Billions wasted on Afghanistan reconstruction effort, watchdog says
American taxpayers have lost “billions” of dollars by pouring money into rebuilding Afghanistan with little planning or accountability, the government’s top watchdog for the region told the Tribune-Review on Tuesday.
The problem seems to stem from the United States’ lack of preparation rather than Afghanistan’s culture, said John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
“The corruption is probably as bad as it was before,” Sopko told the Trib’s editorial board. “We didn’t help it any by pouring that much money in so quickly without really thinking too hard about what the impact was going to be on the culture, the economy and the corruption. So we made some serious mistakes early on.”
Sopko, who spoke with Trib editors and reporters for about 45 minutes, plans to talk about corruption in Afghanistan at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at noon Wednesday.
Federal aid workers in Afghanistan need to understand the local context for their projects better, said Jennifer Murtazashvili, a Pitt political science professor who worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“Money is not the solution,” she said. “It’s painful for people to hear … just seeing the waste and abuse, designing billion-dollar programs without thinking about how you can possibly oversee these resources, and then blaming the Afghans because they’re corrupt.”
Among people concerned about government waste, Sopko has reached rock-star status for his frank talk and reports highlighting billions of dollars that have been misspent out of the $113 billion that Congress has appropriated for rebuilding Afghanistan since 2002.
Among other things, Sopko found that the Defense Department spent $43 million to build a compressed natural gas station in remote northern Afghanistan, and that more than a third of the Pentagon’s building projects are so flawed, they could collapse.
He reported in January that despite spending $488 million, the government has shown “limited progress overall” at developing Afghanistan’s oil, gas and minerals industries.
Stories about military commanders simply handing out suitcases of cash to stop the fighting are not myth, he said.
“What we’re seeing are problems that are bigger than Afghanistan,” Sopko said. “I just want to fix things, and we really do need to fix how the government works.”
The United States has committed to a 10-year reconstruction program with billions of dollars in spending to come, so our nation must do better, Sopko said. He advocates for pursuing smaller projects with local involvement and closer accountability. Military and aid workers should rethink projects in remote, dangerous areas if they cannot directly oversee them or gain access to those areas.
For now, security remains the biggest concern, Sopko said. The Afghan unity government faces threats from insurgents, a poor economy, rampant corruption and a cacophony of outside advisers. Without continued U.S. support, he said, the government likely would fall.
“The security situation is deteriorating,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 issue because it impacts everything else. If the security goes, all of the reconstruction goes.”
Andrew Conte is a member of the Tribune-Review investigations team. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or email@example.com.