Last week most stories about Afghanistan focused on the meeting between Afghan President Hamaid Karzai and President Obama. The President announced that starting in the spring U.S. troops would only play supporting role. Of note he gave no information on troop withdrawal schedule but did indicate there would be a U.S. troop presence after 2014. Those troops would be focused on training and hunting down the remnants of al-Qaeda.
Of equal interest to me and something that was under reported was a talk given last week at the Stimson Center — a Washington, D.C. think-tank — by John Sopko, who in July took over the job of Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR. The headline for an article written by Chris Carroll in the Stars and Strips sums up the talk pretty well: “Special IG for Afghan reconstruction cites rampant fraud, waste.”
Sopko opened his talk telling a story about a $70 million Afghan Army garrison built in Kunduz province. The construction was so shoddy it is unusable. The contractors failed to ensure the project was built on stable ground and as a result the buildings are cracking and falling apart. He was amazed that in spite of the poor workmanship the contractor was still paid. This is not a unique situation, he indicated we’re missing a number of buildings and some may not even have been built. He said we have spent more trying to reconstruct Afghanistan than any other nation including post war Japan. So far we’ve spent $90 billion and are currently spending at the rate of $28 million dollars a day. He indicated the situation was caused by five core problems:
Concerning planning, he says as he traveled around Afghanistan he asked the people in charge of various projects: “Are these programs and building needed? Have you asked the Afghans if they want them? Have you coordinated with any others working the issues? Have we designed them to meet any specific needs the Afghans have? Have we designed them so they can be sustainable in the future?” He said frequently the answer to the questions was “no.” The quality assurance problem seems to be related to the poor security situation. Sopko said a number of his inspectors were unable to inspect some sites because the areas they were located in were not secure. As the military drawdown continues there will be fewer places he can safely send his inspectors.
As to the sustainability issue, Sopko said the question is do the Afghans have the financial, technical capability and the political will to operate and maintain the facilities. He said the Afghan government revenue is over $2 billion a year, but it will take in his view $4 billion just to sustain the Afghan security forces. If you factor in the rest of the Afghan programs, that will cost an additional $10 billion a year. He indicated the international community was stepping in to help the Afghans with this.
As to the issue of corruption, he indicated the Afghans are perceived as having some of the worst corruption practices in the world. Sopko said he’s an optimist and the problems are difficult but not insurmountable.
I found his talk interesting and informative. It will be interesting to observe what happens as the NATO forces continue to draw down how effective the Afghan security forces will be. There are many questions that remain unanswered. How fast will U.S. troops be withdrawn, what happens in the next Afghan elections, how fast will U.S. troops be withdrawn, what number will remain after 2014, and will the Taliban be able to make a come back.