Making the soviets look good

I have mentioned before the reports issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, who is the official responsible for auditing the $110 billion which the United States has spent on aid to Afghanistan. They tell of enormous waste and few, if any, tangible benefits. The latest report is typically woeful.

According to SIGAR, the US Department of Defense (DoD) spent $43 million building a compressed natural gas (CNG) filling station in the city of Sheberghan. This was despite the fact that there is no demand for such stations in Afghanistan. Converting a car from petroleum to natural gas costs $700-800. The average annual income in Afghanistan is $690. SIGAR comments that, ‘the U.S. government paid for the conversion of over 120 Afghan vehicles to CNG so that they could use the filling station: ordinary Afghans simply couldn’t afford to do it. Not surprisingly, SIGAR found no evidence that any other vehicles were converted to CNG.’ The project, SIGAR concludes, ‘produced no discernable macroeconomic gains.’

That, however, is not even the worst of it. According to SIGAR, ‘a 2005 CNG station feasibility study conducted by Pakistan’s Small and Medium Enterprise Development Authority concluded that the total cost of building a CNG station in Pakistan would be approximately $306,000 at current exchange rates. In short, at $43 million, the TFBSO [Task Force for Business and Stability Operations] filling station cost 140 times as much as a CNG station in Pakistan. To date, DOD has been unable to provide documentation showing why the Sheberghan CNG station cost nearly $43 million.’

This story caught my attention because the Sheberghan gas field, which this project was meant to promote, was the product of aid provided by another great power, the Soviet Union, in the mid-1960s. As I described in my book Aiding Afghanistan, in 1963 the Soviets and Afghans signed an agreement for the development of the gas industry in Afghanistan, after which the Soviets provided funding, specialists, and equipment to start gas production at Sheberghan. By 1967, the gas field was up and running, and the Soviets built a 101-kilometre pipeline to transmit four billion cubic metres of gas a year from Sheberghan to the Soviet Union. In 1968, they also built a 88-kilometre pipeline to Mazar-i-Sharif to provide gas for the power station and fertilizer plant there. I haven’t been able to determine the exact cost of these projects, but between 1963 and 1968, the Soviets provided around 70 million rubles of credit to Afghanistan ($63 million at the then official exchange rate of 0.9 rubles to the dollar), so the cost must have been something less than that, given that the credits also covered other things. In other words, (ignoring inflation) for around the amount that the Americans spent on a worthless gas station, the Soviets constructed an entire gas production plant, two pipelines, a power plant, and a fertilizer factory.

All of these were profitable. By the mid-1970s, the Sheberghan gas field was bringing in annual profits of around 1.7 billion afghanis a year, while the Mazar-i-Sharif fertilizer plant was making profits of 70-100 million afghanis. In the 1980s, natural gas production provided the Afghan government with about 40% of all its revenues. The contrast between the Soviet success and the dismal American failure is striking.

And this is not the only example. In a report earlier this year, SIGAR noted that USAID had spent $335 million on the Tarakhil power plant, which theoretically services Kabul. According to SIGAR, ‘from February 2014 through April 2015, the plant exported just 8,846 megawatt hours of power to the Kabul grid, which is less than one percent of Tarakhil’s production capacity during that period.’ Furthermore, the ‘underutilization of the plant has apparently already resulted in the premature failure of equipment … and “could result in catastrophic failure.”’ Compare this with the Naghlu hydroelectric plant, completed by the Soviets in 1966, which continued to pump out electricity for Kabul during the Taleban period, and was successfully restored to full operation a few years ago by the Russian company Technopromexport for a mere $32.5 million.

As I point out in my book, Soviet economic aid to Afghanistan failed to promote sustained economic growth in that country. Still, by comparison, the aid provided by the United States (and I am sure also its Western allies) is stunningly, awfully, extraordinarily, incompetently managed.

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13 thoughts on “Making the soviets look good”

  1. This CNG station in Sheberghan, Afghanistan

    And this is Brad Pitt’s and Angelian Jolie’s Italian, ah, “villa” in Venice, Italy

    Said small palace (or should I say – palazzo?) has 16 rooms, vineyards, statues in the garden, swimming pool, cinema, etc.

    You know the difference between them? Modern Italian estate costed less money to build than a half-dead fuel station.

