Goats and boats

Several times in the past, I have drawn attention to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, who audits the $117 billion the United States has spent on economic and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. His reports are a catalogue of waste and incompetence on a quite staggering scale. Among other things, he uncovered the stories of how the US spent $6 million airlifting 9 Italian goats to Afganistan; spent $486 million buying aircraft for the Afghan airforce which were so dangerous to fly that they were never used and ended up being turned into $32,000 of scrap metal; built an entirely unused 64,000 square foot command centre at a cost of $34 million ; spent $150 million building luxury villas to lodge staff of its economic development office; and expended $3 million on building a navy for landlocked Afghanistan, but never actually delivered the boats. Unfortunately, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a chronicle of folly which boggles the mind.

I cannot recommend SIGAR’s reports enough to anybody wanting to understand why America’s campaign to stabilize Afghanistan (and by extension, many other places) is failing. Sopko is in some ways the storyteller of our time, reaching to the heart of the rot in the West’s international policy. Yesterday, he gave a public lecture at the University of Ottawa and provided a number of valuable insights. Below is a brief summary of what he said.

  • The situation in Afghanistan is not getting any better. Afghan security forces are ‘playing a deadly game of whack-a-mole’. They have little mobility or capacity for offensive operations. All they can do ‘is retake major areas after they fall’. They are ‘unable or unwilling to take the fight to the Taleban.’
  • The root of the problem is an ‘insidious combination of poor leadership and corruption.’
  • ‘The donor community contributed mightily to the corruption problem’ by putting in ‘too much money too fast in too small a country’ without considering local conditions. ‘The United States and other donor nations contributed enormously to the corruption explosion in Afghanistan.’
  • The Taleban have stopped providing supplies to many of their troops and instead told their commanders to buy the supplies from the Afghan army because it is cheaper! ‘Fully 50% of the fuel purchased for the Afghans never reaches the intended recipient.’ ‘At the end of the US supply chain in Afghanistan is the Taleban.’
  • ‘The US has spent $8.5 billion in Afghanistan to fight narcotics. Unfortunately, we have little to show for it.’ ‘Afghanistan is continuing to grow poppies at near record levels’, providing the Taleban with the majority of its revenues.
  • The Afghan state is not financially sustainable. Its revenue from domestic sources is a mere $2 billion a year, whereas it spends $4 billion a year on non-security expenditures and $4-6 billion on security. The difference comes from foreign donors. Meanwhile, the state lacks the capacity to manage large sums of money, and once that money is given to Afghans, it ‘becomes incredibly hard to follow’. ‘It may take decades for the Afghan government to achieve success and military and financial sustainability’. ‘Future prospects look bleak.’

Sopko concluded his lecture by saying that ‘It’s been amazing to me how little common sense has been used in our reconstruction effort’. ‘If we don’t change how we do things’, he said, ‘we will almost certainly fail in Afghanistan. … If we keep doing what we did the last 15 years, we’re going to get run over.’

Putting this all together, it seems to me that the basic problem is this:

To fight the Taleban, Western countries have created a huge Afghan military and security system, which is far beyond what Afghanistan can afford. Also, in an effort to bring ‘good governance’, economic development, human rights, and all the rest of it, in the hope that all this will contribute to defeating the insurgency, we have constructed an Afghan state with a large volume of social commitments which again it cannot afford. To make up the massive budget deficit, we have pumped billions of dollars into the country, thereby creating the conditions for corruption on a gigantic scale. This has then fatally undermined the legitimacy and competence of the state we are trying to support.

It’s a sort of vicious circle, or a Catch 22 situation. If we stop supporting the Afghan state, it will collapse. But supporting it on the scale it needs to survive pretty much guarantees that it will fail.

Sopko refused to make any policy recommendations, saying that as an auditor that’s not his job. Personally, I can’t listen to what he says or read his numerous reports, and feel any optimism that we are capable of finding a good way out of this mess. Frankly, we are way too incompetent. On the whole, rather than continuing to invest to recover sunken costs, it probably makes more sense to cut our losses and admit defeat.

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8 thoughts on “Goats and boats”

  1. “The Taleban have stopped providing supplies to many of their troops and instead told their commanders to buy the supplies from the Afghan army because it is cheaper! ‘Fully 50% of the fuel purchased for the Afghans never reaches the intended recipient.’ ‘At the end of the US supply chain in Afghanistan is the Taleban.’”

    America should totally bakroll the Ukrainian army and start sending lethal weapons to them [nod. nod]

    “The Afghan state is not financially sustainable. Its revenue from domestic sources is a mere $2 billion a year, whereas it spends $4 billion a year on non-security expenditures and $4-6 billion on security. The difference comes from foreign donors. Meanwhile, the state lacks the capacity to manage large sums of money, and once that money is given to Afghans, it ‘becomes incredibly hard to follow’. ‘It may take decades for the Afghan government to achieve success and military and financial sustainability’. ‘Future prospects look bleak.’”

    Once again – are you sure it was not actually said about the Ukraine?

    P.S.

    When, oh, when will the US have its own foreign associated Navalny, leading revoltin masses of the kreakleriat and schoolschildren, demanding to #StopFeedingAfghanistan and denouncing the Democratic/Republican Party as the “Party of the Crooks and Thieves”?

    “”On the whole, rather than continuing to invest to recover sunken costs, it probably makes more sense to cut our losses and admit defeat.

    No this means that Putin wins. No wonder that racial Ukrs consider you a Kremlin Stooge, professor.

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  2. I guess no-one in the US government ever bothered to ask Afghan people what they actually wanted, am I right?

