• Lessons from Afghanistan for the Reconstruction of Ukraine

    August 22, 2023 // 10 Comments »

    Though some say it is wishful thinking to be talking today about the reconstruction of Ukraine (they have to win first), it is never too early to pull out lessons learned from the last fiasco, in hopes they can be baked in to whatever eventual process is undertaken. That’s why a group of senators asked the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to put together a brief list of things not to do again in the course of rebuilding Ukraine.

    SIGAR was in charge of overseeing the two-decades-long, $146 billion spend to rebuild Afghanistan. Over the course of years, in addition to the 1,297 audit recommendations SIGAR made to recover funds, improve agency oversight, and increase program effectiveness, they also made 143 sector-specific recommendations to executive agencies as part of the agency’s Lessons Learned Program. So while few people seemed to listen to them regarding Afghanistan, that doesn’t mean they had nothing to say, especially as regards to the next reconstruction program in Ukraine. As SIGAR notes, “While Afghanistan and Ukraine are very different countries with a history of facing very different threats, many of the challenges U.S. agencies faced in Afghanistan—coordinating efforts, dealing with corruption, and effectively monitoring and evaluating projects and programs—will be the same as the ones they will face in Ukraine.”

    Trigger Warning: most of what SIGAR cautioned about for Afghanistan was exactly the same stuff its sister organization, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), cautioned earlier about in that war. Everything was equally ignored. It can be very frustrating to watch a whole-of-government approach to repeating one’s predecessor’s mistakes. It can be even more frustrating to have participated in it all, as I did, overseeing two reconstruction teams in Iraq while I still worked for the State Department.

    Here’s a wild prediction: at some point in the future there will be a Special Inspector General for Ukraine Reconstruction (SIGUR!) which will watch the same mistakes from Iraq and Afghanistan repeated, with no one listening. Creating SIGUR has already been suggested; Senator Rand Paul back in May temporarily placed a hold on a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine, demanding unsuccessfully Congress insert a provision into the aid package creating an inspector general to oversee the distribution of the aid.

    Nonetheless, there is always hope (the SIGAR people must be the most optimistic people on earth) in putting down on paper the blindingly obvious when billions of dollars and national credibility are at stake. So, from SIGAR with love, here are the seven lessons from Afghanistan for the reconstruction of Ukraine:

    — Lesson 1: The U.S. government struggled to develop a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan and imposed unrealistic timelines that led to wasteful and counterproductive programs.

    Now who would think lacking a strategy and indeed any agreed-upon goal would slow things down? In Ukraine, will the goal be raising the entire country to Western European standards? Favoring the anti-Russian areas? Trying to buy loyalty in the pro-Russian areas? Or as in Afghanistan (as in Iraq, just substitute the two country names from here on out) simply spending money willy-nilly in hopes a coherent strategy might emerge in retrospect. Unrealistic timelines (variously, success before the next local election, before the next U.S. election, before the military change of command, before my tour as team leader is up…) meant most timelines were ignored. Hope they do better in Ukraine.

    — Lesson 2: Lack of effective coordination—both within the U.S. government and across the international coalition—was a major obstacle to success in Afghanistan and resulted in a disjointed patchwork of ineffective efforts, rather than a united and coherent approach.

    There’s that naughty word, coherent, again. In Iraq the Italian reconstruction team did not talk to never mind take direction from the Americans; they were too focused on providing commercial opportunities for their countrymen. USAID was really into schools and bridges, whereas State focused on “democracy building” such as empowering women in medieval Islamic societies via local modern drama clubs. The hope that synergy would emerge was consumed by the same thing that makes a million monkeys typing away at a million typewriters still unlikely to produce a great work of literature. And they may need all that time; reconstruction in Ukraine is expected to take decades.

    — Lesson 3: Though viewed as our greatest strength, the level of financial assistance in Afghanistan was often our greatest weakness.

    Like with teenagers and booze, too much money can only lead to trouble. Billions were spent with little oversight, leading directly to corruption. The money tsunami “overwhelmed the Afghan economy and fueled massive corruption from senior government officials in Kabul to low-level officials around the country. This corruption posed a critical threat to the mission.” SIGAR found “in Afghanistan, the U.S. government spent too much money, too quickly, in a country that was unable to absorb it” and warns of the same in the future Ukraine reconstruction.

