Afghanistan’s Failed Goat Farm Is the Perfect American Disaster
This Pentagon-funded cashmere scheme reveals the folly of U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan
by MATTHEW GAULT
The Pentagon spent $2.3 million trying to raise goats in Afghanistan. It failed, goats died and the U.S. taxpayers footed the bill.
That’s chump change compared to the more than $100 billion America has spent on Afghan reconstruction. Despite its low price tag, the goat story is important because it’s a microcosm of U.S. aid efforts in Afghanistan.
As above, so below. Understanding why the goat farm failed is the same as understanding why America failed when it set out to rebuild Afghanistan.
One month after an angry old Congressman yelled about goats during a House Armed Service Committee hearing, Congress convened to hear about the issue in a more thorough and horrifying fashion. John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, testified before the Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in mid-April.
Sopko and his team had looked into the Pentagon’s efforts to grow Afghanistan’s economy through its Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Like most of the Defense Department’s plans in Afghanistan, TFBSO began with the best of intentions but quickly fell to a miasm of waste, fraud, abuse, ignorance and neglect.
The Task Force was to spend $800 million to grow the Afghan economy by starting businesses, teaching Afghans different farming techniques and building critical infrastructure. TFBSO projected these projects would boost Afghanistan’s economy by $1.28 billion in 2015. Instead, Afghanistan’s GDP actually fell by $700 million.
To understand what went wrong, we have to talk about goats.
In 2013, the Task Force gave Colorado State University a $1.5-million grant to start a goat farm in Afghanistan’s Herat province. This wasn’t to be just any goat farm, but a cashmere goat farm. Scarves and sweaters made from the luxurious material sell for high prices in Western markets. Those high-dollar items begin their lives as the soft undercoat of a rare breed of goat.
China and Mongolia produce most of the world’s cashmere. Afghanistan is a distant third. According to TFBSO documents, the Task Force teamed with CSU to “identify gaps in the Afghan cashmere supply chain, and then fill those gaps with business opportunities.”
Afghanistan’s got about nine million cashmere goats, but Afghans are only harvesting 30 percent of them. So CSU planned to come to Afghanistan, set up its own goat farm, show the Afghans how to harvest cashmere then turn over a self-sustaining farm to the local population.
It was such a great, feel-good story that NATO sent T.V. cameras to film the goats and interview the farmers. This heart-warming pap doesn’t reveal the turmoil roiling beneath the surface. The farmers didn’t understand goats, farming or Afghanistan.
One of the reasons Afghanistan produces so little cashmere despite having such a plentiful goat supply has to do with color. Afghan goats grow a cashmere that’s too dark to take to market, but CSU had a plan — lighten up the coats by breeding Afghanistan’s goat population with blonde Italian studs.
So the college dropped cash on nine fancy Italian goats. With these animals, another 10 other bucks from Tajikistan plus 270 female goats, CSU planned to jump-start a trend of breeding out the dark-colored goats. Remember, CSU had 300 goats — nine of which carried the desired genes — to turn the genetic tide of nine million Afghan cashmere goats. The university wanted to get the ball rolling in two years.
“There was no way to accomplish the goals of the project in two years, and it was likely a 20-year project,” a cashmere genetics expert told SIGAR later.
CSU’s ambitious plan promised 2,000 goats by 2015. It bred 116 in 2013 and 234 the year after, falling well short of its goal. Which is good, because CSU couldn’t even properly care for the goats it started with.
Goat farms are most profitable when they’re self sustaining. Goats will eat just about anything and grazing them is pretty easy. But CSU screwed it up. Its farm’s location didn’t have enough land to support the 300 goats the project began with, let alone the 2,000 it wanted by 2015.
The college spent an incredible $50,000 a year to feed its goats. If you’ve spent time around the creatures, you know just how ridiculous a number that is. The locals thought so, too — and that came back to bite the college in the ass when it tried to turn over the farm to Afghans.
The Afghanistan Cashmere Manufacturing Association wanted to take over the farm, but balked when it learned how much CSU was paying every year for food — and withdrew its offer. The association said it couldn’t justify spending that much cash to feed goats. It wasn’t sustainable, no matter how much cashmere it got.
It gets worse. TFBSO and CSU didn’t test their goats for disease — a basic tenet of animal husbandry. Any goat farmer worth his shears knows about Johne’s Disease — a fatal, contagious intestinal infection prone to ruminants. Turns out that some of CSU’s goats had the disease. When the herd got sick, the college tested for the disease and culled 37 of its male goats.
Worse, the university had to kill four of its fancy Italian cashmere goats. Only two of the remaining five were still worth keeping for breeding. The Afghanistan Cashmere Manufacturing Association called the farm a “poisoned chalice.” With disease ravaging the herd, it’s easy to see why.
“The goat example seems to be indicative of the waste that comes from improvising development without proper planning or consideration for the needs and likely outcomes for the population the U.S. is trying to help,” Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, told War Is Boring.
She’s right. The goat farm is just one in a long list of examples of the Pentagon screwing up reconstruction in Afghanistan. Sopko nailed this during his testimony to Congress. He called the project, “overly ambitious, poorly staffed and mismanaged by TFBSO.” That applies to so many other Pentagon initiatives in Afghanistan that it’s hard to keep track.
“The expectations of the project were unrealistic [and] TFBSO’s mismanagement put the entire effort at risk,” a goat expert told SIGAR. He added that both the Task Force and the college “had no idea what they were doing and CSU staff determined what the project should cost, despite no one at CSU having any experience with cashmere.”
Big dreams, bad planning and a lack of expertise felled the goat farm just as it felled America’s efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.
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