Billions of US dollars wasted in Afghanistan
Since 2008, various U.S. government agencies have constructed or procured nearly $7.8 billion in capital assets in Afghanistan. Of that, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that around 30 percent ($2.4 billion) of the assets were unused or abandoned, had not been used for their intended purposes, had deteriorated, or were destroyed; around 15 percent ($1.2 billion) were being used as intended and a paltry 4 percent ($343.2 million) of the assets were being maintained in good condition. The status of the rest is unclear, as SIGAR notes it has been unable to determine the status of various assets when the relevant reports were published.
“SIGAR’s work reveals a pattern of U.S. agencies pouring too much money, too quickly, into a country too small to absorb it,” Special Inspector General John F. Sopko said in a statement that accompanied the evaluation report. The report was filed in response to a request from the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security to summarize the capital assets the U.S government has constructed, financed or subsidized in Afghanistan.
“The fact that so many capital assets wound up not used, deteriorated or abandoned should have been a major cause of concern for the agencies financing these projects,” Sopko said.
The majority of the capital assets accounted for were funded by the Department of Defense ($6.5 billion), followed by USAID ($1.1 billion), the Overseas Private Investment Corporation ($84.8 million), and the Department of State ($79 million).
SIGAR’s recent evaluation report selected a sample of 60 projects for follow-up reviews, which found that 37 of the 60 were being used as intended. A further 10 projects were being used, but not as intended; nice were unused or abandoned, three were under construction, and the status of one was classified. Fifty of the projects were determined to have deteriorated since they were last assessed.
Importantly, although per-asset most were being used as intended, when it comes down to costs the most expensive projects are the biggest boondoggles. “SIGAR found that $723.8 million, or 91 percent of the total costs of all 60 assets in the sample, went toward assets that were unused or abandoned, were not used as intended, had deteriorated, were destroyed, or had some combination of the above,” the report notes.
The projects range from hospitals to military facilities. For example, the 20-bed Salang hospital in Parwan province ($597,929) is reportedly in use but not as intended, given it is understaffed and missing necessary furniture and equipment to operate fully. SIGAR found it in a deteriorated condition as of April 2020, with missing doors, leaking pipes, and cracked walls. A women’s dormitory at Herat University ($5,590,000) was in use and in good condition, however, as was the Walayatti Medical Clinic ($194,572) in Kabul. A footbridge in Laghman province, however, which cost $89,250 and had been founded operational but severely damaged in 2010 had been swept away by flooding by May 2020.
The most expensive capital asset in the list was the Tarakhil Power Plant, constructed under the auspices of USAID, at a cost of $335 million. SIGAR found it being used but not as intended and in a deteriorated condition. While its output had improved in the five years between SIGAR’s 2015 reports on the facility and the 2020 follow-up, it remain underutilized — operating at up to 77 percent of capacity during the winter of 2019-2020.
Another pricy asset, the Wardak National Police Training Center, cost more than $98 million. SIGAR assessed it as being used as intended, but deteriorated. “Afghan government officials said the facility was in poor condition because no one has been made responsible for maintaining it or given the resources to do so,” the report notes, with Afghan officials also commenting on damage due to “warfighting activities.”
The status of the Camp Leatherneck Command and Control Facility, which came in at a cool $36 million, is the one classified asset among the 60 assessed. SIGAR called the $36 million “wasted” back in 2015, stating that the Defense Department had no operational need for it and never used it. Camp Leatherneck was transferred to the Afghan National Army (ANA) in October 2014, and SIGAR “issued a letter to DOD expressing concerns about how ANA personnel reportedly began removing military and nonmilitary equipment from the camp the day after it was transferred.” SIGAR could not conduct an on-the-ground follow-up inspection due to security constraints but did a geospatial analysis of traffic patterns around the camp to assess its use. Alas, the results are classified but unlikely to be good.
In its summary of the evaluation report, SIGAR notes that “Most of the capital assets not used properly or in disrepair or abandoned are directly related to U.S. agencies not considering whether the Afghans wanted or needed the facilities, or whether the Afghan government had the financial ability and technical means to sustain them.”
“The lesson of all of this is two-fold,” Sopko said. “If the United States is going to pay for reconstruction or development in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world, first make certain the recipient wants it, needs it and can sustain it. Secondly, make certain before you spend the money there is proper oversight to prevent this type of waste.”
A certain amount of deterioration is predictable, given the fact of war in Afghanistan. But seems clear from the analysis of the 60 projects selected for follow-up review that plenty of effort was given to envisioning what stuff Afghanistan could use more of — hospitals, schools, bridges — but not necessarily what assets Afghans needed and most importantly could maintain. A freshly paved road is a blessing until it becomes nothing more than cracks and potholes.