Is Afghanistan a Dead Man Walking?

Brad Pitt’s most successful box office film to date is about a man’s race against time to save the world from zombies. He does this by putting together clues or "crumbs" left behind to puzzle together how the planet was overrun by the undead, and what he has to do to fix it.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction  (SIGAR) John Sopko (left)
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko (left)

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) seems to be in his own race against time to stanch the bloodletting of our investment in that country before his own clock runs out – which is when the U.S withdraws its military in 2014, and most funding sometime thereafter. Over the last two months, IG John Sopko has produced a blizzard of alerts about the billions of tax dollars wasted and corrupted to no good end.

"John Sopko came into the job a year ago and has infused the place with a sense of urgency, because the transition is a critical phase of our experience in Afghanistan and time is of the essence,” SIGAR’s spokesman, Philip J. LaVelle, explained to last week.

This is more than just our pocketbook and pride in the balance. Put these "crumbs" together and Sopko’s reports are providing us some of the clearest metrics we have about Afghanistan’s ability to survive after we’re gone. They are telling us the diagnosis is grim. In fact, through the circumspect eye of the inspector general, we see nothing more than a dead man walking.

"What reconstruction has done is create a Zombie economy in Afghanistan – a vast percentage of GNP, never mind corruption and customs money, and some employment – that survives only as long as “food” is available. That food of course is the billions spent by the US on failed projects. Once cut off, the economy will simply stumble back to its pre-war, pre-industrial natural state," noted Peter Van Buren, who wrote We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, about the US reconstruction efforts in Iraq (his criticisms eventually cost Van Buren his State Department job).

That prewar"state" will likely mean chaos, with the Taliban emboldened, and powerful warlords jockeying within the vacuum. Already we see signs of decay: women who had pushed their way out of oppressive circumstances when the Taliban fell in 2001 are crowding into battered women’s shelters today. This once successful rights activist and parliamentarian is now on the run from an abusive husband. The legal system into which we have (mis)spent millions, won’t help her. Meanwhile, violence keeps the capital city of Kabul – once the safest place in US occupied Afghanistan – in fear, with our own diplomats shuttered behind the high walls of their sprawling compound.

If anything, SIGAR seems to be the only one sounding the alarms. According to Sopko’s recent quarterly report to congress, the US has spent almost $100 billion to date on building Afghan security forces, reconstruction, counternarcotics (another metric of failure for sure), humanitarian aid and "operations and oversight." In the last quarter alone, his office highlighted $2 billion in questionable spending, including expensive contracts going to Afghans who have clear ties to the Taliban and insurgent groups like the Haqqani Network, which has killed scores of Afghans and Americans alike over the last year.

Bottom line: if we have only mismanaged programs, aborted projects, faulty and dangerous infrastructure and facilities, useless equipment, and fat corrupt private contractors fleecing everyone in sight to show for it, what kind of future does Afghanistan really have?

While some members of congress have responded to these metrics of failure, writing letters to the Pentagon and even proposing legislation to reform the contracting process, most of Washington – including the media – seems content in enduring the long divorce from Afghanistan quietly and without much remorse for the mess we are leaving behind.

Just a few examples:

SIGAR’s says: On July 30 Sopko released his quarterly report, which among other things, contends the Army declined to disbar 43 private contractors that SIGAR believed were associated with Taliban or other insurgent groups because the Army said the complaints "did not include enough supporting evidence." Those contracts involved some $150 million in taxpayer funds and involved mostly Afghan-run companies.

What it means: The US never found a way to reward Afghans playing by the rules. Those Afghans will be powerless against corrupt warlords and insurgents who have managed to maintain a high level of instability and violence in the country while feeding from our trough at the same time.

SIGAR says: The IG says the US has spent over $770 million on planes the Afghan military does not have the capacity to fly.

What it means: The Afghan military – for which we have invested a total of $54 billion so far – is still struggling to secure the country without our help. Throwing expensive equipment at them that they cannot use just proves we are more concerned about our defense industry needs than their overall strength, or the safety of the Afghan people. Sadly, without our aid, they will not be able to maintain the numbers or the materiel, whether they can use it or not.

SIGAR says: The US has spent millions building schools but an inspection found them unfinished, shabbily built and dangerous. One facility, the $6 million Sheberghan teaching school, was highlighted by the IG. He said:

Visiting the school during a cold spell, SIGAR inspectors found students attending class in their coats because there was no heat, relying on light from the windows because there was no electricity, and unable to use the school’s bathrooms because there was no running water.

There was a generator, but it was good thing it wasn’t working because the wiring in the building was so poor someone was bound to be electrocuted, Sopko wrote. The negligent contractors were never held accountable.

What it means: Sheberghan is just one of many multi-million projects that have been left nonfunctional, or worse, a public health hazard, by people we paid way too much money to build. Without additional funding and capable contractors, many of these projects will rot where they stand, useless to the Afghans who were promised these tools of survival in the aftermath of war.

SIGAR says: Also in July, Sopko released an alert about the Afghan government essentially overcharging the US for security it isn’t fully providing in the first place. Confused? President Hamid Karzai is trying to phase out all the foreign private security contractors in the country. To do this, he insists only the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) can provide security for US reconstruction projects. But the AFFP is far from full strength and isn’t very capable, so they supplement their ranks with foreign (read: American) private security and call them "consultants."

Nevertheless, Karzai’s government is charging the US in come cases double the going rate, and costs are rising each day.

"Our recent reports have found illegal taxes, fees and fines levied by the Afghan government," said Sopko. "In light of this, we’re deeply concerned that security costs could spiral out of control with the Afghan government’s monopoly over security for U.S-funded projects. Without proper controls this could be another blank check from the American taxpayer."

What this means: The APPF is incompetent and likely never be able to function without outside help, but more importantly, the rising costs, along with all of the other safety and financial concerns, will swiftly bring an end to even the most well-meaning U.S-led reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. In other words, Karzai is gouging us while he can get away with it, but at the expense of the Afghan people.

SIGAR says: In June, Sopko alerted officials to what he said was poor oversight of a $70 million International Relief and Development (IRD) program to help poor Afghan farmers. Millions of dollars were wasted on solar panels no one wanted, tractors no one wanted, irrigation pumps no one wanted and seed and saplings that the US overpaid for, then went missing and showed up on the open market.

What this means: That no lessons were learned since Van Buren’s time in Iraq. Why? "My favorite definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. That should answer your question," Van Buren told

But it also means that rural Afghans are no better prepared to build their local economies than they were 10 years ago. They remain dirt poor and in many cases, suffering from malnutrition, with no access to clean water or decent health care. Meanwhile, we throw useless stuff at them while ignoring what they really need.

A Hollywood ending to this tale would mean that Sopko, like hero Brad Pitt, would have such an impact as to maybe save Afghanistan from this bleak destiny. Sadly, while Washington for so long relied on "metrics" to prove why the war was right, it now ignores the ones that say it’s going so horribly wrong. They call that whistling past the graveyard.

It may be that it’s just too late – a dead man walking. If so, we should stop the useless funding now and demand accountability for monies already appropriated. Maybe this is all SIGAR can do, but it seems to be more than the rest of the US crumbs combined.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.