No one can accuse the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, of sugarcoating the truth.
The investigating body published its quarterly report for Congress Wednesday, looking at a variety of United States-funded programs and projects, and this line just about sums it up: “poor planning, shoddy construction, mechanical failures, and inadequate oversight.”
Afghanistan is the biggest reconstruction project the US has ever undertaken, consuming more than $104 billion so far.
“Adjusted for inflation, US appropriations for the reconstruction of Afghanistan exceed the funds committed to the Marshall Plan, the US aid program that delivered billions of dollars between 1948 and 1952 to help 16 European countries recover in the aftermath of World War II.”
Has it been worth it? Judge for yourself.
1. The $1.57-billion firetrap
Trust the US Army Corps of Engineers to look on the bright side, even when it turns out that they had spent $1.57 billion on substandard facilities for the Afghan military.
The problem is a polyurethane foam insulation that does not meet minimal requirements. The USACE acknowledged that 1,600 out of 2,000 buildings have “an increased risk in the event of a fire,” but urged SIGAR not to worry.
“The typical occupant populations for these facilities are young, fit Afghan soldiers and recruits who have the physical ability to make a hasty retreat during a developing situation,” a senior USACE official explained in a memorandum issued last January.
In other words, they can jump out a window or something.
Sounds like a good idea — except that some of the affected buildings were barracks, where soldiers might be asleep, and medical clinics, where not all occupants might be able to run.
Oh, but the substandard facilities also included fire stations.
2. Contracts for the Taliban?
The US Army has decided that classified information sufficient to have a person targeted and killed is not enough to bar that person from receiving US government contracts.
John Sopko, the special inspector general himself, is clearly irritated by this.
“It is troubling that our government can and does use classified information to arrest, detain, and even kill individuals linked to the insurgency in Afghanistan, but apparently the same classified information cannot be used to deny these same individuals their rights to contract work with the US government,” he writes in an introduction to the latest report.
Sopko’s been fighting this battle for a while.
“As I have pointed out in our last five quarterly reports, [this] is not only legally wrong, but contrary to sound policy and national security goals,” he writes.
It is also nuts, but Sopko can’t really say that. He comes close, though.
“I continue to urge the secretary of defense and Congress to change this misguided policy and impose common sense on the Army’s suspension and debarment program.”
3. The $7.6-billion heroin subsidy
At least agriculture is booming. According to the report, “Afghan farmers are growing more poppy today than ever before, and in 2013 the value of that opium and its derivatives was estimated at $3 billion, or the equivalent of 15 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP, representing a substantial increase from 2012.”
Not only is production rising, but marketing is going well, too.
“Afghan heroin is increasingly reaching new markets, such as Oceania and South West Asia, that had been traditionally supplied from South East Asia.”
Sounds like a Chamber of Commerce report, doesn’t it? Oh, wait; a flourishing heroin industry is not exactly what we were aiming for.
The US has put $7.6 billion into counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, which seems only to have stimulated growth.
“For the third consecutive year, Afghanistan, already the world’s largest producer and cultivator of opium poppies, saw an increase in the area under cultivation (from 154,000 hectares in 2012 to 209,000 hectares in 2013) — a 36 percent increase.”
4. The Afghan Local Police: The foxes guarding the henhouse?
It sounded like such a good idea. The Afghan Local Police, or ALP, was designed to “strengthen local governance by training local Afghans in rural areas to defend their communities against insurgents and other illegally armed groups.”
So far, the US has put $214 million into this local force, and in general the program has been a success.
“According to an independent assessment released last quarter, public perceptions of ALP’s value to community security were overall very positive,” says the report.
There is a fairly big “but,” however: “Unpaid ALP units were accused of predatory behavior, corruption and criminality,” SIGAR says.
One example of such unattractive conduct came in eastern Afghanistan, where an ALP unit “cut the power lines from Kabul to eastern Laghman and Nangahar Provinces in retaliation for not being paid for three months."
This, advises SIGAR, “could be a sign of the turmoil to come if the Afghan government cannot meet payrolls.”
5. Where have all the rifles gone?
Over the past decade or so, the US Defense Department has provided more than 747,000 weapons and auxiliary equipment to the Afghan National Security Forces valued at approximately $626 million.
That’s a lot of guns. Too many, in fact: “SIGAR found that, as of November 2013, more than 112,000 weapons provided to the ANA and ANP exceed requirements.” It was referring to the Afghan National Army and National Police, respectively.
So what will Afghan security forces do with all those excess rifles, pistols, machine guns, and grenade launchers? Since Afghanistan is located in a very volatile region, with concerns about weapons falling into the wrong hands always a concern, there must be an ironclad system for keeping track, right?
“As for weapons provided to the ANP, there is no standardized or automated system to account for them. Instead, the ANP uses a combination of hard-copy documents, handwritten records, and some Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to maintain inventory records.”
6. The Afghan Army: All guns, no butter
The Afghan National Security Forces are the crowning achievement of the 13-year reconstruction. US combat troops will be gone by the end of this year, and the burden for defending the country against the insurgency will fall primarily on Afghans themselves.
This, says Gen. Joseph Dunford, NATO commander in Afghanistan, could be a disaster.
“I’m not confident that if we were to leave at the end of 2014, that those forces would be sustainable,” the SIGAR report quotes him as saying. “There are some significant capability gaps that have to be addressed in order for the Afghans to be able to do things that we have heretofore been doing for them.”
One of the main things we’ve been doing for them is giving them money. The bulk of reconstruction money — $62 billion since 2002 — has gone to the military.
According to SIGAR, an independent assessment by the Center for Naval Analyses has calculated that Afghanistan will need “a total security force of about 373,400 personnel … in the likely 2015–2018 security environment.” Less, they caution, “would increase the risk of instability.”
The problem is, Afghanistan simply cannot afford it. The military would consume the entire Afghan budget three times over, leaving nothing for infrastructure or social services.
“Even if the Afghan government dedicated all of its domestic revenue toward sustaining the Afghan army and police, it still could only pay for about a third of the associated costs,” writes SIGAR. “All other costs — those required to pay civil servants and to operate and maintain roads, schools, hospitals, and other non military infrastructure and programs — would have to be funded by international donors or abandoned.”
This, SIGAR adds, would be “unwise, even if it were possible.”
The elephant in any room when talking about Afghanistan is the pervasive, massive, barefaced corruption that permeates almost every facet of life.
According to the former commander of NATO in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, corruption is the biggest threat to Afghanistan’s future — worse than the Taliban.
There has been a lot of talk about fighting corruption. In 2008, the Afghan president created a special institution to deal with the problem, the High Office for Oversight and Anti-Corruption (HOOAC).
HOOAC is a fairly unappealing acronym, sounding more like a throat-clearing mechanism than a fully functioning body. It lives up to its name, according to SIGAR:
"The State Department and the US Agency for International Development “have reported previously that the High Office of Oversight and Anticorruption is dysfunctional, ineffective, and politicized … neither [the State Department nor the Department of Justice] engaged with the HOO during this quarter.”
So, with more than $104 billion in reconstruction efforts at stake, what is the United States doing about corruption?
SIGAR is succinct:
“There is no comprehensive US strategy or guidance on combating corruption.”
So much for Afghanistan reconstruction.