    Lacking a trusted banking system connected to international standard systems, business in Iraq and Afghanistan was done in cash, vast amounts of paper money brought in to the country on pallets and stored in copier paper boxes stacked alongside the safes which could not hold a tenth of the moolah on hand. It begged to be misused.

    And then there was the unequal distribution of reconstruction funds. The military always had more than anyone else and so always won every discussion about what to do next. As SIGAR noted, when USAID tried to stop implementing projects in areas where they could not be monitored or evaluated, the military simply used funds from its Commander’s Emergency Response Program to implement those projects anyway—often in even less secure areas, where projects were unlikely to succeed.

    — Lesson 4: Corruption was an existential threat to the reconstruction mission in Afghanistan.

    This will be a massive issue in a place like Ukraine (it remains the most corrupt country in Europe excluding Russia; according to USAID, rooting out corruption in Ukraine will be a generational challenge) with its very organized crime emboldened by “lost” American weapons from the battlefield and new members with military experience. Rebuilding Ukraine means fighting graft first, claimed the Washington Post. Ukraine has “entrenched patronage networks that involve senior officials who can inhibit reconstruction and international aid by wasting assistance and damaging the government’s ability to deliver services. Combating corruption is difficult because it requires the cooperation and political will of those elites who benefit the most from it. Few cooperate willingly,” SIGAR wrote. Militia leaders, warlords, oligarchs, meh, they’re all pretty much the same problem in different headgear.

    — Lesson 5: Building and reforming the Afghan security forces was hindered by their corruption, predation, and chronic dependency on the United States.

    The Ukrainian military is 100 percent dependent on the United States for everything from spare parts to uniforms to strategic and tactical leadership. They have already lost the ability to fight on their own. The numbers help tell the story: over the course of two decades in Afghanistan, the United States spent an average of $375 million each month on security assistance. By comparison, the U.S. is currently spending $2.5 billion each month—nearly seven times the average monthly amount it spent in Afghanistan—on security assistance in Ukraine. Intended or not, that buys a lot of dependence.

    Meanwhile, as in Afghanistan, the Ukraine’s internal security forces remain rife with corruption and require urgent reform. Ukraine’s police have been largely feared and distrusted by the people they are supposed to serve. In some areas of the country, the police have resembled “a mafia-style organization” that intimidates locals with impunity, warns SIGAR.

    — Lesson 6: Tracking equipment provided to Afghan security forces proved challenging well before the government collapsed.

    So much military equipment poured haphazardly into a country is sure to see some of it end up in the wrong hands. In Afghanistan, the U.S. was supplying both sides of many encounters, arms leaking out into the countryside via corruption, lack of security, and poor stock keeping. Already in Ukraine, Russian organized crime groups, local crooks, and unauthorized volunteer battalions obtained or stole weapons from Department of Defense security aid meant to arm the Ukrainian military for its defense against Russia, according to an inspector general report revealed as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Military.com. In just a taste of what’s to come, the report shows how U.S. efforts to meet end-use goals for billions in security assistance donated throughout 2022 often failed. Little or no accountability existed on the U.S. side, allowing weapons to be diverted to criminals and opposition forces.

    Another Department of Defense (DOD) report made public found employees fell short of requirements for tracking financial aid to Ukraine. The report examined how the DOD was monitoring transactions from over $6.5 billion in funding from the Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act through Advana software, the only authorized reporting platform. Auditors warned DOD’s subpar reporting processes, including use of systems that are unreadable by Advana, could hinder oversight and transparency (the U.S. did not properly track $18.6 billion in aid to Afghanistan, partly because it employed software systems that were either incompatible with one another or incapable of handling the volume of data received. Most projects in Iraq, millions of dollars, were tracked only via a shared Excel spreadsheet.)

    — Lesson 7: Monitoring and evaluation efforts in Afghanistan were weak and often measured simple inputs and outputs rather than actual program effectiveness.

    In Iraq we evaluated a program’s effectiveness like this: we increased the amount of money we spent one quarter on education by 13 percent. The next quarter we announced a 13 percent improvement in education in our area; it was simple as that.

