How the US blew $17 billion in Afghanistan

ProPublica pored over more than 200 audits, special projects and inspections done by SIGAR since 2009 and built a database to add up the total cost of failed reconstruction projects. Looking at the botched projects collectively — rather than as one-off headlines — reveals a grim picture of the overall reconstruction effort and a repeated cycle of mistakes.

    • In just six years, the IG has tallied at least $17 billion in questionable spending. This includes $3.6 billion in outright waste, projects teetering on the brink of waste, or projects that can’t — or won’t — be sustained by the Afghans, as well as an additional $13.5 billion that the average taxpayer might easily judge to be waste. Exhibit A for “You be the judge”: $8.4 billion was spent on counter-narcotics programs that were so ineffective that Afghanistan has produced record levels of heroin — more than it did before the war started.

  • Often the programs’ ambitions were out of whack with the reality of life in Afghanistan. After the invasion, the US rushed forward with bold plans to create a democratic, fiscally secure, ethical government and society — out of whole cloth. It was the same country-building bravado that had earlier tripped up the US in Iraq when it dismissed the local culture and ignored corruption.
  • “Pie in the sky” projects, as one USAID worker called them, were routinely launched without any thought to the financial and technological ability of the Afghans to maintain them. It turned out that the Afghans couldn’t afford most of them, so even the best programs could end up becoming waste.
  • None of the programs were required to prove they had even limited success. Officials tracked dollars spent, not impact. For instance, no one evaluated whether Afghan security forces actually learned to read and write after going through a $200 million literacy program.
  • Those who signed off on the failed projects appeared to suffer no consequences. As head of SIGAR John Sopko puts it: Reconstruction efforts are “like a child sports game where everyone gets a trophy.”

If this accounting wasn’t bad enough, consider this: SIGAR has only examined a small percentage of the $110 billion effort to rebuild and remodel Afghanistan. The waste totals are likely much higher.

Behold: How the US blew $17 billion in Afghanistan