Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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.

Friday book #22: Missionaries of Modernity

This week by exception, the Friday book doesn’t come from my shelf but is one which arrived in today’s mail: Missionaries of Modernity by Antonio Giustozzi and Artemy Kalinovsky. Chapter 8 is written by my former research assistant Alfia Sorokina, Artemy Kalinovsky (author among other things of A Long Goodbye: the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan), and me.


The book as a whole looks at the part played by foreign advisors in developing countries during and after the Cold War. Our chapter examines the role of Soviet specialists in providing economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan. We point out that ‘Soviet activities in Afghanistan were constructive as well as destructive. The Soviets provided Afghanistan with both “free aid” (free deliveries of food, seeds, fuel, etc.) and economic and technical assistance which was designed to promote long term economic development.’ Soviet specialists participated in these activities ‘by constructing modern industrial infrastructure, and by training the personnel to run it.’

We note that Soviet specialists often spent years working in Afghanistan (a striking contrast to modern Western advisors, whose stays in Afghanistan are often very short). However, when the Soviets left, the industrial enterprises they had created rapidly ceased production. All too often the Afghans they had trained fled the moment that the Soviet Army was no longer there to protect them. Thus we conclude that, ‘The Soviets’ development plans might never have achieved their aims under the best of circumstances, but when attempted under fire they were certain to fail.’

Our study reveals that Soviet advisors were often ill-equipped to deal with the peculiarities of the Afghan environment. On the one hand, they eventually came to understand that slavishly applying Soviet models to Afghanistan made no sense, and they pressed their Afghan colleagues to be less ideologically rigid. On the other hand, the problems of war meant that they were endlessly reacting to events and being forced to improvise, rather than following a coherent strategy.

The chapter following ours examines US and NATO advisory missions to Afghanistan post-2001. It concludes that these were ‘more chaotic and directionless’ than those of the Soviets, ‘with a multitude of not always compatible templates being sponsored by different agencies and countries.’ Whereas the Soviets focused (not always very successfully) on developing industrial infrastructure and training the workers required to operate it, the US/NATO approach was rather different. As the book says:

On the economic development front, the [US/NATO] mission did little more than import the Washington consensus into Afghanistan, neglecting not only efforts to equip the Afghan state with the facilities necessary to prevent the country turning into a capitalist ‘wild west’, dominated by robber barons, but even to create incentives for those very robber barons to at least invest their ill-gotten riches back into the Afghan economy.

Overall, Giustozzi and Kalinovsky conclude that advisory missions ‘have had a mixed impact on their host countries’, helping to reshape institutions, but not always for the better. Advisors almost always follow a ‘template approach’, but the templates are often not appropriate. When they fail, as they often do, advisory missions abandon their lofty dreams of national building and economic development and turn instead to patronage, trying to achieve a degree of peace by paying local warlords and others to maintain order on their behalf. In this sense, the Soviet and American missions in Afghanistan followed a similar pattern.

Crackpot theory no. 7: hearts and minds

The great Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz remarked that, ‘Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.’

For Clausewitz, the primary aim of war was the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, and there was only one sure method of achieving this objective: combat. In recent years, however, Western military forces have attempted to do what Clausewitz warned against – defeat the enemy ‘without too much bloodshed’. Following the failure of initial counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, counterinsurgency theorists convinced NATO leaders that the key to victory in Afghanistan  was a ‘whole of government’ approach. Military force would be combined with humanitarian aid and economic development projects, which would win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Aghans and persuade them to support the Afghan government and NATO rather than the Taliban. NATO would win not by killing people but by being nice to them.

How has this theory worked out in practice?

Not very well, is the answer.

John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), is responsible for auditing the $113 billion which the United States has spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan. Citing SIGAR’s new quarterly report to the US Congress, the latest update sent out by his office contains a particularly eye-popping statement:

Since 2003, USAID has spent at least $2.3 billion on stability programs in Afghanistan. The findings of a USAID-contracted, third-party evaluation program on the impacts of its stabilization projects raise worrying questions. The MISTI [Measuring Impacts of Stabilization Initiatives] program reported, for example, that villages receiving USAID stability projects scored lower on stability—an aggregate measure of whether the projects strengthened perceptions of good governance and effective service delivery—than similar villages that received no such assistance. And some villages reportedly under Taliban control that received USAID stability projects subsequently showed greater pro-Taliban support.

Why was this? According to SIGAR’s quarterly report, USAID says that raised expectations are to blame. Aid projects tend to raise villagers’ hopes of an improved quality of life. When their expectations ae not fully met, they become embittered.

There may be something to this explanation, but I’m not sure that it is the whole story. After all, it begs the question of why the projects fail to meet expectations. I would not be surprised if that is because the projects are often ill-conceived, disrupt existing practices and power structures, and are driven by perceived short-term security needs rather than the real requirements of local inhabitants.

SIGAR’s quarterly report [pages 118-120] also points to another factor. Apparently, USAID’s ‘Stability in Key Areas’ (SIKA) programs have improved ‘community cohesion, resiliency, and perceptions of local leaders’, but ‘at the expense of government officials’. Years ago, I heard complaints that in its haste to win ‘hearts and minds’, NATO was bypassing Afghan government institutions and officials (often deemed corrupt and/or incompetent), with the result that the aid was doing nothing to solve the fundamental problem of central government legitimacy which lay at the heart of the insurgency. These complaints may have been right.

SIGAR’s report suggests that ‘hearts and minds’ stability projects don’t win hearts and minds, but actually make matters worse. If confirmed, this finding is a terrible blow to counterinsurgency theory. The belief that one can win wars by building schools and digging wells has apparently turned out not to be true.

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.


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.

Friday object lesson #35: rug

During the 1980s, when the Soviet Army was fighting in Afghanistan, Afghan rug makers began to produce carpets which depicted Soviet military equipment. This example (from 2007) post-dates the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by almost 20 years, but the hardware shown is all Soviet/Russian rather than NATO (for instance BMPs, Mi-17 (Hip) helicopters, and Kalashnikov rifles).

afghan rug