The Corner

Great Moments in Nation-Building: The $43 Million Afghan Gas Station

I wish this report was surprising, but I fear it’s the tip of the waste/fraud/corruption iceberg:

Somewhere in Sheberghan, a medium-sized Afghan city in the northern province of Jowzjan, lies a simple gas station with just a handful of pumps. The humble facility, which was supposed to provide cheap natural gas to local Afghan drivers, cost $43 million to build — and the US Department of Defense footed the bill.

The station was conceived of and paid for by the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), a Department of Defense program that has since been disbanded. “We do capitalism,” said Paul Brinkley, the program’s former head. “We’re about helping companies make money.”

In the case of the Sheberghan station, “doing capitalism” meant going over budget by $42.5 million to build a little-used gas station. An equivalent facility just across the border in Pakistan cost just $500,000.

And here’s the best part:

Why the project cost so much — and where that money went — is still a big mystery The latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) singled out the facility as an example of profligate Pentagon waste . . . According to SIGAR, nobody at the Pentagon wants to talk about the gas station, or the $800 million TFBSO program that has been offline for just over a year. SIGAR has repeatedly asked the Department of Defense to explain why the Sheberghan facility cost $42.5 million more than was required, and the agency is now accusing the Pentagon of stonewalling.

There are at least two problems here. Of course one is the corruption and/or incompetence on display when spending $43 million on a gas station. (Oh, the irony of a government official saying, “We do capitalism.”) But that’s less interesting than the mistake of constructing gas stations in the first place, a symbol of the uncounted billions wasted on nation-building. The sad reality of this project, like so many others, is that it’s entirely possible that much of the lost money ended up in Taliban hands. At best it’s lining the pockets of a corrupt Afghan “ally” or a local warlord and his cronies.

When I was in Iraq, the instant anyone in a community knew that American aid dollars were available, hands went out. Yet spending all the money in the world was less valuable than defeating the enemy in the field. Victory — like respect — was earned, not purchased. Money all too often merely bought us contempt.


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