    Also where does most of the money spent go? What percentage of it actually reaches Afghans and what percentage goes instead to foreign NGOs claiming to provide humanitarian aid and charity? Are those organisations required to account for the money they receive and spend on a regular basis? If the US were to stop supporting the NGOs, would the country necessarily fail as a result?

    There’s still a chance that Afghanistan can succeed with the right kind of help, the sort of help that trains and educates Afghans to be self-sufficient and not turn the country into a giant social welfare state. But I guess this is not what the US wants because what the US wants is to control Afghanistan and take the country’s resources but to do that it has to placate the local people and keep them addicted to heroin. Maybe that’s why Sopko stopped short of making recommendations.

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  3. A couple years ago while in Australia I had a chance to watch a very interesting program on the subject of Afghanistan and corruption. In that case of building a new hospital, the main “character” was an European NGO with no expertise in the field of construction management. In the end 50% ( if I remember correctly ) of the money was pocketed by some UN agency, 50% of the remainder by the NGO and the rest taken by a local contractor who managed to build a hospital which from day one looked like a run down structure needing urgent intervention.
    More recently an Al-Jazeera reporter followed an American unit on patrols in Afghanistan. Personally I felt sorry for the soldiers, completely out of their depth in a foreign country of different and not understood language, totally foreign culture and tradition. You don’t need any more to fail on all fronts.

    Regards,

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  4. I absolutely abhorr “War on the Rocks”, but:

    Elephants in Afghanistan: The Military’s Counterinsurgency Failure

    “Touring dozens of these outposts from 2012 to 2014, I found them amusing in their uniformity and in their uniformly shoddy construction. We commonly found crumbling concrete and gleaming, if non-functional, propane kitchens. Outside of each kitchen the Afghans had constructed traditional wood stoves. It is what they knew how to cook with, and wood was the only fuel reliably available. My Afghan counterpart would often make a point of chipping the concrete with his fingernail, revealing the trail of fraud and mismanagement that accompanied each compound. Having had no say in the contracting process, we could only look at each other and shrug, sharing that universal acknowledgment of being in the midst of a clusterfuck.

    For many of these installations, their location made no sense, except in being the closest plot of land where the design template would fit. Touring bases in southern Paktika in 2013, where U.S. forces had already withdrawn, gave an indicator of the utility of these outposts to the Afghans. Fuel stations remained unfilled, barracks empty, electricity non-functional, and the compounds used only as a meeting place for the disbursement of pay, if at all.

    This inability to design and position outposts that might actually be useful for the Afghans was the result of two factors. First, we never trusted the Afghans with the money or authority to decide what kind of bases would work best for them. We also managed the construction process via an ad hoc system of engineers, contracting officers, combat advisors, Afghan leaders, and tactical unit commanders. Each of these actors typically worked for a separate chain of command and rotated through the country on separate timelines, guaranteeing that there would be neither unity of effort nor continuity in the process. As a result, the only actors with continuity and a direct incentive around these projects were the contractors and sub-contractors tasked with building them — and their only incentive was profit.

    Ironically, the actors most able to navigate these contracting processes and with the incentive to build what was best suited for the Afghan security forces were those we trusted the least: Afghan military leaders. That we did not trust them with contracting dollars was not without reason. In a society that has gone decades without effective governance and functioning bureaucracies, the people of Afghanistan have relied on patronage networks to survive, and those networks still drive the allegiances of Afghan military officers. At first blush, the continued presence of these networks appears to reflect a moral failure, but this is a shallow conclusion. The people of Afghanistan only survived through seemingly endless years of warfare and the collapse of the Afghan state by relying on familial, tribal, and ethnic relationships. Of course they still rely on patronage networks.

    I never met a senior Afghan officer who had not paid a “tribute” to secure his position. In 2013, the going rate to be a kandak (battalion of 300 to 500 personnel) commander in the border police was the equivalent of $50,000. This meant that each officer was similarly incentivized to take pay from those under his command and to use his position to recoup his payment. Such payments are foreign to Americans and distasteful to our sense of propriety, yet are an understandable byproduct of blindly pumping billions of dollars into an undeveloped, war-torn country governed by patronage networks.

    So while a newcomer may recoil from these arrangements in disgust, it is worth asking which is more absurd: the continued presence of these patronage networks or the idea that after being part of the fabric of Afghan life for decades that we can just wish them away as we build a security apparatus designed for a state and society that simply do not exist?

    And despite our distaste for the existence of these patronage networks, the Afghans know how to manage the churn of American officers passing through Afghanistan. Even those with egregious corruption charges against them could sustain the trust of American officers, so long as they appeared to aggressively go after the Taliban. Over a third of the senior leaders I dealt with in the Afghan Border Police in 2012 and 2013 had spent time in jail on some form of corruption charge. All were ultimately cleared after a few months or years in prison, their arrests most often a temporary appeasement of the Americans or a byproduct of infighting over lucrative jobs.

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  5. IT’s not so surprising. America has become so thoroughly corrupted by corporate and Wall Street money that our country no longer has a functioning democracy. Trump is little more than the type of wanna be tinpot dictator one would see in a third world country, while Clinton represented the nepotism and pay-to-play governance common in such countries. There’s no hope for Afghanistan because there is no hope for us. One day the American empire is going to collapse under its own weight, and it will take its puppet government in Afghanistan down with it.

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  6. Meanwhile the evil Chinese have a massive mining concession such as the $3 billion Mes Aynak copper mine that has gone ahead, not to mention India’s iron ore deals.

    Afghanistan also sits on an estimated $3.5 trillion of natural resources but you wouldn’t know it. It was also the the source of lapis lazuli (aqua marine pigments) found in many Renaissance masterpieces.

    And if there is one thing that has helped it clean the slate with Russia following the Afghan war, it is the US! Extraordinary.

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