Peter Van Buren on Shooting Ourselves in the Foot in Afghanistan

Did you know the U.S. war in Afghanistan is still going on?

While the American war(s) in Iraq and Syria are the Kardashian’s of geopolitics– can’t get them out of the news, don’t want to look but you do anyway– America’s longest war trudges on. We have been fighting in Afghanistan for over thirteen years now. The young soldiers currently deployed there were barely in elementary school when their dad’s and mom’s kicked off the fighting.

And we still haven’t won anything. The Taliban are still there and very potent and dangerous, a corrupt government still runs the country as a kleptocracy, “ally” Pakistan is still playing all sides against one another and the Afghan economy still relies heavily on opium production that finds its way back home here to America. Al Qaeda may have departed Afghanistan, but the franchise is still strong in its new home(s). Defeated? No, just relocated.

SIGAR and Reconstruction

A lot of the factors of mediocre results are America’s own doing, and many are chronicled by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

“Reconstruction” is a strategy to win the war in Afghanistan that now has all the cache of last year’s high fashion outfits, though unlike those old clothes, reconstruction– and the insane cost of it– is still around. The once-fashionable idea of reconstruction was that military force alone could not win the fight against the Taliban. The US needed to win over the people, that hearts and mind thing that also failed in Iraq and long ago in Vietnam.

The idea was that America would build the Afghans schools and bridges at the local level, and dams and hydroelectric power plants at the national level. They’d love us, abandon the Taliban, and replace their poppy-based economy with a modern, sustainable one. Pundits and academics may argue whether the theory of all that makes sense, but no one outside of Washington still believes it is working on the ground in Afghanistan.

Latest SIGAR Report

So along comes SIGAR with their latest report on how things are going in Afghanistan. Here’s what they have to say:

  • SIGAR is “deeply troubled” by the US decision to classify the summary of the report that assesses the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces. The summaries have before all been unclassified prior to this quarter. The classification of the report summary deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort.
  • The US Army’s refusal to suspend or debar supporters of the insurgency (the bad guys we are fighting) from receiving government contracts is not only legally wrong, but contrary to sound policy and national-security goals.
  • Approximately $104.1 billion of your tax money has been appropriated for Afghanistan reconstruction so far, with about $14.5 billion still remaining to be spent. It will likely be spent.
  • Afghanistan’s opium economy directly provides up to 411,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, more than the entire Afghan military.
  • Irrigation projects paid for by the American taxpayer in Afghanistan may have facilitated increased opium-poppy cultivation after periods of significant reductions. Irrigation improvements funded by the American Good Performer’s Initiative were definitely used to cultivate opium poppy in both 2013 and 2014.

Previous SIGAR reports chronicle similar actions and results.

Other Examples of Waste

Not in the SIGAR report but worth mentioning are a few other prominent examples of American waste of our taxpayer dollars:

  • A five-year-old State Department effort to upgrade Afghanistan’s largest prison has been halted with only half the contracted work performed. Some $18 million was wasted on a project that will never be finished and will never serve any need.
  • For unclear reasons, the US Air Force destroyed $468 million of aircraft purchased for the Afghan military by America’s taxpayers, and sold off the scrapped metal for all of $32,000.
  • The US spent $34 million on a “Regional Command and Control Facility” that will never be used. The Marines this week forever abandoned/withdrew from the base that houses that facility.
  • The US spent another $771.8 million on aircraft the Afghans cannot operate or maintain.
  • Some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics and even fire stations built by the Army are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don’t meet international building codes.
  • A USAID program designed to promote stability in Afghanistan spent its entire $47 million budget on conferences and none on grants to accomplish its aim.

The Biggest Waste of All

The list of financial failures could go on and on such that it might take you thirteen years to read through it all. But here is the biggest waste of resources of all: 2,350 Americans have lost their lives in the Afghan war, with untold tens of thousands wounded, disabled or wracked by the mental scars of war. What shall we tell them and their loved ones about why they suffered?

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Van Buren’s blog.

10 thoughts on “Peter Van Buren on Shooting Ourselves in the Foot in Afghanistan”

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