MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Afghanistan Reconstruction: Huge Cost, Meager Benefits

A hearing chaired by Sen. Rand Paul exposes wasteful and counterproductive spending of U.S. money.

U.S. spending in Afghanistan is plagued by "far too many instances of poor planning, sloppy execution, theft, corruption, and lack of accountability," the federal official charged with keeping track of reconstruction efforts in that country testified yesterday.

Special IG for Afghanistan Reconstruction on Foter.com / CC BYSpecial IG for Afghanistan Reconstruction on Foter.com / CC BY

In written testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management, John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, says his office has "identified more than $2 billion of potential savings." He adds that "nearly 80 percent of our recommendations for improvements have been implemented or effectively addressed by the federal agencies we have audited."

But despite some small successes, Sopko's testimony lays out many facts that should give taxpayers pause. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), chairman of the subcommittee that heard from Sopko, suggested more than once that, rather than trying to do all the things we are doing in Afghanistan more safely and less expensively, we should rethink whether to do them at all.

"Congress has appropriated $126 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction since Fiscal Year 2002," Sopko writes. By 2014, "total appropriations for Afghanistan reconstruction, after adjustment for inflation, had already exceeded the total of U.S. aid committed to the Marshall Plan for rebuilding much of Europe after World War II."

That tally does not include the cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan, which has been "more than $750 billion." The total direct cost of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan since 2001 is rapidly approaching $1 trillion, and this does not include, for example, future liabilities for veteran care necessary as a result of the war or interest on borrowed money. Sopko concludes that in Afghanistan "the United States threw itself into reconstruction with haste and hubris, with untested assumptions and unrealistic expectations, and with piles of cash and tight deadlines for spending it—too much, too fast, with too little oversight."

Even after boondoggles such as a $43 million compressed natural gas station that pretty much no one can use, or wages paid to the spouses of contractors for no discernible work, the people responsible generally are not penalized. "If you steal 20 bucks," Sopko told Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) at the hearing, you might get indicted, "but if through gross negligence you waste $150 million...no one gets fired" by the Department of Defense, Agency for International Development, or State Department.

The U.S. spent $28 million on special camouflage uniforms for the Afghan army that "had not been shown to be any more effective than standard patterns," Sopko writes. "In addition, the pattern chosen was designed for a woodland setting, while only about 2 percent of Afghanistan is forest."

Here are a few other colorful failures described in Sopko's written testimony:

• Purchasing nearly a half-billion dollars' worth of second-hand transport planes that were unusable in Afghanistan and were scrapped for $32,000;

• Building a dry-fire range for Afghan security-force training that literally began dissolving when it rained;

• Constructing schools and clinics with unsafe walls and ceilings, unfinished and dangerous electrical systems, and no provision for the costs of supplying and sustaining them; and

• Paying for roads that soon deteriorate due to poor construction and failure to plan for repairs.

U.S. attempts to help bring electricity to Afghanistan, which was about 6 percent electrified when the U.S. invaded and is now about 30 percent electrified, also have run into snags. Sopko reports that the U.S. government spent almost $60 million on an electricity project known as NEPS III that "is not operational because land acquisition and right-of-way issues have not been resolved, and because the contract did not provide for permanent connections to a power source." He adds: "It gets worse. The NEPS III facilities may be structurally unsound and pose a risk to Afghans who live near transmission."

Gregory McNeill, majority staff director of the Senate's Federal Spending Oversight Subcommittee, recently visited Afghanistan. He testified yesterday that transmission towers are frequently blown up, often by Afghans angry that they are being built on their land with no permission or compensation.

McNeill, per his written testimony,"walked into a warehouse at Bagram and found three large bins (out of less than ten in the warehouse at the time) full of thousands of dollars of brand new electrical equipment slated for disposal." He adds: "We'd been given the run-around and told this was not an issue for almost four years. Then, we see it right there before our eyes. [We wouldn't know it was happening] if we hadn't gone and looked."

The biggest issue facing any attempt to ride herd on U.S. spending in Afghanistan, stressed frequently in yesterday's testimonies, is that visitors can't safely inspect anything on the ground because the security situation is so precarious. Sopko's written testimony points out that only 65 percent of the population lives in areas under meaningful government control (and it isn't as if all those areas are safe either). Sopko complains that the State Department effectively keeps all U.S. personnel in the country trapped in the embassy compound. Thanks to State Department regulations, the three-mile trip from the Kabul airport to the embassy costs more than a typical round-trip economy flight from D.C. to Kabul.

Laurel Miller, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, told the subcommittee the best thing the U.S. could do for its own interests is not more development or military spending but "a robust diplomatic initiative for settlement of the conflict" between the Afghan government and the Taliban. "Folding the Taliban into Afghan politics," she said, would "enable us to narrow our security mission." She regretted the lack of "clear foreign policy backing" for such an effort in the current administration.

