Afghan Chances Dire After U.S. Spent $837 Billion, Watchdog Says
(Bloomberg) -- After spending at least $837 billion, the U.S. military is leaving an Afghanistan that “remains poor, aid-dependent, and conflict-affected, with any potential economic growth in the short term further limited by the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to the latest report by Congress’s independent watchdog.
The grim accounting was offered Thursday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the office that has documented billions in waste and corruption since lawmakers created it in fiscal 2008. The report was published just weeks before American forces are expected to complete their withdrawal after nearly 20 years.
“The news coming out of Afghanistan this quarter has been bleak,” John Sopko, the inspector general, wrote in his report covering the quarter ending ending June 30, with some updates for more recent events. “The Taliban offensive that began early in the quarter accelerated in June and July.”
The $837 billion spent on “U.S. warfighting and reconstruction” over two decades doesn’t include billions more for classified intelligence operations, veterans’ medical and disability benefits and international financial aid.
U.S. leaders from President Joe Biden to General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say the outcome of the contest between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents is far from settled, although Milley has acknowledged the Taliban has “strategic momentum.”
With nearly all U.S. forces leaving, the Afghan government and the roughly 303,000 members of its military and national police face about 75,000 Taliban militants.
National security forces have retaken some contested districts and the Afghan government still controls all 34 provincial capitals, including Kabul, Sopko wrote. Yet the nation’s military “appeared surprised and unready, and is now on its back foot,” even after the U.S. spent at least $83 billion to train, equip, operate and sustain it.
In addition, “civilian casualties hit a record high in May and June, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan,” Sopko wrote. U.S. military officials reported 2,035 civilian casualties in April and May, which included 705 deaths and 1,330 injuries.
“The overall trend is clearly unfavorable to the Afghan government, which could face an existential crisis if it isn’t addressed and reversed,” Sopko wrote.
The U.S. withdrawal, which is to be completed in August, will greatly complicate further assessments of where and how much control the Taliban is gaining in districts, according to Sopko.
Deteriorating Air Force
One of the bright spots for the Afghan military has been its air force, a blend of seven types of aircraft including A-29 Super Tucano propeller planes performing close-air support with precision guided munitions and U.S. and Russian-made transport helicopters. The U.S. has spent about $2 billion on the air force.
But there’s been a rapid deterioration. As of June 30, only 167 of 211 aircraft were operational, and the force lacks qualified air crews. Five of the seven airframes had decreases in readiness in June and this “coincided with the Taliban offensive and the withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces, including aircraft-maintenance contractors,” Sopko wrote.
Even as the U.S. military pulls out, leaving several hundred troops to guard the American embassy in Kabul, the watchdog work of Sopko’s agency continues, but in more dangerous and limited circumstances. About $6.7 billion is currently appropriated and awaiting to be disbursed in Afghanistan, with additional billions expected to follow.
Conducting oversight of those funds “will be much more difficult,” Sopko wrote, but it “can be done.”
Investigators “will expand their work with U.S.-based Afghans and international law-enforcement officials to fight activities like corruption, narcotics production and trafficking, and money laundering,” he said.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.