    “Oversight became an afterthought,” wrote SIGAR. “The U.S. government is poor at predicting the resources and length of time necessary to rebuild complex institutions in other countries. The timelines created by U.S. officials ignored conditions on the ground and created perverse incentives to spend quickly and focus on short-term goals. The U.S. government emphasized short-term, tangible projects where money could be spent rapidly and success claimed more immediately over less tangible but potentially more enduring, long-term programming, such as capacity building. Physical security, political stability, and immediate reconstruction needs took priority over the slow, iterative work of building good governance and the rule of law, the foundations for combating corruption.”

    There are the lessons, solid suggestions each one. They were largely ignored in Afghanistan and Iraq. Think they’ll do any better in Ukraine?

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    So How’s That Coalition Thing Working Out in Afghanistan?

    January 13, 2017 // 68 Comments »

    embassy in iraq

    Short Answer: It’s been 15+ years of coalition and the Taliban are still there, the Afghan government in Kabul is even more corrupt, and most of Afghanistan is as economically decrepit as ever.

    A report, “Lessons From the Coalition,” emerged from a conference co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (yes, we have one, it is part of the State Department and doesn’t do much but organize events in Washington.) The conference brought together representatives from eleven major donor nations, the EU, UN, World Bank, and NATO to share common experiences and lessons from the Afghan reconstruction effort.

    Here’s what they concluded:

    — The confluence of conflicting goals and divided actors led to a situation in which countries were often pursuing disparate and sometimes ill-defined missions in Afghanistan. In fact, many nations were unclear as to what they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan.

    — Many countries were primarily motivated by their alliance commitments to the United States, rather than specific strategic goals related to Afghanistan, and were often more focused on what was happening in Washington than in Kabul.

    — Conference participants were critical of instances when military forces undertook development work, indicating their efforts often ended up costing more and being less effective than those of their civilian counterparts.

    — Inability to understand the local context led to projects that unintentionally benefited corrupt officials, threatened local governance, led to escalating violence, sabotage of the project itself, and wasted resources.

    — Development projects did not buy security. Participants believed that when development projects occurred in insecure places, the projects either benefited the insurgency or insurgents increased violence to counteract any potential gains.

    — One participant referred to the regular turnover of personnel as an “annual lobotomy.”

    — Conditions placed on funds were often not credible, as donors were ultimately unwilling to withhold funds that were essential to preventing the collapse of the Afghan government. Afghan officials were aware of these limitations and were able to call donors’ bluffs. When faced with a donor’s conditions, Afghan officials could often obtain funding from another donor.

    But, hey, I’m sure they all meant well in their efforts. Hell, someone should write a book about that so no one repeats the same mistakes in the next war.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    U.S. Spent $14.6 Million Taxpayer Dollars on Failed Hospital in Afghanistan

    October 11, 2016 // 25 Comments »


    The war in Afghanistan is ready to enter its 16th year (if it was a kid it’s be ready to start driving) and by most definitions is pretty much a bust.

    Despite that, both mainstream candidates have made it clear in public statements they intend to continue pouring money — and lives — into that suppurating sore of American foreign policy. Despite that, there has been no mention of the war in two debates.

    Anyway, while we worry a lot about who call who naughty names in the final presidential debate, can you check around where you live and let me know if your town could use a new hospital, all paid for by someone else’s tax dollars, you know, free to you? ‘Cause that’s the deal Afghanistan got from the USG, only even that turned into a clusterfutz when no one paid much attention to how the facility was thrown together.

    There’s a photo, above, of the actual $14.6 million hospital. Seriously.

    And so again we turn to the latest reporting from the saddest people in government, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR just slit its wrists in depression after publishing an inspection report on the $14.6 million U.S.-funded Gardez Hospital.

    The inspection notes:

    — USAID, through one of its partners, awarded a $13.5 million contract to construct the 100-bed hospital by 2011. About five years after that deadline passed and after a cost increase to $14.6 million, the Gardez hospital is mostly complete.

    — SIGAR found deficiencies with the hospital’s fire safety system, including a lack of emergency lighting system, exit signs pointing in the wrong direction, and missing fire alarms.

    — And although the International Building Code requires hospitals to have full automatic fire suppression sprinkler systems, no one required the contractor to install any. Instead, the contract required it somehow only install the pipes, valves, fittings, and connections for the system, but not the water pump, nozzles, and several other parts to provide a complete and workable system.