In her written testimony, Miller notes the grim nexus between money and security in Afghanistan:

The Afghan government spends about a quarter of its resources on security—a huge proportion by international standards—but that contribution covers only about a tenth of the costs of the government's security forces; the United States and other foreign donors cover the rest. Without a lot of help in setting a foundation for economic growth, the Afghans will be hard pressed to even begin to close that wide gap in any foreseeable time frame...The poverty rate increased to just above 39 percent in 2013–2014 (the latest available data), up from 36 percent in 2011– 2012, meaning that 1.3 million people fell into poverty in the intervening period.

Miller stresses that U.S. spending in Afghanistan is supposed ensure the country does not become an unstable safe haven for terrorists who might harm the United States. Despite the nearly $1 trillion spent since the invasion, however, "neither political nor security conditions in Afghanistan are more stable than they were a decade ago." In general, Miller writes, RAND has found that after nation-building interventions, "ineffective governments largely remained so, poor societies remained poor, and lootable resources continued to be looted."

The $8 billion or so spent on opium eradication since our invasion also been an enormous failure. "The programs were poorly coordinated and poorly executed," Sopko said. The total amount of poppies destroyed by U.S. efforts since the invasion, he said, represents about 0.5 percent of this year's opium production. As Miller put it, "the incentives driving narcotics production...are far more powerful than U.S. spending in Afghanistan."

Sergio Gor, Sen. Paul's deputy chief of staff, also recently visited Afghanistan. In his written testimony, he focuses on one terrible project: a would-be Marriott Hotel in Kabul. Eleven years after the project was launched with $60 million from the U.S. government's Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), Gor "walked the halls of this deserted, unfinished shell of a dream," featuring "barren rooms, empty elevator shafts, and no electric power." He says the hotel and an apartment building planned by the same developer that got $30 million from OPIC are "uninhabited and uninhabitable."

The Marriott that was not is an ongoing drain on U.S. funds. "Our government now spends an unknown amount every week to protect these multistory buildings due to their proximity to the Embassy," Gor writes. "In the end, multiple individuals advised us that the Embassy is seeking to acquire the land, demolish the infrastructure, and start anew. In summary—poor planning, no oversight, money wasted, and, the worst part of all, absolutely zero accountability. Every day that we distribute money, people squander or steal it, and no one is ever held accountable. And the process repeats itself."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Eidde||

    You know who else thought Reconstruction had high costs and meager benefits?

  • Rich||

    That guy on "Love It Or List It"?

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    D W Griffith?

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Mickey Rourke?

  • Agammamon||

    Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.

  • Rich||

    U.S. spending in Afghanistan is plagued by "far too many instances of poor planning, sloppy execution, theft, corruption, and lack of accountability,"

    not to mention "insider attacks and blowing shit up."

  • mtrueman||

    "Every day that we distribute money, people squander or steal it, and no one is ever held accountable. "

    Perhaps the people who steal it are more accountable and have found better ways to spend it.

  • Nardz||

    ...say all the true socialists

  • mtrueman||

    True socialists are happy with government institutions like the pentagon deciding how to spend money. I think the Afghans are better judges. I don't see much wrong in stealing from Uncle Sam, who's an uninvited guest in Afghanistan. I'm sure the locals are much more careful about the money they manage to steal. More power to them. Bleed the elephant white!

  • Rockabilly||

    A fucking goobermint program not working?
    Why I'm fucking shocked.

  • Conchfritters||

    The $8 billion or so spent on opium eradication since our invasion also been an enormous failure.

    The Taliban eradicated opium production for a hell of a lot less $$$ than that.

    Time to pack up and go home. If the terrorists build camps there again, thump them from our airbases in Diego Garcia.

  • SIV||

    The opium eradication kinda worked as a subsidy to Chinese fentynol manufacturers

  • WillPaine||

    Yep; you're figuring it ut

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Proof we haven't spent nearly enough.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Another joint meeting of Libertarians For Right-Wing Military Belligerence and Libertarians For Massive Military Spending called to order at reason.com?

    Are the Libertarians For Torture invited?

  • Curt||

    Please report to the service department for an adjustment to your sarc-meter.

  • WillPaine||

    DR; I hope you are being sarcastic; otherwise, you are an idiot

  • ||

    I have said many times before that IMO the Afghan campaign started off wrong from the beginning. Mainly it is an illustration of the whole problem of regime change which seems to be a totally bipartisan fetish.

    In order to get various and sundry allies (do-gooder Canadians, nation building French, Germans etc, our own various domestic gay and women's rights lobbies) on board the Bush administration (which didn't need much urging since it was dominated by neoconservatives) undertook a comprehensive program to rebuild Afghanistan in the image of Western Liberals instead of a hard quick punitive expedition to tell the Taliban what would happen if they sheltered the likes of Al Qaeda in the future and to capture or kill as many Al Qaeda operatives (especially OBL) as possible.

