Goats, camouflage and ghost schools: 16 years of US taxpayer waste in Afghanistan
By ANDREW DEGRANDPRE AND ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: August 21, 2017
President Donald Trump was expected to announce an increase of a few thousand troops in Afghanistan Monday night, taking the reins of a conflict where today 8,500 personnel are mostly focused on buttressing their Afghan counterparts in the face of Taliban and Islamic State gains.
The Defense Department, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies have spent $714 billion of war and reconstruction funding since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 to bolster education programs, improve infrastructure and increase the competency of Afghan security forces.
Insurgents have deliberately targeted U.S.-led projects, including schools and roads, with hopes of dividing the population. That has come at considerable expense to American taxpayers.
Yet America's longest war has become a symbol for wartime graft and corruption in one of the world's least governable countries rocked by conflict for decades.
John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, has led the effort in recent years to uncover wasteful spending and boondoggled projects. Here are some of most notable examples of waste that he and others have found:
$6 million: Cashmere goats
The aim was to jump start Afghanistan's cashmere industry and grow its profile on the international market. A Pentagon task force funded the purchase and transport of nine rare Italian goats to breed with those native to Afghanistan, hopeful this would improve the animals' undercoats and the quality of the cashmere they yield.
As part of the project, a farm was built along with a lab facility where staff would certify the cashmere's quality. All of this was funded by U.S. taxpayers.
Speaking at Duke University in March, Sopko lamented the program's failure. "Many of the goats got sick and died, and the project director quit in frustration," Sopko said. "And I'm not sure flying Italian goats into Afghanistan was exactly what the Founders had in mind when they created a standing army for the United States."
$36 million: Unused command center
Soon after President Barack Obama ordered a surge of American combat troops into Afghanistan, plans were laid in the southern province of Helmand to erect a 64,000-square-foot command center for the Marines who oversaw military operations in the region.
The general in charge there at the time told his superiors the building wasn't necessary, that existing facilities were adequate. He was overruled by another general who, according to the inspector general's findings, felt it would be improper to tank a project for which Congress had already agreed to pay.
Obama's surge had ended before construction on the complex began, and the Marines were pulling out of Afghanistan entirely by the time it was finished being built.
"To their credit," Sopko said during his talk at Duke, "several Marine generals tried to convince the Defense Department not to build what I consider the best built building I've ever seen in Afghanistan, but their entreaties were ignored. It now stands abandoned and empty, a testament to poor planning and accountability."
$28 million: Afghan army uniforms
Last month, it was disclosed the Pentagon supported a decade-long effort, led by Afghanistan's defense ministerial, to field a new combat uniform for the Afghan army. In its scathing report highlighting a lack of American oversight, the inspector general's audit noted that the Afghan minister chose the uniform based on his preference for the appearance, not its tactical utility.
The U.S. military could have provided the Afghans with significantly less-expensive gear that it already owns, Sopko's team concluded, and stands to save taxpayers as much as $72 million over the next 10 years by switching.
The report drew a strong response from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who issued a memo to the Pentagon comptroller and acquisition chief admonishing the "cavalier" spending.
"Buying uniforms . . . that may have wasted tens of millions of taxpayers dollars over a ten-year period must not be seen as inconsequential," he wrote. "To the contrary, these actions connect directly to our mission and budget situation."
$1 billion: Schools with no teachers or students
A Buzzfeed report from 2015 found $1 billion earmarked to build schools, staff classrooms and flood key provinces with textbooks bled into the accounts of warlords and corrupt officials, leaving entire schools empty and dilapidated.
The findings came as the U.S. government for years touted education reform in the country as a successful campaign to topple Taliban ideology and empower young girls to seek education for the first time in their lives, a vital part of the plan to carve out economic opportunities for women.
Investigative reporter Azmat Khan reported 1,100 schools listed as active in 2011 by education ministry officials were not operating at all by 2015, though salaries for teachers continued to flow to teachers with no students.
She also found girls were overcounted on student rolls by 40 percent and a count of schools built or refurbished by the U.S. dropped by 680 cited in 2010 to 563 by 2015, despite assurances from the USAID education reform was on the right track.
"While regrettable," USAID told Buzzfeed, "it is hardly surprising to find the occasional shuttered schools in war zones."
SIGAR doubted in April 2016 USAID and the Pentagon had a coherent strategy to improve their education programs. It also found 40 percent of primary-aged children do not attend school.
$8.5 billion: Poppy eradication
The U.S. government has spent $8.5 billion since 2002 to eradicate Afghanistan's poppy trade, according to SIGAR.
The plants bound for worldwide drug markets not only fuel corruption but funds insurgent operations. U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan John Nicholson said in 2016 that poppy harvests fund 60 percent of the Taliban's war chest for salaries, weapons and ammunition.
But despite the intense focus on stripping a cash crop from the Taliban, the numbers have recently gotten worse.
In 2013, cultivation reached an all-time high. In 2015, the country saw a 10 percent jump in harvested land as eradication efforts plunged. While some provinces like the center of production Helmand saw harvest reductions, northwest Badghis province saw an 184 percent increase, SIGAR said.
$486 million: Scrapped cargo planes
In 2008, a Pentagon decision to buy and retrofit 20 Italian medium-lift cargo planes for the Afghan Air Force at a cost of $486 million was meant to surge the fledgling service's ability to move troops and supplies around the country - a central focus of the U.S. military's strategy to transition logistical missions to their Afghan counterparts.
The program was immediately paralyzed by poor management, a lack of spare parts and a misread on the Afghan military's ability to maintain and fly the aircraft, SIGAR said, which raised the possibility corruption rattled the program. The program was canceled in 2013.
In a speech at Duke University in March, Sopko said the planes were "death traps" staffed only by test pilots after other Afghan pilots refused to fly them.
It cost an additional $100,000 to turn 16 planes into scrap metal, with four sent to an air base in Germany, Sopko said. An Afghan company paid 6 cents a pound for the planes, netting only $32,000 back for U.S. taxpayers.
In 2017, the Afghan Air Force relies on small, vulnerable Cessnas to resupply ground troops. It has become too dangerous to replenish food and ammunition by truck.