilding much of Europe after World War II."

    If the USA had just used that money to rebuild Afghanistan after the Afghanis had kicked the Russians out, the USA would have saved itself thousands of American dead.

    Additionally, the total Marshall Plan after WWII was $110 Billion adjusted for 2016 dollars. The Marshall Plan only covered Britain, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, France, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, and West Germany.

  • Hackmaschine Mutter||

    IMO The Marshall Plan:

    1. Rebuilt willing economies to previously known standards.
    2. It also did not place career soilders in charge of dishisg out money and making decisions soley to win hearts & minds.

    We say in the south "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear"

  • Hackmaschine Mutter||

    Seriously we could have built hundreds if not thousands of mud-brick houses, imported herds of sheep & goats, allowed their democratically elected corrupt governments to contract with private enterprises to build infrastructure & rape their natural resources, pulled out the majority of our forces, all for a few hundred million and seen success.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Booosh and Obama were just horrible presidents, so any good plan to get revenge for 9-11, help the non-terrorist Afghanis, and then get out was doomed from the start.

  • Hackmaschine Mutter||

    The US did not go to war in Afghanistan to seek revenge for 9/11. The stated purpose was to find & destroy OBL's terrorist network, interdict terrorist training grounds and overthrow the Taliban government to establish a democratic government. Pretty much all of this was a failure & continuing the same plan is utter ridiculousness.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.
    [....]

    GW Bush presidential address -Oct 2001

    This is what Bush said. You are correct that the actual reasons were many other things too.

    One reason often left out is for neo-cons to have a giant military base next to Eastern Iran.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    OK, but do you see any difference in culture between the Marshall Plan list and Afghanistan?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Culture is just one of the many differences.

    Afghanis are poor for many reasons and many of those reasons are because they have a culture that is okay with living in the Stone Age. Afghanistan used to be agreeable to modernization before Islam fundamentalists took over.

    Europe is similar to the USA, except for being largely Socialists. Rebuilding Western Europe with a few Billion, at the time, was an easy gamble to pay dividends. Western Europe was a bulwark to Communism and decent trading partners. Once all the European Nazis felt brave enough to return Europe back to a Socialist State and got the EU, it went downhill from there.

    There will be another war in Europe. I will likely always be a recurring cycle.

  • JFree||

    Afghanis are poor for many reasons and many of those reasons are because they have a culture that is okay with living in the Stone Age. Afghanistan used to be agreeable to modernization before Islam fundamentalists took over.

    You are just so full of BS assertions.

    Afghanistan has been in the wrong place since - forever. Either a battleground where far more powerful surrounding empires clash in trying to conquer - or a buffer zone between far more powerful surrounding empires where they seek to subvert it. The only thing that history has given it is almost perpetual experience in fighting off invasions and a deep and valid distrust of foreigners. It has never been 'agreeable to modernization' because it has never been left alone for long enough to be able to focus on something as mundane as economic growth - and most likely never will be. There isn't such a thing as Afghan culture - because it is nothing more than the arbitrary place where a ton of very different groups live in enforced proximity and try to figure out how to get along - in between invasions from the outside.

    Little has changed since Alexander the Great supposedly said Afghanistan is easy to march into but hard to march out of. We are now finding that out. And have learned nothing in 15 years.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    So, serious question: how much do Americans care about spending, especially specific spending?

    Take the headline money pit, with $126 billion over 16 years. That comes to $25 per citizen per year.

    How would most Americans repsond if the IRS agent knocked on the door on Rebuild Afghanistan Day each year and asked for $100 from each family? Would that response differ from the system we have now, where all the countless money pits are disconnected from how people pay taxes?

  • Jayburd||

    It's off budget so ya just need to speed up the money press a little. It's that little dial on the left.

  • Trollificus||

    The one that, apparently, goes to 11?

  • majil||

    We need to just leave this hell hole and let them go back to killing each other and getting to know their goats in the biblical sense.
    The entire Muslim world could be wiped from the face of the earth and the world would be no worse off and they would not be missed as they contribute nothing to Mankind .
    Not saying I want that to happen just admitting to the reality of the effect on the world if it did.

