Up in Smoke

by Jim Geraghty
A new report shows that America got little for $104 billion spent in Afghanistan.

This Wednesday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John F. Sopko, unveiled a comprehensive review that offers a dark outlook for the future of Afghanistan, concluding “long-standing and pervasive corruption could destroy the country’s prospects,” with many signs that the Afghan government will not be “self-sustaining” after coalition military forces leave.

The report identified major problems in the Afghan government’s ability to pay for basic services, the Afghan military’s ability to operate and maintain U.S.-provided equipment, efforts to control opium production and the drug trade, and any ability to utilize the country’s natural resources.

Sopko and his staff operate separately from the Pentagon and have authority to review and audit any Afghan reconstruction activity performed by the U.S. government — the Department of Defense, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development and its contractors.

The report begins with the eye-opening statistic that the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan a sum now comparable to the amount spent on the Marshall Plan to reconstruct 16 European countries after World War II. The $12.7 billion the U.S. spent on that project by 1951 would be about $116 billion in today’s dollars; Congress has appropriated more than $104 billion for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

And it’s not over. “Despite the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition forces [from Afghanistan], our mission there is far from over,” Sopko declares in the report. “With almost $18 billion appropriated but not yet spent in the pipeline, and probably another $6 to $10 billion promised annually for years to come, Afghanistan reconstruction should still be relevant to every U.S. taxpayer and policy maker.”

The report does not offer a hopeful outlook for Afghanistan as the U.S. continues to draw down the number of troops in the country. One inescapable problem is budgetary: The Afghan government doesn’t collect taxes well at all and the black market remains a key portion of the economy. The report concludes, “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. Built into many projects are requirements for parts and fuel that the Afghans cannot afford and technical skills that Afghan ministries cannot supply. Because of this, U.S.-built schools and health facilities often cannot be staffed or supplied. Moreover, some facilities have fallen into disrepair; others are unsafe, incomplete, or unsuited for their intended purposes.”

The effort to control the drug trade in Afghanistan appears to have failed. The IG report states, “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.”

Outside of the drug trade, almost every effort at economic development is impeded by “the difficult security environment.” For obvious reasons, no one wants to spend a lot of money installing infrastructure in a war zone, and it’s particularly difficult and expensive to get skilled foreign laborers to work in Afghanistan. The IG report concludes, “The Afghan government may not be able to earn substantial revenues from Afghanistan’s natural resources any time soon because of the considerable infrastructure investment required to develop them, especially given the difficult security environment.”

The outlook for the Afghan military is cloudy as well. An earlier report noted the disturbing number of firearms that disappeared from Afghan military and police depots — with a strong possibility some will end up in the hands of insurgents — and the Afghan army may not be able to rely on its heavier armored vehicles for long, either.

The U.S. government paid $661.3 million to Textron Marine & Land Systems, a U.S. firm, to provide 634 Mobile Strike Force Vehicles, spare parts, maintenance, and training. Textron delivered the vehicles, the initial shipments of spare parts, and the initial training. But as time went by, the U.S. military and its allies could not spare the manpower to provide security for Textron’s staff for field training.

The result was not surprising: “Coalition advisors noted that the absence of spare parts resulted in a steady deterioration of the ability to conduct missions. SIGAR requested information on [vehicle] operational-readiness rates, but this information is not maintained by the brigades. . . . The continued drawdown of Coalition personnel in Afghanistan means that neither Coalition forces nor Textron will have the resources to continue to provide the level of logistics support services the MSF has relied on to date.”

The report quotes General Joseph F. Dunford, the current commander of the International Security Assistance Force and the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, saying the following: “I’m not confident that if we were to leave at the end of 2014, that those forces would be sustainable. 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.”

Finally Sopko used the report to reiterate a complaint he has made in the past, that military contracts were going to local Afghans who had been, and still may be, supporters of the insurgency.

“The Army’s refusal to suspend or debar supporters of the insurgency from receiving government contracts because the information supporting these recommendations is classified is not only legally wrong, but contrary to sound policy and national-security goals,” Sopko writes. “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 U.S. government. 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.”

The overall report makes for frustrating reading, offering a grim portrait of Afghanistan as a land wracked by a violent Taliban insurgency, shifting and unclear tribal loyalties, a largely uneducated populace, an infrastructure continually in need of repair from damage from war, and deep-rooted government corruption. The portrait of U.S. military forces, diplomats, and contractors is largely, although not entirely, positive. For the better part of the past decade, Americans sought to shift responsibility for Afghanistan’s future to the Afghans, and it’s far from clear that enough Afghans wanted it or were up to the task.

Americans may conclude that after 13 years’ worth of effort and a steep price in blood and treasure, it’s time to wash their hands of the place. The report makes clear that the process of America’s departure is well underway regardless.

“The U.S. effort to bring its men, women, and materiel home from Afghanistan already is proceeding at a tremendous pace, as I witnessed on my trip,” Sopko writes. “At Kandahar Airfield and Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, I saw vast amounts of equipment being readied for return to the United States. I saw trucks and Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles being disassembled. Everything from metal poles to canvas tent covers was being sorted into boxes to be sent home or sold as scrap. The retrograde has been called the greatest feat of military transport in recent history.”

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.