Tag: USAID

For Afghan Reconstruction, Millions of Dollars Up in Smoke

Unconscionable levels of waste, fraud, and abuse continue to plague America’s 11 year nation-building mission in Afghanistan. According to an investigation by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), officers with the NATO training mission shredded the financial records of fuel purchased for the Afghan National Army. As a result, “the U.S. government still cannot account for $201 million in fuel purchased to support the Afghan National Army.”

On the document destruction, SIGAR investigators determined among its many findings that:

  • The two fuel ordering officers cited efficiency, saving physical storage space, and the ability to share document [sic], as factors in the decision to scan and shred the documents. They added that they believed that the scanned documents had been stored electronically on a [Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A)] SharePoint portal or shared drive, but they could not recall the exact locations.
  • […]
  • … CSTC-A was unable to locate any of the missing documents.

A number of other projects underscore the problems U.S. agencies confront in carrying out large-scale development initiatives. For instance, the U.S. military plans to provide electricity via diesel generators to about 2,500 Afghan homes and businesses around Kandahar, according to a report over the summer by the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran. U.S. government planners expect the program, called the “Kandahar Bridging Solution,” to cost American taxpayers about $220 million through 2013, that is, until the United States Agency for International Development and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers build a new hydropower turbine at a dam in neighboring Helmand.

Washington planners, in keeping with their population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine, assume that many Afghans will be pleased to have power, and thus, will throw their support behind the Afghan central government. Instead, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Kandahar last year, found no evidence that the added electricity was yielding greater support for the government, a conclusion far from surprising. Moreover, Dahl also discovered that the turbine at the dam will provide residents with less power than what they currently get from the generators. As SIGAR noted, “the U.S. government may be building an expectations gap.”

Yet another in a laundry list of dashed expectations may soon be the new $23 million road in Helmand, dashed because the Afghan government has yet to compensate landowners for buildings and property demolished during construction.

The United States continues to expend money and lives for stabilization efforts and infrastructure projects that may still fail to leverage Afghan support for the government. At its heart, that failure lies not only with the mission’s overlapping, redundant, and expensive development strategies, but also with the underlying assumption that when armed with “performance-based contracts” and “metrics to measure achievement,” government bureaucracies can successfully plan such projects.

Thoughts on Little America and Afghanistan

I recently finished reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. The entire book is terrific. I highly recommend it. But one chapter in particular—Chapter 7, “Deadwood”—spoke to some of the things that my colleagues and I have written over the years concerning America’s nation-building problems.

Most Americans have by now moved on from the war in Afghanistan (even though the U.S. military has not) and are focused on, in President Obama’s words, “nation building here at home.” But we still haven’t closed the book on the theories of nation building that arose after 9/11, including the belief that the United States needs to repair failed states, or rescue failing ones, lest terrorists from these states travel thousands of miles to attack Americans. Last month, for example, Mitt Romney’s senior foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson praised Bill Clinton’s nation-building adventures in Bosnia and Kosovo. Williamson told NPR’s Audie Cornish that the U.S. government must “help in reconciliation, reconstruction, helping institutions of law and order, security be built” after authoritarian regimes collapse. From the belief that we must repair failed states flows logically the belief that we can.

These beliefs are, in fact, myths. Cato has published many different papers, articles, and book chapters challenging the claim that fighting terrorism, or preserving U.S. security generally, requires us to engage in nation building abroad. We have been equally emphatic on the point that our efforts are likely to fail, no matter how well intentioned. Little America provides additional evidence to support that argument, although I doubt that was Chandrasekaran’s object.

Take, for example, the case of Summer Coish, the striking and extraordinarily motivated woman who wanted to go to Afghanistan so badly that she appealed directly to Richard Holbrooke. She got her wish—eventually. Despite the fact that the president’s designated point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan had marked her for the fast track, it took 14 months before she was cleared to travel to there.

Once she arrived, Coish’s dream of helping the Afghans emerge from decades of war and desperate poverty crashed against the reality of a soul-crushing bureaucracy. Security regulations made it nearly impossible for Coish and other civilians to regularly interact with Afghans, and few embassy staffers exhibited any desire to do so. “It’s rare that you ever hear someone say they’re here because they want to help the Afghans,” Coish told Chandrasekaran after she had been there a few months. Instead, Chandrasekaran observes, “everyone seemed bent on departure.”

