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.