Since the publication of my book Aiding Afghanistan, I have been receiving email bulletins from the office of John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), who is responsible for auditing the billions of dollars the United States spends on providing aid to Afghanistan. The emails don’t make for happy reading. They are a catalogue of money wasted on badly conceived projects. The latest email directs me to a speech given by Sopko at Georgetown University on 10 September, which is worth quoting in some detail.
Sopko mentions that the United States has spent $110 billion on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and adds that ‘To give that number some perspective, after adjusting for inflation, Afghanistan reconstruction exceeds the value of the entire Marshall Plan effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.’ He then proceeds to focus on just one aspect of this aid, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), to illustrate the dangers of spending vast sums of money without clear goals and controls.
CERP distributes money to US military commanders to spend on aid and development projects within their areas of operations. ‘Incredibly’, says Sopko, ‘for the first nine years of CERP’s existence, I have not been able to find a single, clearly articulated mention of the program’s true objectives in any official document.’ Consequently:
Because this program was initially designed without explicitly-stated objectives and stringent performance metrics, it largely lends itself to anecdotal ‘evidence’ by small-unit commanders … it should surprise no one that the sustainability of CERP-funded schools have been singled out because, say, they are literally crumbling and fall apart. Or that CERP-funded hospitals actually became unsafe because their electrical and water supply systems failed. The overarching objective was never to build a school or hospital, staff it, supply it, and otherwise maintain it in order to improve education or health in Afghanistan.
‘What about the anecdotal “evidence” about CERP’ successes?’, Sopko asks, ‘how it has saved the lives of our troops, built trust where it was lacking, and furthered the security mission in Afghanistan. It probably has. But I can’t verify that. No one can. … when I can’t even tell what the program’s basic objectives were, I certainly can’t tell you whether it’s succeeding or not.’
As far as aid other than that of CERP is concerned, Sopko gives an example of typical spending and results – $15 million spent by USAID on a new hospital in Gardez, ’12 times larger than the previous hospital’. ‘There was just one problem,’ says Sopko:
USAID did not fully assess the Afghan Ministry of Public Health’s ability to operate and maintain the hospital once completed. In the end, USAID managed to increase the cost for the Afghans to operate a hospital in Gardez by a factor of five. I wish I could say that this is an isolated incident, but this sort of thing happens in Afghanistan all the time. You would think after 13 years of these types of occurrences, and hundreds of cases of SIGAR pointing these problems out, that someone would wake up, look around, and say, “You know what folks? Maybe we’re going about this all wrong.” It seems that time and again, people have to be reminded that Afghanistan is not Kansas.
‘Here we are’, says Sopko, ‘Almost fourteen years into our trillion dollar effort, with over 2,000 American lives sacrificed. At the risk of sounding dramatic, if we can’t honestly point to some actual, measurable accomplishments from that massive investment, we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity.’
Wow! Despite expenditures exceeding those of the Marshall Plan, the US auditor ‘can’t honestly point to some actual, measurable accomplishments’. I can’t say that this is a great surprise. Worldwide, foreign aid has been remarkably unsuccessful over the years, so it’s hardly surprising that it has failed in the specific case of Afghanistan. It’s even less surprising that it should have failed when managed by soldiers, who are not, after all, experts in social and economic development and who in any case aren’t actually aiming at either. Here, it seems, we are deep in the realm of this blog’s theme of irrational policy making. The enormous amount of money, the consequent bureaucratic interests involved, and the overarching determination to prove that the operation is a success, which means that contrary evidence is ignored, all add up to produce a scenario in which failed policy continues uncontested despite its obvious uselessness.
Yet even Sopko can’t bring himself to admit that the whole effort is futile. He ends his speech with a plea against isolationism, conjuring up the image of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement to argue that the United States must remain engaged in foreign conflicts. And here, I think, we confront what is perhaps the greatest problem with the way Western policy makers view the world. It isn’t spending a hundred billion dollars on aid to Afghanistan that was the mistake, it’s the way the money was spent, they say. If we learn the lessons, and spend the aid money better, then next time it will do some good. Likewise, it wasn’t invading Iraq that was wrong, it was how the subsequent occupation was handled. It wasn’t bombing Libya that messed that country up, it was failing to invest in the country afterwards. And so on. Again and again, policy makers view the disastrous consequences of their actions as the products of mistaken tactics on the part of the people implementing the policies, not as the product of faulty strategic design. The idea that the underlying policy itself might be faulty is never properly considered. That would produce far too much cognitive dissonance. And so the disasters keep piling up.