The work itself was painfully dull. Coish concluded that most of it could have been accomplished in Washington, at far less cost to the taxpayers. The reason for the costly in-country presence? The need to count them as part of the vaunted “civilian surge.”

Coish and a handful of other dedicated civilians that Chandrasekaran writes about—including Kael Weston, an experienced political adviser to Marine General Larry Nicholson, and Carter Malkasian, the State Department’s representative in Helmand’s Garmser district—could not make up for the lack of ability (or desire) on the part of many other civilians (i.e. the deadwood). “It seems our best and brightest have burned out long ago and we’re getting the straphangers these days,” Marc Chretien, a senior State Department official in Helmand province, wrote to the embassy. “Or, as one wag put it, ‘they’re just along for the chow.’ No need to go into details here—let’s just say that there’s enough deadwood here that it’s becoming a fire hazard.”

At times, Chandrasekaran’s assessment of the civilian surge exhibits an oddly optimistic tone. I say “odd” because this is the same person who brilliantly documented the dysfunction of the Bush administration’s nation-building fiasco in Iraq (in Imperial Life in the Emerald City), but who can’t bring himself to say that Obama’s mission in Afghanistan couldn’t possibly succeed. Despite everything that he has seen, Chandrasekaran often reflects a belief that it all could have worked out (or that it still might) were it not for the “lack of initiative and creativity in Washington.”

Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of Obama’s national security agenda, those responsible for hiring first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options.

Pray-tell, where would the government have found such people? Or, more precisely, how would the government convince those already gainfully employed to set aside their careers, homes, and families to embark upon an Afghan adventure? What additional incentives—or threats—might have sufficed to mobilize the vast army of talented agronomists, lawyers, biologists, teachers, doctors, civil engineers, etc. who were not already motivated (as Coish, Weston and Malkasian were)?

Several years ago, I co-authored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky a paper on the lessons of Iraq. Our research was informed by Chandrasekaran’s narrative from the Iraqi Green Zone, and a number of other books on the Bush administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Here is what we said (the prose in this case is almost certainly Friedman’s; I’m not this clever) about the American people’s disinclination to embark on nation-building missions abroad.

A concerted effort to improve our collective nation-building skills would require “a foreign policy at odds with our national character.”

Reading through the proposals for rapidly deployable bureaucrats to help run failing states, one usually searches in vain for the pages where the author justifies the creation of an empire and a colonial service to run it. Whatever else changed after September 11, [Americans]…are ill-suited for stabilizing disorderly states and achieving success in protracted foreign wars.

The State Department’s budget, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), we explained, “is tiny because its aim is to relate to foreign nations, not to run them.”

National security organizations are formed by decades of budgets and decisions. Their organizational politics…reflect…lasting national interests, namely a disinclination to subjugate foreign peoples and lose unnecessary wars….Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense.

To repeat, Little America is a first-class read, and I hope that the book receives the attention it deserves. The anecdotes about Coish, Weston, and Malkasian, as well as countless stories about brave soldiers and Marines trying their best every day to make Afghanistan a better place, are heartwarming. We honor their service, and we should find other avenues for these people to perform their work, chiefly through NGOs, unencumbered by the massive federal bureaucracy.

But good intentions cannot distract us from the bleak reality: building a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan would require hundreds of thousands of equally dedicated civilians, to go along with a massive troop presence to protect them, tens of billions of dollars every year, and a commitment to remain in country for decades.

We aren’t going to do that. We should stop pretending that we will.

Wartime Contracting Report Provides More Evidence to Exit Afghanistan

Over the past decade, American taxpayers have lost as much as $60 billion dollars to massive fraud and waste in the nation building campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report released today by the Commission on Wartime Contracting. The independent panel confirms much of what we already know about rent-seeking in wartime; nevertheless, the panel details specific reconstruction projects and programs that display a stunning array of mismanagement:

