Afghanistan Reconstruction and Lessons Not Learned from Iraq

The U.S. government watchdog that oversees reconstruction efforts in Iraq closed its doors last week. The final report from the Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction has a damning conclusion: the U.S has little to show for the $60 billion spent on aid in Iraq over the past ten years.

The fact that billions of taxpayer dollars were wasted in Iraq has implications for Afghanistan reconstruction. Like in Iraq, billions have been spent on unnecessary and unsustainable reconstruction projects in Afghanistan over the past ten years.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, counterpart to the Iraq aid watchdog, continues to document examples of wasteful projects. SIGAR’s work generates sensational headlines and calls for reform. But reform has not happened. The mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan will be repeated, unless the U.S. takes a new approach.

The U.S. has appropriated nearly $90 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction since 2002. SIGAR has conducted hundreds of investigations (268 still ongoing) into Afghanistan aid projects. SIGAR investigations often uncover widespread waste and fraud.

In 2012, for example, SIGAR found evidence of a $17.7 million police facility that may be unsustainable, $12.8 million in electrical equipment sitting unused, and $6.83 million unnecessarily paid to maintain Afghan police vehicles.

The total amount of taxpayer dollars wasted in Afghanistan is unclear, but the many small, wasteful projects adds up quickly. The Commission on Wartime Contracting estimates that at least $31 billion and as much as $60 billion was lost to contracting fraud and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. One independent analyst, a former SIGAR investigator, estimates that 70 percent of aid is spent on overhead costs and 15 percent is lost, stolen, or misappropriated. Only 15 percent (and sometimes less) makes it to the intended recipient.

Pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan failed to build capable security forces, effective government, and a stable economy. It also “badly distorted the economy and the people’s expectations.”

Even after U.S. combat troops are withdrawn by the end of 2014, the U.S. will remain engaged with Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we don’t have a plan to ensure our engagement is effective. The amount of aid the U.S. spends will decline, but that simply means waste will happen on a smaller scale. Reducing spending isn’t enough. Ensuring taxpayer dollars are well spent means developing a new strategy for U.S. policy towards Afghanistan.

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