    — Poor workmanship includes cracks in the roadways and parking areas, crumbling sidewalks, leaking roofs, cracked exterior plaster, peeling paint, and rusted hardware on the security gates. SIGAR brought a total of 42 deficiencies involving poor workmanship to USAID’s over a year ago. Only 13 have been fixed.

    — The hospital’s steam boiler system had not been installed correctly and had missing and damaged parts, a situation described as “dangerous.”

    — The Afghan government estimates it will cost $2.3 million annually to operate and maintain the 100-bed Gardez hospital, which is almost four times the cost to operate the 70-bed hospital that it is replacing. SIGAR found no evidence that USAID had conducted any analysis to determine whether the ministry had the ability to operate and maintain the new health facility, but just built it anyway.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Your Tax Dollars, Creating Jobs (in Afghanistan)

    September 8, 2016 // 2 Comments »


    The United States government spent over $42,000 per Afghan to create 500 jobs over there.

    And that’s the good news. The ever-cheerful Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; we have been paying to rebuild Afghanistan for the past 15 years with no end in sight) just released their inspection report on the State Department/USAID-funded Bagrami Industrial Park.

    The inspection notes:

    — USAID awarded a $10 million contract to Technologists, for the development of the industrial park. After modifications, the contract’s value increased to $21.1 million. So sorta more than double what it was supposed to cost you, the taxpayer.

    — As a result of some missing documents, including the record of final payment, USAID could not say when Bagrami Industrial Park was “completed” or when the park was transferred to the Afghans.

    — The contractor, despite doubling the cost, did not include adequate water and sewer systems. So, the Instead, the Afghan Ministry of Finance had to use additional U.S. funds to buy water from a nearby textile factory.

    — Because of the lack of proper sewage systems, the park’s remaining factories release industrial contaminants into the streets. This creates ongoing health risks to workers as well as to the local residents in the surrounding neighborhood.

    — In 2011 the park employed 2,200 people, still short of its 3,000 employee goal. By 2015 the number of employees had decreased to about 700. That dropped in June 2016 to about 500 workers.

    Rebuttal: On its website, contractor Technologists states the Bagrami Industrial Park “is professionally managed and offers investors clear land titles, perimeter security and entry-control points, secure parking, electrical power, clean water, and wastewater removal [and] the park has already attracted almost $50 million in investments and has created more than 30,000 direct and indirect jobs.”

    No details are available on the cost of the Bagrami sign, shown above.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    U.S. Can’t Say Whether or Not $759 Million Spent on Education in Afghanistan Helped Anything

    May 10, 2016 // 14 Comments »

    Afghanistan Still

    If at where you work you spent $759 million on something, and then told your boss you have no idea if anything was accomplished, and that the little data you do have is probably fraudulent, how might that work out for you?

    If you are the U.S. government in Afghanistan, you would actually have no problem at all. Just another day at the tip of freedom’s spear, pouring taxpayer cash-a-roni down freedom’s money hole.

    The ever-weary Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), chronicling U.S. government hearts and minds spending in Afghanistan over the last 15 years, issued a new audit on Department of Defense, State Department and USAID’s $759 million “investment” in primary and secondary education in Afghanistan. Here’s what they found:

    — While USAID had a defined strategy for primary and secondary education in Afghanistan, DOD and State did not. They just spent money here and there without adult oversight.

    — DOD, State, and USAID have not adequately assessed their efforts to support education in Afghanistan. DOD did not assess the effectiveness of its education efforts, and State only evaluated self-selected individual programs. Same for USAID.

    — Without such comprehensive assessments, DOD, State, and USAID are unable to determine the impact that the $759 million they have spent has had in improving Afghan education. They agencies do, however, continue to spend more money anyway.

    — In 2014, USAID cited Afghan government data showing increased student enrollment from 900,000 students in 2002 to a whopping million in 2013 as evidence of overall progress in the sector. Unfortunately, USAID cannot verify whether or not the Afghan data is reliable. In fact, both the Afghan Ministry of Education itself and independent assessments have raised significant concern that the education data is not true.

    Interest from the American public remains at exactly zero, because we don’t need no education about where our government spends our money.

    BONUS: Anyone’s town out there in America that would not benefit from a handful of cash out of that $759 million spent on Afghan schools? Flint? Newark? Philly? Bueller? Anyone?

