$28 Million Per Day for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Afghan President Karzai’s meeting with President Obama last week ended with the announcement of an accelerated transition to from U.S. and allied troops to local security forces. Starting this spring, Afghan forces will take the lead role in security operations, while the 60,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will move to a training and advising role.

Despite the announcement, most of the big questions about the war in Afghanistan are still unanswered, from the pace of the drawdown to post-2014 troop levels.

Perhaps the biggest question for American taxpayers, who have been financing the $600 billion-plus war for the past eleven years, is whether the U.S. will revise its ineffective Afghanistan aid strategy.

The U.S. spends about $28 million each day on relief and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, according to accounting by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Congress has appropriated almost $90 billion in security and economic aid to Afghanistan, That’s more than the amount spent for reconstruction efforts in any other single county, including post-war Germany, SIGAR Inspector General John Sopko noted at a recent Stimson Center event.

How much of that $90 billion has been well spent and how much has been wasted is still unclear. But experts who have looked into Afghanistan reconstruction projects conclude that amount of wasteful spending is in the range of tens of billions of dollars.

The Commission on Wartime Contracting, established by Congress in 2008 in an effort to introduce some accountability to the Afghanistan aid process, determined that at least $31 billion and as much as $60 was lost due to wartime contracting fraud and abuse.

A former senior auditor for SIGAR estimated that only about 15 percent of aid, sometimes even less, makes it the intended recipient in Afghanistan. Another 15 percent is lost to waste and corruption, and a whopping 70 percent is eaten up in overhead costs.

One failed reconstruction project after another indicates an underlying problem. In fact, Inspector General Sopko points to five problems that explain the ineffectiveness of our aid strategy: inadequate planning, poor quality assurance, poor security, questionable sustainability, and corruption.

“[Simple logical, questions] aren’t being answered in Afghanistan,” Sopko said.

“Questions like, are these buildings needed? Have you asked the Afghans if they want them?…Have we designed them in such a way that they can be sustainable in the future? Quite often we find that the answer to these questions is no,” he added.

Regardless of the final decision on troop levels, the U.S. financial commitment to Afghanistan will likely continue. Unfortunately, over the past eleven years “commitment” meant a steady stream of money but no effective strategy for spending it. The result is $90 billion in aid and little to show for it.

Unless we start asking hard questions — SIGAR-type questions — about our aid strategy in Afghanistan, we could spend billions more over the coming years without advancing either Afghanistan or U.S. security interests.

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