This Is How America Screwed Up Afghanistan’s Reconstruction
Billions of dollars down the drain
The U.S. reconstruction of Afghanistan was one of the worst foreign policy failures in American history. Taxpayers have wasted billions on roads that don’t work, buildings that don’t exist and weapons Afghan soldiers don’t know how to use.
The damage is done, the cash spent and money pocketed. All that’s left now is assessment. What went wrong and how do we make sure this never happens again?
John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, is asking those questions on college campuses across the country right now. His recent speech at Georgetown University, “Ground Truths: Honestly Assessing Reconstruction in Afghanistan,” should be required reading for all American soldiers in officer candidate school.
For Sopko, reconstruction “may be one of the most important issues facing our foreign policy and military experts … for generations to come.”
Despite Mike Huckabee’s recent assertions to the contrary, the American military is longer just about killing people and blowing stuff up. Since World War II, it has spent an incredible amount of time, effort and money rebuilding the countries it invades.
Which is a noble goal and can be successful. But reconstruction in Afghanistan is a mess. Americans spent $110 billion rebuilding the country. “To give that number some perspective,” Sopko explained. “After adjusting for inflation, Afghanistan reconstruction exceeds the value of the entire Marshall Plan effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.”
Sopko said one of biggest problems was a complete lack of planning and assessment. He called for more evidence-based policy making. Too often, he explained, planners threw money at problems without asking what the problems were and if their solutions would help.
“In other words, the initial objective doesn’t need to be precise, because the intervention will surely do some good in some area,” he said. “While that may be true in many cases, especially in the early days just after the Taliban was removed from power, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard when billions of taxpayer dollars and the sacrifice of so many hang in the balance. We must demand precision, and we must never, ever confuse outputs for outcomes.”
A great example of this is the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, an emergency fund of nearly $4 billion which Congress appropriated for U.S. commanders. For what reason? We have no idea, and neither does Sopko.
“Incredibly, for the first nine years of CERP’s existence,” Sopko explained. “I have not been able to find a single, clearly articulated mention of the program’s true objectives in any official document beyond the generic inputs of ‘humanitarian relief and reconstruction.’”
“Because this program was initially designed without explicitly-stated objectives and stringent performance metrics, it largely lends itself to anecdotal ‘evidence’ by small-unit commanders who view the program as another tool in their tactical kit — much like a weapons system or other force-multiplier.”
“It should surprise no one that the sustainability of CERP-funded schools have been singled out because, say, they are literally crumbling and falling apart. Or that CERP-funded hospitals actually became unsafe because their electrical and water supply systems failed.”
These “ghost” schools in the tribal region along Pakistan’s border are now infamous. One report claimed the U.S. had built a school on top of an uninhabitable mountain. But Sopko understands the problem.
“The overarching objective was never to build a school or hospital, staff it, supply it, and otherwise maintain it in order to improve education or health in Afghanistan,” he said. “The goal was to win a war, and to do so at the lowest human and materiel cost possible.”
Despite such dramatic failures, CERP surely did some good right? Maybe, Sopko said. But he doesn’t know. “When I can’t even tell what the program’s basic objectives were,” he explained. “I certainly can’t tell you whether it’s succeeding or not.”
CERP and the Pentagon weren’t the only problem. Far from it. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development blew incredible amounts of cash in Afghanistan, too. These agencies often spent the money without considering Afghanistan’s infrastructure.
“USAID spent almost $15 million to build a hospital in Gardez,” Sopko explained. “The effort was just one small part of a $57 million dollar contract awarded to build health and education facilities throughout Afghanistan, which would then be turned over to the Afghans to operate.”
“The hospital hit a few snags in the building process, and it was delayed for several months, but other than that, it was a solidly-built structure that ended up being 12 times larger than the previous hospital in Gardez, a headline that should have meant a huge increase in local healthcare capacity.”
But Afghanistan had neither the money nor the personnel to operate the fancy new facility. According to Spoko, USAID “managed to increase the cost for the Afghans to operate a hospital in Gardez by a factor of five.”
“I wish I could say that this is an isolated incident, but this sort of thing happens in Afghanistan all the time,” he continued. “Time and again, people have to be reminded that Afghanistan is not Kansas.”
“I want to give people the benefit of the doubt on this kind of thing … Perhaps these officials just want the Afghans to have high-quality infrastructure. I try to remind myself of that when we build multi-billion dollar roads to U.S. weight standards in a country that has no ability to enforce weight limitations.Of course the roads are crumbling and of course the Afghans don’t have the funds and capabilities to maintain them.”
“Or when a military official suggested that we spend millions building high-tech bus stops in Afghanistan, complete with solar-powered lighting, as if we were in Bethesda. I want to believe that these folks just want the Afghans to benefit from the same high quality infrastructure that we enjoy in the U.S.”
“But … all I am seeing is a modus operandi that is woefully out of touch at best, and delusional at worst.”
“We simply must be smarter. We have to be, if our country is going to play its critical role building peace and stabilizing war-torn societies for years to come.”
Wasted money, bad planning and foolish projects are bad. Not admitting that you screwed up is worse. This lack of accountability and self awareness is a big problem for Sopko.
“Two and a half years ago, I sent the main players in the reconstruction game — the Departments of State and Defense, as well as USAID — a letter requesting that they identify … their 10 most and least successful reconstruction programs … I still have not received a straight answer from any of them.”
“I would honestly fault these agencies less if they gave me a straight response and said, ‘John, we think that Program X is not doing so hot because of Y, and we believe that because we put in place a system to measure its progress.’”
“At least then, I know they have a basic level of recognition that something isn’t quite right, and that they are looking to do something about it … I can logically only assume one of two things: they are intentionally dodging my questions, which is unsettling, or they are not being honest with themselves, which is worrying, given the vital task with which they have been charged.”
Sopko finished his talk by reminding the crowd that Gen. William Westmoreland once said that the American military succeeded in Vietnam. It won every engagement it fought. (That’s not exactly true, though it was true more often than not.) However, modern war is about more than just smashing a state. It’s about putting it back together.
“From Rwanda and Kosovo, to Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, world leaders have recognized the dangers of underestimating crises in little-known places far away,” Sopko said.
He’s right about that. The greatest tragedy of America’s war in Afghanistan is that it had an opportunity to help another country, and it failed while still pretending to have performed an astounding act of charity.