Jon Stewart Not Wrong About U.S. Waste in Afghanistan
“If we are spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, we can’t, you know, put a little taste Baltimore’s way. It’s crazy.”—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
Media critics at places like the Washington Post have quickly pointed out the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart overstated the taxpayer dollars spent to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, (Wapo noting, though that comedians exaggerate to make a point).
But lost in the rush to correct Stewart is a top Afghanistan watchdog’s report on how taxpayer dollars continue to be wasted in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has spent $110 billion on Afghanistan relief and reconstruction since 2002, according to John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Adjusting for inflation, that’s more than “the value of the entire Marshall Plan effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II,” the former prosecutor says. Nearly $15 billion more in reconstruction funds for the country now awaits in the pipeline.
But Sopko warns that “large amounts of taxpayer dollars have been lost to waste, fraud, and abuse” in Afghanistan. Reason: No comprehensive anti-corruption strategy, which Sopko has repeatedly raised red flags about in numerous reports detailing the taxpayer waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan.
Problems include “theft and corruption by both American and Afghan military and civilians, collusion and bid-rigging on contracts, money laundering, and poor administration of U.S. funds provided directly to Afghan ministries,” he says. Sopko oversees a staff of “about 200 auditors, investigators, inspectors, attorneys, technicians, writers, special-projects and lessons-learned researchers, and other staff,” which to date “has completed 198 audit and inspection reports” on the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.
The Congressional Research Service concluded that $1.6 trillion is the estimated taxpayer price tag for both the wars in Afghanistan ($686 billion) and Iraq ($815 billion), with the balance going toward security at military bases, among other things. The cost in human life for the war in Afghanistan has been dire: more than 2,000 U.S. service members killed, more than 20,000 wounded, over 1,100 contractors dead, and estimated civilian casualties surpassing 21,000, according to Costs of War, a nonprofit based at Brown University.
U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have been expansive, Sopko says, touching “nearly every aspect of Afghan life,” including “standing up the Afghan army and police, digging wells and building roads, constructing schools and clinics,” even “creating a civil aviation system” as well as “developing alternatives to poppy cultivation” used to manufacture heroin.
But Sopko said in a recent speech that “just as doctors must be willing to face the truth about whether a treatment is working, we in the United States must be willing to face the truth” about the massive amount of taxpayer dollars he says has been wasted on Afghanistan reconstruction. Fraud and abuse “often occur when the U.S. officials who implement and oversee programs fail to distinguish fact from fantasy,” Sopko added.
For example, Sopko says that the U.S. refuses to do simple things, like not giving U.S. government contracts to terrorists or the Taliban in Afghanistan because the argument is, “the information supporting these recommendations is classified.” He says that, not only is that “legally wrong, but contrary to sound policy and national-security goals.”
Sopko adds: “I remain troubled by the fact that our government can and does use classified information to arrest, detain, and even kill individuals linked to the insurgency in Afghanistan, but apparently refuses to use the same classified information to deny those same individuals their right to obtain contracts with the U.S. government.”
One tiny step forward: The Pentagon finally began publicizing referrals for suspension and debarments “to help prevent people and businesses with links to insurgents or terrorists from getting federal contracts in Afghanistan,” Sopko says.
In turn, the new president of Afghanistan, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, nixed a nearly $1 billion fuel contract and fired people in a bid-rigging scheme “that appears to have criminally inflated costs to U.S. taxpayers by more than $200 million,” the inspector general says. “That's a U.S. concern because, apart from paying to recruit, arm, equip, train, house, and pay Afghan security forces, we also buy fuel for them.” In fact, the U.S. and other international donors “more than cover some 60% of the Afghan national budget,” Sopko notes.
As for taxpayer costs for Afghan education, Sopko says that the U.S. still doesn’t have accurate or sufficient data to assess progress–even for simple things such as how many students are actually attending school in the country.
While Sopko notes that USAID has spent more than three quarters of a billion dollars on education programs in the country, he says the Afghan Ministry of Education keeps shoddy student records that “are not independently verified,” which means the U.S. could be overspending because the number of Afghan students may be inflated by more than 50%, as “teachers’ salaries are being stolen by warlords,” among other things.
For example, the country’s education ministry disclosed in 2014 that 8.35 million students were in school. But 6.6 million were listed as “present” and 1.55 million were booked as “absent.”
Moreover, “the ministry counts absent students as ‘enrolled’ for up to three years before dropping them from the rolls,” Sopko says.
Meaning, an Afghan student who stopped attending school in 2012 is still counted as “enrolled.” Sopko says: “That's like saying a spouse who packed up and left three years ago is still committed to you.” The number of students actually attending Afghan schools may be more like four million, less than half of what the country’s records indicate.
For now, Sopko says he “will press on in the years ahead to carry out its assignment of pinning down facts, calling out fluff, felonies, and fantasies, and recommending improvements.”