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Afghan Economy in Fragile Condition, Worsening

    February 1, 2016 // 10 Comments »


    Hey, did you wake up today wondering what was going on in Afghanistan, America’s 51st state, you know, the one we’ve been occupying for over 14 years, that one where thousands of Americans have died and where thousands still serve? Yeah, that Afghanistan.

    The truth? Things kinda suck donkey over there.

    Sure, of course, I can be more specific. But better let the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) tell the tale, via it released its thirtieth Quarterly Report to Congress. The quarterly report notes:

    — Despite more than a decade of reconstruction and development efforts, the Afghan economy remains in fragile and worsening condition. Intractable insurgents, cutbacks in foreign military personnel, persistent emigration of people and capital, and a slowing global economy are shifting Afghanistan’s economic prospects from troubling to bleak.

    — Afghanistan is even more dangerous than it was a year ago. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.

    — The lack of security has made it almost impossible for many U.S. and even some Afghan officials to get out to manage and inspect U.S.-funded reconstruction projects. The dangers of absent oversight were exposed when a task force appointed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani found millions of dollars were being embezzled while Afghanistan pays for numerous nonexistent “ghost” schools, “ghost” teachers, and “ghost” students.

    — Members of Congress have asked SIGAR to conduct an inquiry into the U.S. government’s experience with allegations of sexual abuse of children committed by members of the Afghan security forces the U.S. is paying for.

    — Afghanistan’s domestic revenues paid for only 40% of the nation’s budget expenditures. The country’s large budget deficits and trade imbalances will require substantial donor aid for the foreseeable future.

    — Cumulative funding for Afghanistan reconstruction increased to approximately $113.1 billion, with approximately $11.5 billion more in the pipeline for disbursement. A total of $8.4 billion of the reconstruction funding has been provided for counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan.

    — This quarter, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces assigned force strength was 322,638 (including civilians). This reflects a decrease of 2,078 since July 2015 and 9,306 since May 2015.

    — Since 2003, USAID has spent at least $2.3 billion on stability programs in Afghanistan. The findings of a USAID-contracted, third-party evaluation program on the impacts of its stabilization projects raise worrying questions. They reported, for example, that villages receiving USAID stability projects scored lower on stability than similar villages that received no such assistance.

    — Some villages under Taliban control that received USAID stability projects subsequently showed greater pro-Taliban support. USAID appears to be largely indifferent to the implications of these findings.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Six Years and $17 Billion Wasted in Afghanistan

    January 28, 2016 // 12 Comments »


    What did you get for Christmas these last six years?

    The U.S. government was nice enough to gift our loyal friends the Afghans $17 billion of your tax money, and, in the true spirit of giving, asked nothing in return for itself.

    What that means in actual dollars and nonsense is that the U.S. government wasted $17 billion in taxpayer money in Afghanistan on various projects that never made it off the ground or were doomed to fail because of incompetence or lack of maintenance, according to a new report.

    ProPublica looked at over 200 audits conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) over the last six years and tallied up the costs for the wide range of failed efforts to reach the $17 billion price tag. This greatest hits study only scratched the surface of the estimated $110 billion spent to rebuild the country (the U.S. spent some $47 billion in rebuilding Iraq, and how’d that work out?)

    The new study touches on only the most egregious examples of waste, including:

    — $8 million to end Afghanistan’s drug trade, which is flourishing today as never before;

    — $2 billion for roads that the Afghan government is unlikely to maintain due to lack of funds and security concerns;

    — $1 billion for unrealized criminal justice reform efforts;

    — $936 million for aircraft that can’t be maintained;

    — $486 million for cargo planes that can’t fly;

    — $470 million on the Afghan Police;

    — $43 million for a gas station that doesn’t work.

    The timing of the report couldn’t be better. The chief of the watchdog office is slated to appear before a Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel shortly after lawmakers return from their extended holiday break.

