This Is What $150 Million In Taxpayers’ Cash Buys You In Afghanistan
Pictures from inside the America’s defunct, war-zone business venture
by MATTHEW GAULT
In 2009, the Pentagon shipped American business experts to Afghanistan to help jump-start the war-torn country’s economy. To that end, the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations spent more than $800 million from 2009 until the Pentagon shut it down in March 2015.
During that time, TFBSO staff lived large in an Afghan villa one former employee described as “a five-star hotel paid for by the [Defense Department].” It cost the task force almost $150 million, around 20 percent of its budget, to keep up appearances while it operated in Afghanistan.
Frustrated task force employees blew the whistle on the big spending and party atmosphere in the TFBSO villas back in 2015. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, demanded answers — and the project collapsed under the scrutiny.
Now, War Is Boring has obtained pictures of the lavish lodgings from a former employee.
The idea behind the task force was a good one — the Pentagon wanted to bring together American and Afghan business interests to develop Afghanistan’s business community. Everyone would make money and Afghanistan would get jobs and much-needed infrastructure.
“We do capitalism. We’re about helping companies make money,” former TFBSO director Paul A. Brinkley told The Washington Post back in 2011. But — as with many American reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan — corruption, arrogance and ignorance felled the TFBSO.
Waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer trust is a long-running narrative in the story of America’s attempts to reconstruct Afghanistan. The TFBSO typified this.
“[Task force] leadership rented specially furnished, privately owned ‘villas’ and hired contractors to provide 24-hour building security, food services and bodyguards for TFBSO staff and visitors traveling in country,” Sopko explained in a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
“The contractors lived in TFBSO facilities, arranged transportation, and provided security details when TFBSO personnel traveled outside their compounds.”
“The most common thread is that it was a dog-and-pony show,” a former task force employee told War Is Boring on condition of anonymity. “It was palatial … tapestries, ostentatious. It looked like Saddam’s palace. It was just ridiculous.”
The employee said he felt the task force doubled down on the fancy digs to impress Afghan business interests, but he told War Is Boring that the people the Pentagon shipped over to do business were less than impressive. He expected seasoned business executives.
“Instead they sent these fresh college graduates in their low ’20s,” he explained. The young college students living large in an expensive, government-subsidized palace in a foreign land acted, um, predictably. “Alcohol was rampant.”
“I can’t speak negatively about it,” the source explained. “I partook too … but I remember they constantly tried to effectuate the [Defense Department] General Order Number One … but they had a drink in their hand while they said it.”
“Things weren’t the way they were supposed to be,” the source said. “The security guys handled themselves professionally but their hands were tied by the TFBSO executives. If [the executives] wanna go to a restaurant late at night, [security] had to get up and take them there. There was no planning a route, it was just get up and go.”
He explained that the young execs often forced the security details to escort them to restaurants in downtown Herat in the middle of the night. “The security guys always had to stay out there in one spot for three or four hours while they entertained themselves. It’s crazy.”
“These [executives] had no idea of the danger. No military background, nothing. It was a free-for-all. Not to mention the rampant alcohol usage in the hotel.” He told stories about the young employees binge-drinking until they vomited in front of crowds of people.
“It wasn’t, ‘I’ll take a shot and say goodnight.’ It was more of a party atmosphere,” he explained.
A few months after the source arrived in Afghanistan, the Pentagon tried to move the employees into cheaper accommodations across the street at an Italian military base.
“They pushed back,” he said. “No one wanted to go. Why leave a five-star hotel paid for by the [Defense Department] when everyone had their own giant room with a king-size bed and walk-in shower, security and you can do what you want?”
Across the street, “you had to put your laundry into a bag and you might be sharing rooms with an Italian and all the bathrooms were shared bathrooms,” the source explained. “The difference in living was night and day between the hotel and the base. Of course, nobody [moved].”
TFBSO employees also had a financial disincentive — moving across the street to cheaper lodgings would impact their pocket book. “On base, if you’re not military, the [government] would charge contractors a certain amount a month for things like laundry, library usage … probably came to about a thousand euros a month.”
The Pentagon would reimburse those costs … eventually. But why move when you could just stay, live in pleasure — and pay nothing? “The math isn’t there,” the source said. “It’s comparing apples to oranges. It’s night and day from what it cost to live on the base versus the hotel.”
The task force blundered its way through Afghan reconstruction and investigators are still sifting through the wreckage. Famously, the TFBSO imported expensive yet diseased cashmere-producing goats from Italy, paid too much for a gas station and blew $3 million on a cold dry storage facility no one used.
And these are just small cases. Beyond the faulty task force, American taxpayers have spent billions reconstructing Afghanistan and Iraq will little to show for it. An accounting of the full breadth of the corruption and waste will take years.