Idled Planes, Wrong Camouflage: How the U.S. Blew Billions in Afghanistan
(Bloomberg) -- The rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government to the Taliban fueled fears of a humanitarian disaster, sparked a political crisis for President Joe Biden and caused scenes of desperation at Kabul’s airport.
It’s also raised questions about what happened to more than $1 trillion the U.S. spent trying to bring peace and stability to a country wracked by decades of war.
While most of that money went to the U.S. military, billions of dollars got wasted along the way, in some cases aggravating efforts to build ties with the Afghan people Americans meant to be helping.
A special watchdog set up by Congress spent the past 13 years documenting the successes and failures of America’s efforts in Afghanistan. While wars are always wasteful, the misspent American funds stand out because the U.S. had 20 years to shift course.
Here are 10 projects that the U.S. watchdog -- the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or Sigar -- identified as wasted effort:
$549 Million Planes Sold as Scrap
An effort to build up an Afghan air force included spending at least $549 million for 20 refurbished Italian-made G222 twin-turboprop aircraft. But 16 of the planes were left languishing in the weeds of Kabul’s international airport after persistent maintenance issues made them unflyable.
They were eventually sold as scrap for 6 cents a pound, or $32,000. The Justice Department in May 2020 told the watchdog that “it was not going to prosecute the criminal and civil cases related to the failed G222 aircraft program” so “as a result, no one will be held accountable.”
Road to Nowhere
The U.S. Agency for International Development spent $176 million to build a 101-kilometer (63 mile) road between Gardez city and Khost Province. Less than a month after it was finished, Sigar inspectors found that five segments were destroyed and portions of two other segments had washed away, according to an October 2016 audit.
The U.S. spent as much as $28 million buying uniforms for the Afghan military with camouflage patterns that didn’t match the environment. But Pentagon officials said the design was chosen because Afghanistan’s minister of defense at the time thought it looked good.
“He liked the woodland, urban, and temperate patterns,” according to a June 2017 assessment.
In a memo to the force that year, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said “rather than minimize this report or excuse wasteful decisions, I expect all DOD organizations to use this error as a catalyst to bring to light wasteful practices.”
The U.S. spent $500,000 with an Afghan contractor in May 2012 to construct a training range for the Afghan Special Police Training Center in Logar Province. It was designed to replicate a typical Afghan village and be used for conducting simulated search and clearance exercises.
But inspectors found that water had begun penetrating the walls within four months of the U.S. taking control of the training range. Bricks used in the construction had too much sand, and too little clay, and began to erode. A January 2015 audit referred to the structures as “melting buildings.”
War on Drugs
Afghanistan has long been the world’s top producer of opium poppies. Besides its human toll, the Afghan drug trade was seen as undermining reconstruction and security goals by financing insurgent groups, fueling government corruption and eroding state legitimacy.
Over a 15-year period, the U.S. spent about $8.6 billion on Afghan counternarcotics efforts. Still, by 2017, poppy cultivation and opium production reached record highs and “drug production and trafficking remain entrenched,” Sigar wrote.
Power Transmission Failure
Inspectors found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mismanaged a $116 million contract with an Afghan company to build a power station to provide electricity to more than one million Afghans.
The mismanagement resulted in the U.S. spending almost $60 million on a project that wasn’t operational “because land-acquisition and right-of-way issues have not been resolved, and there was no contract provision to permanently connect the system to a power source,” Sigar reported in March 2018.
Sigar auditors found the system might also be “structurally unsound and pose a risk” to Afghans who live near transmission towers and lines, or worked in a nearby substation.
The U.S. military spent $36 million on a 64,000-square foot (5,950 square meter) command-and-control facility at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province that had a war room, a briefing theater and enough office space for 1,500 people.
“It appears to be the best constructed building I have seen in my travels in Afghanistan,” a Sigar inspector wrote in July 2013. “Unfortunately, it is unused, unoccupied, and presumably will never be used for its intended purpose.”
Sigar found “serious deficiencies in the management and oversight” of $85 million in loans made by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation for the construction of a 209-room hotel and adjacent 150-room Kabul Grand Residences apartment building, directly across from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
A November 2016 review found both the hotel and the apartment building were incomplete, abandoned empty shells, and both loans were in default.
Unused Military Camp
The Pentagon spent $3.7 million to construct a camp near the Turkmenistan border for the Afghan National Army. Despite being partially ready for use at the time of the Sigar assessment in 2013, it remained unused with “all essential areas -- such as the administration building, latrines, and firing ranges -- empty.”
A Pentagon official told investigators the camp was not used because it lacked a dining facility.
The U.S. spent about $83 billion over nearly 20 years trying to stand up a force that could fight the Taliban and guarantee Afghanistan’s stability. But the Taliban rebuilt strength and the Afghan military collapsed in weeks as the U.S. pulled out. Even U.S. military leaders seemed stunned by the militants’ advance.
“There are not reports that I am aware of that predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday.
The U.S. shipped out hundreds of tons of equipment, but as they closed in on Kabul, Taliban fighters seized American-provided planes, helicopters, weapons and ammunition meant for the Afghan military.
John Sopko, who oversaw the Sigar audits, was asked last month, before the Afghan collapse, whether the military spending was wasted.
“That’s a tough one and it’s hard to say everything was wasted,” Sopko replied. “And even though there are serious problems, and I have serious concerns and I think our military does and most observers have serious concerns, the story isn’t over. The last act hasn’t played. They could still turn it around.”
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