The U.S. government has allocated more than $115 billion toward reconstruction work in Afghanistan. Because the U.S. government has no central database for contracts and expenditures in Afghanistan, it has no real idea of where all that money went.
That is one of the more troubling findings of John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, or SIGAR. His office was created in 2008 to provide independent oversight of the massive American reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, which the U.S. invaded in 2001. The U.S. had already spent nearly $40 billion in Afghanistan before the office was created. The now 15-year project is the most expensive reconstruction effort the U.S. has participated in, dwarfing the post-World War II Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.
The goal of the invasion of Afghanistan, which NATO joined in 2003, was to remove the Taliban from power, rid the country of al-Qaida and to rebuild critical government institutions and infrastructure. Fifteen years later, that work continues with about half the money allocated to security. Although it remains an international effort, the U.S. accounts for more than half the 13,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan with an even larger number of contractors also working there.
The inspector general can review the work paid for and overseen by any of the U.S. agencies that have allocated funds to Afghanistan. The office submits quarterly reports to Congress. There is a similar inspector general for U.S. construction work in Iraq.
The most recent report offers just a sampling of the problems that continue to plague reconstruction work in Afghanistan. The SIGAR office, for example, has asked the Department of Defense for information regarding the number of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces personnel after reports of “ghost” soldiers and police officers. In 2015, the U.S. funded more than $300 million in salary payments to these forces with no assurance that the payroll and personnel data were accurate. This is especially a concern because there is a gap between Afghan force strength numbers and the payroll.
The inspector general also reports numerous problems with construction projects across Afghanistan, including a hospital in Gardez where exit signs pointed in the opposite directions of exits and fire alarms and emergency lighting were missing. An Afghan firm also was overpaid more than $500,000 for diesel fuel and a temperature-control device.
Corruption, the subject of a lengthy SIGAR report, is a big problem. Local leaders, for example, will meet with U.S. representatives about building a hospital, and the U.S. will commit to paying for the entire project. They will then do the same with two other countries so they can get three countries to each pay for an entire hospital. Only one hospital is built, which they show separately to each country’s delegation. The extra money goes into the pockets of local officials.
“If you were in Afghanistan, money was falling from the sky, and you didn’t know when it would end, so you grabbed as much as you could,” Sopko said of the early days of reconstruction in an interview at the Bangor Daily News.
Because it didn’t first assess the country’s capacity to put reconstruction funds to work, the U.S. put too much money into Afghanistan, which disappeared among the country’s many factions, Sopko said. This helped fuel the insurgency, which continues to threaten Afghanistan’s stability.
U.S. officials also didn’t keep track of where all that money was going. We also don’t know how many schools, bridges or roads were built with U.S. dollars. There also was little coordination with the other countries doing similar work in Afghanistan. So two health clinics — one funded by American and another by France — could be built in the same town when it didn’t have patients or the staff necessary for two clinics.
U.S. agencies working in Afghanistan have improved their practices based on SIGAR reports, and $2 billion in misspent money has been collected.
In addition to much better preparation and planning before launching future security and reconstruction projects in other countries, the big lesson from the SIGAR is that its work should be an automatic part of any such operation, along the lines of what Sen. Susan Collins proposed years ago. Congress should act now to require such oversight and accountability be a required component of potential regime change efforts.