Pie in the Kabul sky

Is the Afghan 'nation-building' project a story of failures and corruption?

Pie in the Kabul sky
It is ping-pong season in Afghanistan. Within 48 hours of an assertion on the status of hostilities by US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford, Taliban delivered a snub through coordinated attacks in several districts in northern, northeastern and southern Afghan provinces.  On July 19, Afghan officials acknowledged the insurgents have made territorial gains in some areas.

The renewed insurgent hostilities came a day after Dunford concluded a three-day visit to Kabul as part of the overall assessment of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. He attributed recent lower level of violence than anticipated to Afghan forces’ significantly increased capabilities, notably air power.

But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid offered a contrasting claim and attributed the slow-down in attacks to the “unusually hot month of Ramadan.”  In messages to media, Mujahid said simultaneous and coordinated attacks in several provinces, including Kunduz, Baghlan, Badakhshan and Helmand starting Sunday are a proof of the plans the Taliban devised during Ramadan and the activity is going to intensify.

These conflicting views mean continued hostilities and an enormous financial bleeding for the US-led Resolute Support Mission, a sequel to the Operation Enduring Freedom, which ended in December 2014 with the bulk drawdown of US-NATO troops from Afghanistan, following a 13-year massive infusion of money (over $700 billion) and manpower in the war that peaked in 2010/11 with 133,000 men.

Additionally, this cost several billion dollars in the name of Afghan-military related support missions, infrastructure projects, and social service centres. It has been a bizarre spending spree sans accountability.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction office, headed by John Sopko since 2012, has looked at hundreds of projects to check how the approximately $113.1 billion spent on Afghanistan relief and reconstruction since 2002 were spent. These audits also became the primary source for an intensive report by US-based Public Radio International (PRI), a global non-profit media company, released in December last year. The study amounts to an indictment of the reckless way American public money was spent in a way promoted and massive corruption within the US military, USAID and Afghan governance structures. The lynchpin were the civilian contractors who execute tasks for the American military and USAID.

In one instance, according to PRI, the Pentagon bought 20 refurbished cargo planes for the Afghan Air Force in 2008, but as one top US officer put it, “just about everything you can think of was wrong.” No spare parts, for example. The planes were also “a death trap,” according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. So $486 million was spent on worthless planes that no one could fly. “We did recoup some of the investment. Sixteen of the planes were sold as scrap for the grand sum of $32,000. That’s 6 cents a pound.”

And this is not an anomaly. It has happened in Afghanistan again and again. In just six years (as of December 2015), the report said, SIGAR has tallied at least $17 billion in questionable spending. This includes $3.6 billion in outright waste, projects teetering on the brink of waste, or projects that can’t — or won’t — be sustained by the Afghans, as well as an additional $13.5 billion that the average taxpayer might easily judge to be waste.

“Pie in the sky” projects, as one USAID worker called them, were routinely launched without any thought to the financial and technological ability of the Afghans to maintain them. None of the programs were required to prove they had even limited success. For instance, no one evaluated whether Afghan security forces actually learned to read and write after going through a $200 million literacy program.

As many as $8.4 billion was spent on counter-narcotics programs that were so ineffective that Afghanistan has produced record levels of heroin — more than it did before the war started. At least $14.7 million were spent on a storage facility the military never used. A $456,000 police-training facility was so poorly constructed it literally melted in the rain. That could have funded more than 180,000 dinners for low-income kids, enough for an entire summer. Another $335 million were spent on a power plant that the Afghans don’t use. That could have paid for permanent housing for 37,000 homeless Americans and $250,000 grants to 20 small-business owners to help them commercialize new technologies.

The military, the State Department and USAID provided detailed public responses to the findings in each of SIGAR’s reports, sometimes disputing the conclusions and recommendations. The Pentagon and the State Department blamed a lack of Afghan government support for the failures. Their rejoinder, in essence said: “Hey, it’s a war zone, what do you expect?” There’s little time spent on pondering the bigger question, says the PRI report. If it’s a war zone, why were we pouring billions into reconstruction?