Can We Admit Now That Afghanistan Reconstruction Failed?
Last month, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released a new inspection report that found, after four years and $60 million, a project called the North East Power System, intended to provide cost-effective and reliable power to unserved populations in Afghanistan, was not yet operational. According to the report, the project was failing due to problems of land acquisition and because “there was no contract provision to permanently connect the system to a power source.”
An obscure report about a failed power project may not seem like a big deal on its face. But last August, President Donald Trump broke his campaign promise and committed to a conditions-based strategy in the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. military would be kept in that war-torn nation indefinitely to build up the Afghan security forces and to buttress their economic development. Trump’s decision was received favorably by the foreign policy establishment, despite the lack of clear details in his announcement. One commentator called it one of his “finest moments as president.”
The reports and audits from SIGAR tell a similar story. The United States is achieving very little in the way of sustainable development in Afghanistan, even with the enormous amount of time and resources that have been invested. To continue in this manner after almost two decades is to show that we have learned nothing, despite years of evidence of little progress. The fatal conceit of nation-building still dominates our foreign policy thinking. This is not a “fine” moment. It’s a shame and a delusion.
The problems that plague the North East Power System are indicative of the broader failures of our attempts to export economic development. The contract, written by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and awarded to an Afghan construction company, stipulated that the Afghan government would need to acquire land for the system’s construction. The government was unable to do so, the result being that residents “still reside in houses on that land and, in some instances, are living and farming land directly under transmission towers and power lines.” Landowners also refused to clear the transmission line route of trees, brush, and other vegetation, because the government did not compensate them.
On top of the land issues, the contract contained no requirement to connect the system to the national power grid, despite its building almost 200 towers and the necessary transmission lines. Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers told SIGAR they did not write the “contract requirements for connection correctly or as clearly as they should have, and that the contract only stated that the contractor should ‘deliver power’ without defining how a connection would be made.”
Seen in isolation, this might seem like a small matter of confusion and miscommunication that can easily be cleared up. But reviewing other SIGAR reports reveals the same problems. An audit of the Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations released in January 2018 was titled “$675 Million in Spending Led to Mixed Results, Waste, and Unsustained Projects.” The task force was formed in 2011 to “reduce violence, enhance stability, and support economic normalcy in Afghanistan through strategic business and economic activities”—in other words, to nation-build. Despite poor record-keeping on the part of the task force, SIGAR concluded that “it’s clear [they] were unable to accomplish their goals” due to lacking a “clear mission and strategy combined with poor coordination, planning, contracting, and oversight.” Of the $675 million in task force obligations, only $316 million was used to directly support projects in Afghanistan. Within those project contracts, 78 percent either only partially met or failed entirely to meet their deliverables.
Another audit from October 2017 reviewed projects from the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund, a joint Defense and State Department venture to execute large-scale infrastructure projects to support counter-insurgency strategy. Six different projects were started in 2011. Four of them were more than a year behind schedule, deemed possibly counterproductive to counter-insurgency goals, and lacking in “adequate sustainment plans.” Together they were worth $400 million.
An analysis of all SIGAR-issued inspection reports related to State Department and USAID reconstruction projects in Afghanistan from August 2009 to March 2017 revealed that the construction of facilities such as schools and hospitals were “not always completed in accordance with contract requirements and technical specifications, which resulted in substandard facilities.” Projects with deficiencies “were too often the norm” due to “poorly prepared or unqualified contractor personnel, substandard materials, poor workmanship, inadequate government oversight, and possible fraud.” More than half of inspected projects did not meet contract requirements, and several had structural problems that threatened the safety of their occupants.
As you can probably tell, the most recent reconstruction failure is not an isolated incident. Across the board, reconstruction efforts are either failing to achieve their goals, or are performing lukewarmly at best. On top of that, the U.S. is losing the military battle. In their quarterly report to Congress from January, the inspector general, John F. Sopko, writes that “[h]istorically, the number of districts controlled or influenced by the government has been falling since SIGAR began reporting on it, while the number controlled or influenced by the insurgents has been rising.” The Afghan government now controls only 56 percent of territory, with 30 percent being contested by insurgents. In 2015, the insurgents influenced only 7 percent of the country.
U.S. reconstruction woes stem from basic collective action problems. “Efforts at reconstruction in Afghanistan and elsewhere suffer from two fundamental problems. The first is a knowledge problem whereby outsiders lack the context-specific knowledge required to successfully complete sustainable projects,” says Christopher Coyne, a George Mason University professor and expert on the political economy of foreign intervention and reconstruction. “The second is the incentive problem. Those carrying out reconstruction efforts use other people’s resources and face weak accountability and punishment when projects fail to meet their goals. The combination of these two problems is a recipe for waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Despite poor progress reports and having spent more than 6,000 days there already, the United States remains committed to an indefinite military and rebuilding presence in Afghanistan. President Trump talked last summer about solving Afghanistan’s problems through economic development, but that won’t work in a place without sustainable infrastructure and institutions of governance.
We haven’t been able to build either of these things. So at what point do we say enough? How many more reports detailing failure are we going to have to read?
Jerrod A. Laber is a writer and journalist living in northern Virginia. He was a Writing Fellow with America’s Future Foundation and a Free Society Fellow with Young Voices. His work has appeared at Real Clear Defense, the Washington Examiner, and the Columbus Dispatch, among others. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.