    That January 20 hearing was originally set to scrutinize only the work of the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which spent $700-$800 million (no one knows the exact amount) on economic redevelopment in Afghanistan, as well as $150 million on villas and private security for the group’s staffers. The agenda will now likely expand to a whole-of-government waste review.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    New Report: U.S. Aid to Afghanistan Basically Wasted or Stolen

    October 19, 2015 // 11 Comments »

    wasted money

    As Obama fails on another campaign promise, this one to end the war in Afghanistan, and as that war moves into its 15th year, it is important to remember the U.S. has spent around $110 billion (no one knows the exact amount due to poor record keeping) to “rebuild” that beleaguered nation, so far.

    We say “so far” in that the spending continues, and like the end of the war itself, as no foreseeable end date.

    So how is that rebuilding thingee going?

    Not well, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which issued a report saying “The Afghan private sector has thus far failed to fulfill its potential as an engine of economic growth or an instrument of social inclusion.”

    In addition to America tossing that $110 billion of taxpayer money into the hole, foreign aid groups have been flushing away $15.7 billion a year. Taken together, all that money now accounts for around 98 percent of the entire Afghan gross domestic product.

    In something of an understatement, the Stockholm report notes “Popular dissatisfaction with unequal access to economic resources, flawed public services and goods, the adverse security situation, and predatory government activity undermine an effective and sustainable private sector.”

    Among its other findings, the report blames foreign governments and aid groups for giving Afghans too much money, which they couldn’t spend wisely even if the country weren’t riddled with corruption. Intended to improve government and grow businesses, the report concludes the aid instead merely sustains kleptocrats.

    As for what the $110 billion of U.S. money could have purchased had it been spent to rebuild America, VICE notes it is enough to dig a new train tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan, lay a high-speed rail link from San Diego to Sacramento, reconstruct New Orleans’ levees after a storm like Hurricane Katrina, and still have around $10 billion left over to construct a few hundred schools from Chicago to Houston.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    No One Knows Where $210 Million USAID-funded Afghan Clinics Are

    July 8, 2015 // 5 Comments »


    No one knows — literally, geographically, physically — what happened to $210 million in American taxpayer money spent by USAID, a part of your U.S. Department of State, on Afghan health programs.

    This is not a case of “well, it went to buy a heck of a lot of filing cabinets,” or “it was flushed down the toilet,” though those things are indeed possible. No, it appears that by using geospatial imagery, the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; slogan: “Can we please go home now?”) determined that 80 percent of the health facilities that were supposed to have been built never were.

    Worse yet, USAID accepted hilariously inaccurate data as proof of construction, including coordinates that would have located a medical facility in the middle of the Mediterranean.

    But the real wackiness is, as always, in the details:

    — Thirteen coordinates for funded Afghan projects were not even located in Afghanistan, with one located in the Mediterranean Sea.

    — Coordinates for 30 facilities were located in a province different from the one USAID reported.

    — In 13 cases, USAID reported two different funded facilities at the same coordinates.

    — 189 sets of coordinates showed no physical structure within 400 feet of the reported coordinates, and a subset of 81, or just under half of these locations, showed no physical structure within a half mile of the reported coordinates.

    — 154 coordinates did not identify a specific building.

    Takeaways? The buffoons running the USAID programs are just phoning it in. They are not even trying anymore to hide their own corruption, sloth, stupidity or lack of even the slightest concern for oversight. Any bonehead with Google Maps could have discovered with four mouse clicks USAID was being fed bogus data by its contractors, though apparently USAID is short of boneheads at present to do that work.

    As the inspectors at SIGAR sum it all up, “To provide meaningful oversight of these facilities, USAID needs to know where they are.”

    Play the USAID Game at Home, Kids! Based on coordinates provided, pictured is one supposed clinic, perched on a glacial peak:


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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    How to Waste Money in Afghanistan: Step-by-Step Instructions

    June 19, 2015 // 2 Comments »


    USAID just got caught wasting $769 million not supporting Afghanistan’s education sector.

    How could this happen?!? As a public service, here are your step-by-step instructions.

    — Start with the premise that schools in a wasteland like Afghanistan in support of a failed American policy are more important uses of American taxpayer money than schools in America (which is socialism, or a handout, or whatever, Ayn Rand.)

    — Send incompetent people (see below) to Afghanistan with a lot of money, say $769 million. Tell them to build schools. If you don’t have enough in-house incompetent people, like USAID, hire contractors, like USAID did.

