The United States lost a total of 2,456 troops in Afghanistan, including 13 last week in a suicide bombing. Another 1,700 American civilian contractors have died. More than 20,000 American troops have been injured. Well over 100,000 Afghan civilians and soldiers have been killed.
I can’t think about it for too long because it makes me nuts.
Being a business reporter, I find it easier to focus my attention on the money we’ve spent in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001, the day we invaded, less than four weeks after 9/11.
Bottom line, it adds up to almost $1 trillion.
Approximately 15% of that amount — $145 billion — has funded the country’s reconstruction, or about $500 for every American alive in 2001.
The bulk of those reconstruction dollars, $83 billion, was aimed at rebuilding the capability of Afghanistan’s military and police forces.
That worked out well.
Somewhere along the way, it became John Sopko’s job to follow the money. He’s the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). “Our job is basically to ferret out fraud, waste and abuse in government programs.”
Boy, did he ever. “We determined that about 30% of the money spent in Afghanistan was either wasted or stolen.”
Let’s call that $43 billion. Poof. Gone.
Sopko was appointed SIGAR 10 years ago by President Obama, and we spoke earlier this month as the Taliban surrounded Kabul. Reflecting on how our money was spent over 20 years, he told me we didn’t even have anyone auditing our Afghan investments until 2008, when the war was already 7 years old.
Sopko took over an office rife with low morale and high attrition. This former federal prosecutor, accustomed to taking on organized crime, pulled together a new team and started doing what he does best: finding bad guys.
“We’ve arrested, indicted and convicted about 130 Americans, Afghans and others,” he tells me. “Every time we turned over a rock, something very ugly came out.”
He says his office recovered nearly $4 billion in taxpayer funds through fines and restitution, so we clawed back maybe 10% of the money that disappeared.
However, even money which did not disappear has been wasted. Sopko says a major problem over these last two decades is that Afghanistan hasn’t always been a safe place to bring in experts who knew how to rebuild the economy. Too often the job was dumped on a military force trained to destroy economies.
There are lessons John Sopko says we need to learn, and we’ll get to those in a minute.
First, though, here are a few examples Sopko gives of how your tax dollars were not at work over the last 20 years.
— We spent $490 million on 20 aircraft for the Afghan government that we bought from an “Italian Air Force boneyard,” Sopko says, adding that he saw the planes falling apart with his own eyes. “They had no spare parts, and the [U.S.] Air Force knew it when they bought them.”
— Fuel thefts were epic. “I think we’ve spent over $2 billion on fuel, and our military has told us that over 50% of it gets stolen.” That’s a billion bucks wasted right there. Sopko says another $200 million has already been spent on next year’s fuel purchases, which I’m sure the Taliban will enjoy.
— Nonexistent Afghan soldiers and police officers collected multiple paychecks. Sopko says he was told by a high-level Afghan government official, “You’re paying the salary of an Afghan civil servant, who’s also a police officer, who’s also a soldier, and you’re paying three salaries, and on top of that, he doesn’t exist.”
This could partly explain why military resistance to the Taliban evaporated — there weren’t as many Afghan soldiers as we thought.
— Police training was done by people with no police training. Sopko says because it was too dangerous to bring in people with actual expertise, training often fell to U.S. forces. “They sent [Blackhawk] pilots out to train police.”
These pilots had no idea what they were doing — they were pilots, not cops. Sopko says they were forced to train themselves. “They sat down and watched TV shows on policing.”
Nothing beats “Cops” to train Afghans how to be cops.
The most ridiculous example of bad spending, perhaps the greatest of all time (the GOAT!), was a program developed within “The Task Force for Business Stabilization and Operations,” which Sopko calls “a horrible program that wasted millions of dollars.”
The idea was to fly in goats from Italy to mate with goats from Afghanistan to jumpstart the local wool industry. (Sopko jokes they must’ve been “sexy” goats.)
The goats arrived. Then they all died (some were eaten).
But Sopko says the program was considered a success! Mission accomplished! We paid for goats, we got goats! “Inputs looked good, outputs looked good,” he says, but if you were measuring success by outcomes, the goat experiment was a complete failure.
“That’s the problem,” he says, “when you give the military the wrong role.”
Now to the lessons John Sopko hopes we’ve learned.
Sopko says one of the biggest mistakes we made in Afghanistan was judging success by allocating money to a project, instead of judging whether the project succeeded, something he calls “doing the wrong thing perfectly.”
The goats are a perfect example.