  • creech||

    We are supposed to save our rage for cabinet officials who spend $100 each on pens to sign things, or order fancy desks. Any outrage against our bi-partisan supported M.I.C. is unpatriotic and probably treasonous to our country and our heroes in uniform.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    As a veterans, I can tell you that the military has a bunch of waste and things that can be cut without ever affecting national defense.

    At some point the cuts are untenable with bases and commitments overseas which is why most of those need to be cut too.

    Army and Air Force defend the USA. US Navy to defend the US coast and trade routes. Joint exercises with allies to maintain readiness. Maintain nuclear deterrent. Use espionage to keep enemies at bay and away from the USA.

    Savings using this strategy would be Hundred of Billions of dollars a year.

  • Longtobefree||

    This waste is hardly shocking. It is par for the course, and fully expected.
    And I would hardly call any of this 'hidden'. It is posted right here on the web.

  • Jerryskids||

    Money, it's a gas
    Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
    New car, caviar, four star daydream,
    Think I'll buy me a football team

  • buybuydandavis||

    Who is shocked by government waste, particularly in foreign aid to a basket case like Afghanistan?

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Best to blow the aid on Detroit?

  • Trollificus||

    A corrupt wasteland full of people who hate America, or a corrupt wasteland full of people who hate America?

    *flips coin*

  • jotilubar5656||

  • BillyG||

    You've listed ~$180 million out of $126 Billion. 99% isn't good enough for ya?

  • ace_m82||

    Insider info, I have overseen military projects such as these, from 2007-2008 in Haditha, Iraq. I was Marine Corps, a Corporal, in Civil Affairs.

    My primary job in the Marines was Artillery Cannoneer until the Commandant decided we should be Civil Affairs. 2 weeks of crash training later, we were.

    I was 21 to 22 years old when I was acting "project manager" for the CERP (Commanders Emergency Response Program), which initially took captured Ba'ath Party funds and spent it for "emergencies" to help the Iraqis. It wasn't too long before the Marines got the American taxpayer to fund it, and for things other than "emergencies" (rebuilding schools, new stuff for hospitals, gravel roads, fixing bridges, etc.)

    Now, we'd get told of a need by someone in the local government (or by a local respected person), and we'd look into it, take pics of the site, get the local government to figure out what would be needed (supplies, labor, etc.), get approval from a Colonel far away, get bids from local contractors (that were trustworthy, we were pretty good at figuring that out), then once all that was good, get the contractor 25% of the cash. As we got proof of further completion, confirmed by pictures and the local government, we'd keep giving them more as they hit certain wickets until the project was done.

    Continued

  • ace_m82||

    That's how it usually worked. Here's the thing, I still have no idea to this day what a "good" brick looks like, or what a "good" water turbine looks like, or if it would work. I have pictures, and confirmation from the local government and the word of a trustworthy contractor (we'd hire them for little things first, to see if they were trustworthy).

    So there was trust involved. The only way I really knew if we did well is if the bridge held up, or the locals told us they got water, or if the hospital's new stuff worked (though the head doctor had little reason to lie).

    If I got it wrong, and I don't think I did, I wouldn't really know if there was collusion to lie to me until after it was done and paid for.

    Heck, I was suspicious when the head doctor at the hospital talked to me about getting [blank] and I asked him about his contractor and he told me it was his cousin. So, I'm immediately suspicious, and ask him about that, and the doctor laughs and tells me that EVERYONE is each other's cousin in Haditha (which is kinda true).

    I don't remember the entire figure, but I was project manager on something like $3-$4 million of taxpayers' money. With basically no training. Government is incompetent, period. Even if I did a perfect job, and I knew precisely what I was doing (and I didn't), without the price mechanism to tell us where money should be spent (impossible in government), allocating scarce resources correctly is impossible!

    Government shouldn't do stuff.

  • Rick Stewart||

    Math check.

    United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says Afghani production of opium in 2017 was only 9,000 metric tons. 5% of that is 450 tons, not half a million tons. They probably seized half a million kilograms in those 11 years.

    Off by a factor of 1,000 ... not bad for government accounting.

  • madam margaret||

    So who are the terrorists after all?