    — Make sure those people never travel to where the schools are being built. Instead, have them rely on a known corrupt government to tell them where to spend the money. In our instant case, former ministry officials who served under President Hamid Karzai provided false data to USAID regarding the number of active schools in Afghanistan.

    — Make sure, as USAID, while spending all that money, not to ask if there are any schools actually being built. Instead, sit back and look the other way as Afghan officials doctored statistics, embezzled money, and interfered with university entrance exams to make it seem schools existed. These allegations suggest that the U.S. and other donors may have paid for ghost schools that ghost students do not attend and for the salaries of ghost teachers who do not teach.

    — Despite this, as USAID, announce at every opportunity that education programs are among your most successful work in Afghanistan. For example, USAID cited a jump in students enrolled in schools from an estimated 900,000 in 2002 to more than eight million in 2013 as a clear indicator of progress.

    — Make sure all your data supporting these successes is unverifiable, coming only from the Afghan Ministry of Education. Appear surprised when you learn, years and $769 million later, that the data has been falsified. Do not conduct any investigation of your own. Wait and see if some inspector general notices. You know most of the media won’t.

    — Ignore the fact that accurate data is essential for gauging progress and for making future funding decisions. Congress will help with this.

    — Make sure you have bosses in the field and at the State Department in Washington who do not care about accurate metrics or real results.

    — Repeat this process for fourteen years of the Afghan War.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Today’s Dump of Wasted Taxpayer Money in Afghanistan

    June 17, 2015 // 6 Comments »

    your money down the toilet

    Keeping abreast of the waste of U.S. taxpayer money in Afghanistan’s so-called “reconstruction” is a full-time job.

    Since I already have a full-time job and can’t do it, luckily the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) does document the waste as a full-time job.

    Here are just a few updates.

    Kandahar Industrial Park

    The U.S. paid for a number of industrial parks in Afghanistan. The idea was if water, electricity and roads were established, businesses would somehow pop up spontaneously and the bleak landscape of Afghanistan would soon resemble the bleak landscape surrounding many small American cities. Such was the plan for Kandahar.

    However, during the inspection of one such “industrial park,” SIGAR found only one active Afghan business at the facility, which was originally planned to accommodate 48 businesses. Better yet, due to missing contract files and the lack of electricity at the time of their site visit, SIGAR was not able to fully inspect and assess whether construction met contract requirements.

    Of interest, Kandahar was not the first time missing contract documents prevented SIGAR from conducting a full inspection of a USAID-funded facility. In January 2015, missing contract documents limited the inspection of the no doubt otherwise scenic Gorimar Industrial Park in Balkh province. That inspection also noted that a lack of electricity and water left the $7.7 million U.S.-funded industrial park largely vacant.

    Undaunted by the lack of progress on 14 years of bringing electricity to these areas of Afghanistan, USAID officials intend to solicit bids within the next few months on a contract for a solar power system.

    Afghan Army Slaughterhouse

    Everyone’s gotta eat, right? So, the U.S. decided to spend $12 million of your tax money to construct an animal slaughterhouse to supply meat to the Afghan National Army.

    The good news is that no animals were harmed in the construction of this slaughterhouse.

    Why? Because, as SIGAR tells us, before it was completed, the slaughterhouse project was canceled. However the contractor not building the facility was paid $1.54 million anyway, even though the project was no more than 10 percent complete.

    But because the taxpayer teat is a plump one, the contractor has requested $4.23 million in additional payments. Consequently, the cost to terminate the slaughterhouse project could rise to as much as $5.77 million.

    The project was originally designated as a “high priority” by the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A). However, 15 months after the project started, CSTC-A determined that an existing facility would meet the need. Hence, the (expensive) termination.

    Afghan Government Bailout

    You thought we were done? Hah. The U.S. just received a formal request from the Afghan government for a $537 million budget bailout, just kinda because they needed more money for, um, whatever they spend money on.

    Your State Department, ever on the job, already handed over $100 million of your money, even while warning the budget shortfall could be as much as $400 million this year unless the Afghan government’s revenue generation increases significantly.

    No one has any idea how the Afghan government might increase revenue generation significantly, except perhaps if they use all of that $100 million to buy Lotto tickets.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    $416 Million Afghan Program to Empower Women: No “Tangible Benefit”

    April 7, 2015 // 14 Comments »


    The American reconstruction campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have, and continue, to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on pointless projects seemingly designed solely to funnel money into the pockets of U.S. government contractors.