  • A modest $60 million agricultural development program in northern Afghanistan expanded to the south and east to the tune of $360 million. The cash-for-work program was intended to distribute vouchers for wheat-seed and fertilizer in drought-stricken areas. Today, the program spends $1 million a day. The panel reports, “The pressure to quickly spend the millions of dollars created an environment in which waste was rampant. Paying villagers for what they used to do voluntarily destroyed local initiatives and diverted project goods into Pakistan for resale.”
  • During operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, waste and fraud averaged about “$12 million every day for the past 10 years.” [Emphasis in original];
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) awarded an $82 million contract for the design and construction of an Afghan Defense University. Now, DoD officials say it will cost $40 million a year to operate—beyond the indigenous government’s ability to fund and sustain;
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Government’s main distributor of development contracts, funded the Khost-Gardez road project. Originally valued at $86 million it has since mushroomed to $176 million;
  • The insurgents’ second-largest funding source is the U.S. taxpayer. Money for construction and transportation projects are diverted to the insurgency so Afghan subcontractors can pay them for protection. Of course, the insurgents use this money to buy bombs, IEDs, and other explosives to kill foreign troops and civilians.

The report goes on and on with examples that should disgust U.S. taxpayers. In addition, the report was released amid news that August 2011 was the deadliest month for U.S. service members, and 2011 shaping up to be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians. Despite the spin from warhawks, people in the region know the coalition has lost. Last year, the “Godfather of the Taliban,” Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, laid out in extensive detail why America has been defeated (for skeptics of withdrawal, it’s worth reading).

The United States has largely disrupted, dismantled, and defeated al Qaeda. America should not go beyond that objective by combating a regional insurgency or drifting into an open-ended occupation. We have endured enough with tens of thousands of people killed, injured, and traumatized, and billions of dollars wasted.

Senate Report Slams Nation-Building Efforts in Afghanistan

As confirmed by yet another U.S. government report, this one prepared by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan has had little success in creating an economically viable and politically independent Afghan state.

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung writes:

The report also warns that the Afghan economy could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. [Emphasis added]

U.S. leaders could look at that statistic and justify prolonging the mission. In fact, the report suggests, “Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now.” Ironically, “proper planning” is the problem. The belief that outside planning can promote stability and growth has the potential to leave behind exactly the opposite.

While no one would deny that Afghanistan looks a lot better than it did in 2001, there’s a reason why American leaders might be sorely disappointed with the outcome when the coalition begins handing off responsibility to Afghans. As the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan warned last week in a separate report, “the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Without adequate planning to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance, U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in both countries will likely fall into disrepair.

The core problem is that top-down development strategies often deepen, rather than strengthen, a foreign country’s dependence on the international donor community. My colleague, development expert Ian Vasquez, once wrote, “Providing development assistance to such countries may improve the apparent performance of foreign aid, but it may also help to create dependence and delay further reform, problems that have long plagued official development assistance.” [Emphasis added]

Indeed, complaints about America’s presence in Afghanistan typically focus on troop levels; rarely discussed is the way in which foreign-led development schemes can deprive locals of the experience of planning projects, managing funds, and procuring goods: what they call in the industry, “building local capacity.” As my friend Joe Storm and I wrote a while back, “US-government contractors are mired in mismanagement and failure, perpetuating dependence at best. Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admits, “Donor practices of hiring Afghans at inflated salaries have drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan Government and created a culture of aid dependency.”

Dependence, of course, is only one of many problems. According to the report:

Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.

Because development is plagued with inadequate oversight, many development contracts are dispersed independently of the quality of services provided. During a trip to Afghanistan some time ago, I heard story after story about development projects being abandoned before completion, American-built schools without teachers to staff them, and billions of dollars charged to American taxpayers for unfinished work that leave Afghans disillusioned. Naturally, turning our mission in Afghanistan into one of limitless scope and open-ended duration perpetuates this massive fraud and waste.

So, who’s at fault? Ourselves. Recall the December 5, 2001 Bonn Agreement, which proclaimed the international community’s determination to “end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country.” We’ve set the bar so incredibly high for a country that lacks the fundamental criteria intrinsic to the Westphalia model: (a) a legitimate host nation government (b) that possesses secure and internationally recognized borders, and (c) wields a monopoly on the use of force. None of these criteria exist. So far, we are 0-3: 0 wins, 3 losses.

With this latest report from members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are reminded yet again not only of the importance of scaling down lofty expectations, but also recognizing the unintended consequences produced by the noblest of aims. Sadly, given the corruption and dependency we’ll leave in our wake, without an introspective self-critique of our policies, America could turn Afghanistan into Central Asia’s Haiti.