    I asked it before, but I’ll ask it again: Why Alexey Navalniy, “Fierce” George Alburov, Yulia “Oscilograph’s pointer” Latynina, the entire staff of Novoya Gazeta, TV “До\\\дь”, all 11 members of Russian Libertrian party, and all shy and modest civil-rights activists, democratic journalists and You Know Who are silent?

    What is of greater interest – why despite numerous and outrageous examples of corruption and wasting of literal tonns of taxpayers money, the Bastion of Democracy lacks its own version of Navalniy? Or should Russia create one for them? Or just “import” an original?

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  2. Okay, I’m not “Fierce” George Alburov, and, certainly, I’m not the great and god-like Alexey Navalniy, but – even I’ve managed to find some pretty damn links, concerning the highest level of corruption and/or incomptenece in the US military/civilian services, when they have to deal with various “natives”. Articles cover the span of past 2 years – just to show that there were reports about this kind of “behavior” even before the SIGAR began “smoking out” this kind of stuff.

    All sources are 100% kosher, no Kremlinite propaganda!

    Let’s start with an article, about good ol’ lobbying gone wrong.

    ”Warnings by agronomists that the effort was unwise were ignored. The country’s climate turns out to be inappropriate for soy cultivation and its farming culture is ill-prepared for large-scale soybean production. Soybeans are now no more a viable commercial crop in Afghanistan than they were in 2010, when the $34 million program got started, according to a government-funded evaluation of the effort this year.

    These are the bureaucratic explanations. The ambitious effort also appears to have been undone by a simple fact, which might have been foreseen but was evidently ignored: Afghans don’t like the taste of the soy processed foods. This view survived even the U.S. government’s use of what it called “food technologists” to teach families how soybean products can be used to make tasty meals.

    As one of the project’s managers said, it was a “risky but honorable endeavor,” meant to improve the nutrition of malnourished Afghans by raising the level of protein in their diets. As such, the project’s problems model the larger shortcomings of the estimated $120 billion U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, including what many experts depict as ignorance of Afghan traditions, mismanagement and poor spending controls.”

    Well, but those were some dirty unscrupulous capitalists, who’ve mismanaged that perfectly reasonable (and doomed to success!) idea. But what about other, more military related issues? Well, ah…

    Hundreds of thousands of U.S.-supplied weapons missing in Afghanistan

    ”Washington and Kabul have failed to keep track of hundreds of thousands of weapons provided to Afghanistan, raising the risk that some could end up in the hands of insurgents, a U.S. audit said Monday.

    The United States also had delivered more weapons than Afghan forces now needed, partly because Kabul officials had revised their requests over time, the report said.

    Since 2004, the American military has delivered more than 747,000 AK-47 rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and other weapons to Afghan forces worth about $626 million.

    But the U.S. and Afghan governments have botched record-keeping for the weapons, with potentially tens of thousands of assault rifles and other arms unaccounted for, according to the findings of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.”

    And the next article just can’t be true! It’s all some elaborate, April 1st hoax! No, really!

    $45 Billion in Tax Dollars Goes Missing in Afghanistan

    ”The auditors said DOD handed over data only for $21 billion of the total $66 billion it spent rebuilding the war-torn country. But unlike most cases of missing money in Afghanistan (of which there are plenty), the auditors don’t blame this on corruption or waste—but rather on accounting issues.

    The Commander’s Emergency Response Program, for example, is set up in such a way that it’s extremely difficult to monitor all of the money spent on the program’s projects. Under that program, commanders may spend money to respond to emergencies like floods and fires. Any expense below $500,000 isn’t treated as a traditional defense contract and doesn’t have to be recorded in the same way.

    The Pentagon only had data for about 57 percent of the total $795 million spent by that program between the years 2002 and 2013.”

    Yeah, sure – no possible way that such imperfect system could be used (or IS used) by some corruption scheme, like building a $43 million gas station… Oh, wait!

    I’ve linked this article previously, but I think it’s still worth to re-post a link to – thus it will look better “in the context”.

    The fraud of war
    U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have stolen tens of millions through bribery, theft, and rigged contracts.

    ”Pocketing thousands in cash from illicit fuel sales
    Military fuel in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a perennial target of theft during the past 14 years of war. In Afghanistan, fuel moved around the country in “jingle trucks,” tankers adorned with kaleidoscopic patterns and metal ornaments. At Fenty, for example, jingle trucks bearing fuel arrived every few days from suppliers in Pakistan, all driven by locals under contracts with the base. Officers at Fenty then distributed it to 32 nearby bases, with the largest ones using up to 2 million gallons of fuel a week.”