“I had a number of contracting officers who took me aside and whispered in my ear and told me, ‘I get rewarded by how much money I put on contract and how much money I spend, not whether any of it works.’” You could see how this creates a perverse incentive program for those wanting to rise in rank. (“I’m going to recommend Major Jane for early promotion because she’s put $100 million on contract!”)
That needs to change if we find ourselves in this mess again.
“We were sending people to Afghanistan for six months at a time, maybe a year,” Sopko says. He calls it “this crazy rotation system” which led to “the annual lobotomy inside the embassy.”
New people would arrive without any connections on the ground or any understanding of what came before. They had no idea whom to trust. Sopko says, “We did not fight a 20-year war … we did one year, 20 times.”
He says that this confused trustworthy locals and allowed untrustworthy Afghans to bide their time until the next set of Americans arrived. Then they’d present invoices for work the previous group already paid, and they’d get paid again.
Sopko said many U.S. officials believed programs that worked in Iraq and the Balkans would work well in Afghanistan. “Well, Iraq isn’t Afghanistan… the Balkans are not the Afghan people.” There were even reports of handing out manuals written in other languages, as if that was going to help.
SIGAR found that public statements about our progress in Afghanistan were often detached from reality, like when Gen. David Petraeus testified to Congress in 2011 that Afghan forces were increasingly taking on “significant combat roles” against the Taliban.
One year later, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis contradicted that, reporting that his observations in Afghanistan “bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.”
Sopko says it’s critical for the military to create “red teams” of its own members who can challenge assumptions and battle overoptimism.
Sopko believes you need someone on the ground auditing spending as soon as you start handing out money. This not only saves money but builds trust with locals. By the time an actual auditor arrived in Afghanistan in 2008, warlords had already gobbled up most of the cash, “and we had totally alienated the population.”
It didn’t used to be this way. “We spent more money on reconstruction in Afghanistan than we did on the Marshall plan to rebuild all of Europe,” Sopko says, even in today’s dollars. One big difference was that as WWII ended, there was someone watching every U.S. dollar we doled out.
The above quote is from former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, and Sopko agrees. “Rebuilding another country requires advanced skills that must be cultivated ahead of time.” The problem is that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know…
Sopko writes in a report to Congress that security deteriorated in Afghanistan even as our strategy kept expanding. First we wanted to destroy Al Qaeda, then we wanted to defeat the Taliban, then we decided to go after corrupt Afghan officials.
“U.S. officials believed the solution to insecurity was pouring ever more resources into Afghan institutions,” he says, but we just weren’t equipped to take on such a huge project in such a hostile environment, “no matter the budget.”
(Side note: His office determined that funding of smaller and medium-sized projects often had better results in reducing enemy attacks and increasing intelligence. Some studies, though, suggest that while increased employment helped the economy, it did not turn young people away from political violence… I mean, I could go on and on… )
When I asked John Sopko to point to a success story, he quickly named one. “We wanted to improve the lives of women and girls in health and in education, and there has been an improvement.” He also says the U.S. succeeded in improving the general health of the Afghan people and freedom of the press. Now, “All of those gains are at risk.”
You don’t think there will be another Afghanistan? Welp… there probably will be, though it may not unfold on the same grand scale. “Large reconstruction campaigns usually start small, so it would not be hard for the U.S. government to slip down this slope again,” Sopko reported to Congress.
SIGAR staff numbered as high as 170 people with an annual budget of $55 million. Sopko has called it “the last law enforcement and oversight agency in Kabul.” Yet even as Kabul collapsed, Sopko didn’t want to leave me with the wrong impression about the quality of people who tried to build a better Afghanistan. “The vast, vast, vast majority of our soldiers, our ambassadors, our state department, our contractors, were honest, honorable, brave, and did the right thing,” he tells me. “The problem is we sent them over there with a box of broken tools.”
Was it all a waste? John Sopko says that’s a political question above his pay grade. He did his best trying to be a watchdog for taxpayers.
“Personally, it’s been very frustrating, but it's been the best job I’ve ever had.”
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Great piece. The wastefulness is infuriating, no matter what people think about American involvement in Afghanistan. Brown’s Costs of War Project puts the total expenditures at more than $2 trillion, including money spent in Pakistan for Afghanistan. T…
Great piece, Jane Wells. It's sadly enlightening and evidence of what happens when we use the military to do much more than kill people and break things. Not that those are always the worthiest of goals, but it is, after all, what the military does bes…
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