    Essentially, "we" should have been out before the end of 2002. Instead, we are still there, long after our allies got tired of it, trying to remake a country that does not want to be remade (liberals love to remake countries and get very upset when the lower orders show that they they don't like it) dealing with a reinvigorated Taliban which will take over within about two weeks of the withdrawal of the last American troops.

  • ||

    The fact that none of our "allies" in this enterprise are no longer willing to stick around should provide a clue about whether this is something that we should be continuing seems to have escaped our own policy makers. Unfortunately, it has not.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Great points, Isaac Bartram. Libertarians would applaud, but the authoritarian right-wing goobers who patronize this website will not.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    He testified yesterday that transmission towers are frequently blown up, often by Afghans angry that they are being built on their land with no permission or compensation.

    Why aren't we asking or compensating?

  • ||

    Because FYTW. Don't these lower orders know what's good for them?

  • ||

    Remember, progressives (and the Afghan adventure has been a progressive enterprize all along) are all about elevating the lower orders.

  • ||

    Whether they like it or not.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Right-wingers . . . the preemptive invasion, torture, bigotry, and military spending crowd . . . precipitated and own every bit of of this flaming clustermuck.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Didn't they hear about the results of Kelo vs?

  • Agammamon||

    Afghanis don't 'have a constitutional right' to . . . well, anything. At least according to some members of this very board.

  • Moo Cow||

    This is what the War on Terror purchased:

    http://whatson.ae/dubai/2018/0.....i-skyline/

  • I'm Not Sure||

    U.S. spending in Afghanistan is plagued by "far too many instances of poor planning, sloppy execution, theft, corruption, and lack of accountability,"

    So... it's like U.S. spending in the U.S., then? Got it.

  • DenverJ||

    So, pretend I put the whole article in blockquote, then I say "feature, not bug". Eisenhower warned us.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    DenverJ! It's been a while since I've seen you comment on here. Hope all is well with you and that you are enjoying life to its fullest.

  • DaveSs||

    I'm glad someone said it.

    Surprised it took so long

  • Lowdog||

    All these wars and nation building exercises are working exactly as intended. Huge subsidies to the military-industrial complex, constant training for our huge military, advances in trauma treatment, and astern message to every other country that we (the US govt, anyway) are willing to expend nearly limitless resources (in time, money, and lives) to fuck your country up if we're pissed at you. I think there is also some crazy religious belief stuff thrown in, like some folks are pining for the apocalypse to begin. Add to that, some creepy social experiment type stuff, and the desire for power and money (somewhat covered above), domestic spying, and who knows what other sick shit, and viola, goodbye freedom, hello endless war.

  • Ecoli||

    Just close up shop and leave Afghanistan.

  • Ecoli||

    Reconstruction is the misnomer of choice for US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It should more appropriately be called construction. It would still be a waste of our dollars, and it would still accomplish nothing.

    I worked in Iraq for two years. About 90% of the money spent was stolen.

  • WillPaine||

    Ecoli; exactly; rebuilding what? A valley, a mountain? There is talk of mineral extraction; if we try messing with the Afghani's water, hell will rain down such as never seen in history, neither by the British, Russians, nor us.
    Oh, yeah, wait a minute, we have just enough troops there now, to control what? Their GNP; it's called opium/heroin kids. Wakey uppy

  • WillPaine||

    Ecoli; exactly; rebuilding what? A valley, a mountain? There is talk of mineral extraction; if we try messing with the Afghani's water, hell will rain down such as never seen in history, neither by the British, Russians, nor us.
    Oh, yeah, wait a minute, we have just enough troops there now, to control what? Their GNP; it's called opium/heroin kids. Wakey uppy

  • WillPaine||

    Ecoli; exactly; rebuilding what? A valley, a mountain? There is talk of mineral extraction; if we try messing with the Afghani's water, hell will rain down such as never seen in history, neither by the British, Russians, nor us.
    Oh, yeah, wait a minute, we have just enough troops there now, to control what? Their GNP; it's called opium/heroin kids. Wakey uppy

  • ace_m82||

    Sounds like "reconstruction" has all the exact problems that government doing ANYTHING does. It's incompetent. It shouldn't do stuff.

    It should be brought behind the shed and put down mercifully.

  • WillPaine||

    The Afghani GNP is based upon opium/heroin now; has been for centuries. Do you get the picture? Here, and there?

  • jos3||

  • Vjklander||

    U.S. spending in America is plagued by "far too many instances of poor planning, sloppy execution, theft, corruption, and lack of accountability,"
    Why would anyone possibly think it would be better in Afghanistan???????

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online