    And I thought – “Nothing can top that!”. Oh, how I was wrong!

    U.S. Wastes Millions On Base In Afghanistan It Will Never Use

    ”A new letter out on Wednesday from the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) criticizes the construction of the $34 million base, which appears to be the result of an extremely expensive lack of communication within the Department of Defense. According to the letter, a senior military official told SIGAR’s John Sopko that the facility was designed for a military division that never deployed and “subsequently, a decision was made not to construct the facility, but inexplicably the building construction started and is now complete.”

    Spreading out over 64,000 square feet, the building was designed for maximum of 1,500 staff, and includes a war room, briefing theatre, and offices for senior military officers including a three-star general. Unfortunately, by the time the project was nearly completed, the surge of Marines in the south of Afghanistan that convinced Pentagon officials that such a command center would be needed dropped from 20,000 to around 7,000. Today, only 450 people may be able to use the building, which Sopko warns would result in “excessive operation and maintenance costs because the cooling systems would be underutilized.” So at present, the building instead stands empty and unused.”

    But why concentrate all our flack on poor Afghanistan alone? Here, we have an article that might explain some reasons as to why the Iraqi army has been so unsuccessful in its fight against the ISIS:

    Iraq uncovers 50,000 ‘ghost soldiers’

    ””The prime minister revealed the existence of 50,000 fictitious names” in the military, said a statement from Abadi’s office on Sunday after a session of parliament.

    A parliament statement said the premier scrapped the 50,000 jobs, equivalent to almost four full army divisions.

    Abadi’s spokesperson Rafid Jaboori said that the investigation started with a thorough headcount during the latest salary payment process.

    […]

    The officer explained that, for those reasons, the thousands of soldiers who defected or were killed this year across Iraq were rarely declared as such.

    The US, which occupied the country for eight years, has spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq’s military.

    Since taking office in September, Abadi has sacked or retired several top military commanders, and Sunday’s announcement suggests he wants to tackle the graft and patronage that prevailed under his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki.

    The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant armed group stormed through northern Iraq in a 48-hour offensive in June, charging virtually unopposed towards the outskirts of Baghdad, humiliating the Iraqi army which surrendered both land and weapons as it retreated.”

    Reading the comment sections on various news sites about the most recent and blatant “mis-spending of fund” (after all – “corruption” is such an ugly word!), I was “overjoyed” by the average reaction of all-knowing and patriotic commenters. It’s been primarily “denial” and “anger”. And a lot of “whataboutism”, in lieu of “Taliban was worse!”, “Soviet were even more corrupt!” and “America won the war and kicked AQ’s ass so it’s not our problem that some mooslims can’t manage corruption. YEAH!”.

    I’m sure, that American version of Navalniy with his “RosPil” would be welcomed by the general population of the Bastion of Democracy with open arms!

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  3. Mr. Robinson, I’m asking you here, because this is the most recent article. Probably, you’ve noticed a growing discussion between Mr. Ward (on the one side) and your other blog regulars in the thread about Nikolai Starikov. Could you, please, provide us here, on Irrusianality, with a “platform” (probabaly in the form of dedicated post) to sort out our misunderstanding and to generally “moderate” it?

    Thanks in advance.

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    1. Hi Lyttenburgh, I will be posting a review of Oleg Khlevmiuk’s biography of Stalin in a couple of days’ time, so perhaps we can all use that to discuss the realities of Stalinism, the Great Terror, etc. Post should be up Friday or Saturday.

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  4. “I’m sure, that American version of Navalniy with his “RosPil” would be welcomed by the general population of the Bastion of Democracy with open arms!”

    I’m sure it would be welcome, but I have little doubt that, unfortunately, we would’ve soon discovered that, regrettably, he/she is a child molester (Scot Ritter) or outright narcissistic maniac (Ralph Nader) or a liar and publicity hound (Gary Webb) or simply bat-shit crazy (Ramsey Clark). Or all of the above. And this is just off top of my head. And so, alas, in An Open, Democratic Society this person’s name absolutely can’t be mentioned in polite company, let alone in print or broadcast. Except on the margins where it can’t be taken seriously. It’s just such a bad luck.

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