How To Waste Money In Afghanistan

As much as Obama denies that we are engaging in nation-building in Afghanistan, the facts are certainly not on his side.  This observation is especially true after reading the text of the newest report on Afghanistan which says:

The dilapidated projects in Afghanistan could present a challenge to the U.S. strategy of shifting more responsibility to Afghans. Investing in infrastructure, notes President Obama’s December review of the war, “will give the Afghan government and people the tools to build and sustain a future of stability.”

“Sustainment is one of the biggest issues with our whole strategy,” said a civilian official who shared details from a draft of the report. “The Afghans don’t have the money or capacity to sustain much.”

The idea of nation-building has been opposed mostly because the concept has either been seen as impossible or irresponsible in a cost-benefit analysis.  The latter is almost certainly a valid argument, and while the former may be a bit more open for debate given its extreme nature, it is becoming more and more difficult to substantiate a counter argument.

The headline of a Washington Post article: “U.S. Funded Infrastructure Deteriorates Once Under Afghan Control, Report says” is a pretty good indication of why nation-building is slowly shifting from merely irresponsible to seemingly impossible.  The article outlines the process of infrastructure funding, the flaws of the program and, most importantly, how much money is being wasted.

The project is called the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), and it allows battalion level commanders access to $5 billion in relief funding to be used at the commanders’ discretion.  Two billion dollars have been spent so far on 16,000 projects in 6 years, but well more than half of these projects have deteriorated into disrepair since their construction.

Some have projects have even been purely wasteful from the outset.  For example, the Jadriyah Lake Park in Iraq is a water park that now sits barren and rusting after two years of existence.  Never mind the fact that building a water park is probably the most idiotic expenditure of RELIEF FUNDS one could possibly imagine, the disrepair and lack of sustainability being to underline even more pressing problems facing the war effort.

The biggest reason that Afghans cannot even maintain reasonable projects like schools, roads, and bridges is that they have no money, and they have no way to raise money.  According to the Post’s article, local and regional governments depend entirely upon the corrupt Karzai regime for funding:

The provincial and district governments that take over the projects do not have the money to sustain them because they cannot collect taxes and they depend on the national government for funding, said Army Maj. David Kaczmarek, the civil affairs officer for Task Force Bastogne in eastern Afghanistan.

So, in order to be able to sustain infrastructure projects, CERP has begun funding a program that teaches government officials how to request funding from their own central government.  When we have to teach the government leaders of another country how to work withing their own political system, it may be time to realize that the infrastructure is the last thing we need to be worrying about.  Not to mention, the idea that the Karzai regime will willingly give away some of the bags of money Iran delivers every other week is hardly a feasible concept.

Nevertheless, the most worrisome problem with CERP spending is probably not the Afghan government’s inefficiency, but the inefficiency within our own system.  According to the Government Accountability Office, there have been several reports of a lack of oversight by proper Pentagon officials:

Multiple reports by the Government Accountability Office have noted a lack of monitoring by the Pentagon. And because formal U.S. oversight stops after a project is turned over to Afghans, it is difficult to gauge how projects are maintained countrywide.

Furthermore, the guidelines of the program are not even necessarily followed to ensure proper procedure.  CERP requires that any infrastructure project must be accompanied by a written letter from the commanding Afghan authority stating his commitment to providing future upkeep for the project.  However, a SIGAR audit of 15 projects found that only 2 of the 15 were accompanied by a signed letter.  This procedure is crucial for determining whether a project should be developed.  If an Afghan administrator is unable to provide the upkeep for new infrastructure, there is no point in making that investment.  Plus, it is obvious– based on the previous observation regarding the lack of available funds– that very few government officials will be able to make that promise.

In addition, the U.S. military tracks these projects on a computer database, but the database in question does not actually record where the projects are constructed, making it nearly impossible for Afghan or U.S. authorities to oversee its upkeep:

The U.S. military tracks CERP projects with poorly maintained computer databases. Before October 2009, the database did not consistently record the villages or districts where projects were undertaken, according to military and civilian personnel who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the master database is classified.

A civilian official who examined the contents of the database for a government assessment said the military cannot account for the spending without knowing the villages and districts that were project recipients.

“Let’s say the project is not working,” the official said. “Why would we want to fund that project again the next year? Very little evaluation was done to decide what we fund next.”

If we believe that infrastructure development is critical to the war effort, we are going to have to pay for the upkeep ourselves, and if we decide to pay for the upkeep ourselves, then we have to be willing to commit even more billions of dollars to an area of investment outside the United States.  Going back to the cost-benefit analysis of nation-building, it hardly seems responsible in these poor economic times to make a financial investment in a foreign country with a limited chance of a future return on that investment.  It also hardly seems appropriate to send more money into a system of expenditure that is obviously dysfunctional and borderline inoperable.  It is becoming increasingly more persuasive to argue that nation-building is impossible, because even though we could probably accomplish it in time, arguing that we can accomplish it in a practical manner is beginning to breach the banks of sanity.

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