Financial Waste in Afghanistan Points to Larger Problems in U.S. Government

By Allyson Versprille

By Allyson Versprille

Wasted U.S. taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan are indicative of larger problems of accountability and wasteful spending habits within the U.S. government, said a congressional watchdog June 9.

"This is a bigger issue than just DoD and Afghanistan. You see it over at the Veterans Administration, you see it at [Health and Human Services], you see it across the board," said John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. "There's no personal accountability."

In May, his office detailed the findings of an investigation into the construction of a 64,000-square-foot command-and-control facility at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. The report found that in 2010 the Defense Department requested funds for the facility to fill an immediate operational need associated with a military surge. However, as the request was pending, three generals voiced their dissent, stating that the building was unnecessary, as they believed the surge would be short-lived. A high-ranking Army general rejected their advice stating that it would be imprudent to cancel construction of the building because Congress had already appropriated the funds. 

Following construction, the building was never used, wasting $36 million in funds, the report said. In 2014, Camp Leatherneck was transferred to the Afghan government.

The facility at Camp Leatherneck "is indicative of a bigger problem and that's called MILCON, military construction," Sopko told a gathering of reporters in Washington, D.C. There's a "reluctance of many in the military to question supplemental appropriations. You get supplemental appropriations, you take the money and you spend it. You don't return it."
Additionally, no one is held accountable for these types of mistakes, he said.

"Who has ever been fired for all of these screw-ups?" he asked. He couldn't name one person who has ever been dismissed or lost a promotion as a result of findings he has documented or reports drafted by the State Department inspector general, Defense Department inspector general or the Government Accountability Office.

Waste has taken many forms during the 13-years of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, Sopko said.

One form is expenditures on superfluous buildings and unnecessary commodities like the facility in Camp Leatherneck. "We bought them a Cadillac and we should have gotten them a Chevy," Sopko said. "We built things that [the Afghans] could not use [and] we never asked the question about sustainability."

"The planning was horrible, the execution was horrible," he said.
A top U.S. counter-insurgency priority was bringing a stable source of electricity to Kandahar through the Kajaki Dam, but sustainability was never considered in the initial decision-making, he said. There is very little hope that this project will be completed by 2016 as planned, he added. Power shortages could leave the city vulnerable to Taliban insurgents in the area.

False reporting on personnel numbers has also resulted in waste, Sopko said. Funding for payrolls, boots, bullets and advisers is based on the presumed numbers of Afghan personnel, he said. "If you don't have the numbers right, whether they're teachers or soldiers, the whole thing is skewed," he said. "We're paying a lot of money for ghosts in Afghanistan."

This financial waste not only hurts American taxpayers. It also has detrimental effects on the reconstruction program, he said. Poor money management takes funds away from areas where they are truly needed.

In 2008 the Defense Department initiated a program to provide 20 G222s — twin propeller military transport aircraft built in Italy — to the Afghan Air Force. About $600 million was spent on the purchase, including the cost of the planes and the associated maintenance. The aircraft was not suited for the dusty conditions in Afghanistan and could not be sustained. 16 of the planes sitting unused at Kabul International Airport were scrapped in 2014 for $32,000. That $600 million would have been better spent on more useful alternatives, Sopko said.

Financial waste also hindered Afghanistan reconstruction because it distorted the Afghan economy, Sopko said. Teachers and doctors left their professions to work for the U.S. military or the coalition because it paid orders of magnitude more, creating a huge gap in the workforce. "A lot of good people got out of doing what they should do. So we build schools and there are no teachers," he noted, and half the teachers placed in the schools today are illiterate.

Lack of sustainability in Afghanistan has left the country dependent on foreign aid, he said. The country does not have the financial means or technical capability to maintain a functioning government or military on its own, he said.

"Do I see a point where we walk away, where we leave? Maybe," Sopko said. "But it may not be in my lifetime."

Topics: Defense Department, International

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