    Empowering Women

    These projects (Iraq War examples are detailed in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People seem to bounce between the merely pointless, such as dams that are never completed and roads to nowhere, to the absurdly pointless.

    One ongoing theme under the absurdly pointless category has been the “empowerment of women.” In both countries, the U.S. has acted on the assumption that the women there want to throw off their hijabs and burkas and become entrepreneurs, if… only… they knew how. Leaving aside the idea that many women throughout the Middle East and beyond prefer the life they have been living for some 2000 years before the arrival of the United States, the empowerment concept has become a standard.

    However you may feel about these things, and the programs are in some part designed as “feel good” but cynical gestures to domestic American politics, the way “empowerment” is implemented is absurd. Lacking any meaningful ideas, women are “empowered” by holding endless rounds of training sessions, seminars, roundtables and hotel gatherings where Western experts are flown in laden with Powerpoint slides to preach the gospel. Over time, in my personal experience in Iraq at least, these proved so unpopular that the only way we could draw a crowd (so we could take pictures to send to our bosses) was to offer a nice, free lunch and to pay “taxi fare” far in excess of any reasonable transportation costs; bribes.

    One Army colonel I worked with was so into the goals of the program that he called these things “chick events.”

    Women’s Empowerment in Afghanistan

    So much for Iraq. How’s it going for women’s empowerment in Afghanistan?

    Not well, at least according to the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Some highlights from that report include an inquiry into USAID’s Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs (Promote), which has been highlighted as USAID’s largest women’s empowerment program in the world. Promote has left SIGAR with a number of “troubling concerns and questions,” to wit:

    –SIGAR is concerned that some very basic programmatic issues remain unresolved and that the Afghan women engaged in the program may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion. SIGAR is also concerned about whether USAID will be able to effectively implement, monitor, and assess the impact of Promote.

    –Many of SIGAR’s concerns echo those of Afghanistan’s First Lady. To quote Mrs. Ghani, “I do hope that we are not going to fall again into the game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else.”

    –Promote has been awarded to three contractors: Chemonics International, Development Alternatives, Inc., and Tetra Tech, Inc. The overall value of the contracts is $416 million, of which USAID is funding $216 million and other—still unidentified—international donors are expected to fund $200 million.

    –USAID does not have any memoranda of understanding between any of the three Promote contractors and the Afghan government.

    Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    State Department Gives 87% of Afghan Funds to Only Five Recipients

    February 27, 2015 // 11 Comments »

    The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a scathing report showing the Department of State gave a staggering 87 percent of all Afghan reconstruction funds to only five recipients.

    In fact, 69 percent of all taxpayer money spent went to just one contractor.

    Much Money into Few Hands

    SIGAR tells us the top-five recipients of State Afghanistan reconstruction awards by total obligations accounted for approximately $3.5 billion, or 87 percent, of total State reconstruction obligations. State awarded the remaining 13 percent of obligations to 766 recipients, who averaged about $676,000 each in total obligations.

    Dyncorp International Limited Liability Corporation (Dyncorp) was the single largest recipient of State department funds, receiving $2.8 billion in contracts, or 69 percent of total awards. Dyncorp contracts dealt principally with training and equipping the Afghan National Police and counternarcotics forces. Dyncorp contracts included police trainers, construction of police infrastructure, and fielding police equipment and vehicles. Dyncorp played a similar role, with similar results, in the Iraq Reconstruction.

    Next in line at the trough were PAE Government Services Incorporated at $597.8 million, Civilian Police International Limited Liability Company with $53.6 million, the Demining Agency For Afghanistan at $28.3 million and Omran Consulting Company, in the number fifth slot, with only $22.8 million in taxpayer funds awarded.

    Including all the smaller awardees, between 2002 and 2013, State dropped about $4 billion on Afghan reconstruction. That sounds bad enough given the near-complete lack of meaningful progress in Iraq Afghanistan, until you realize Congress appropriated $96.57 billion in that same time period for Afghanistan reconstruction spread among the Departments of Defense, State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

    The Bigger Picture

    The implications are three-fold.

    The smallest issue seems to be the massive hemorrhaging of money into just one corporate pocket. Given the amounts, one looks forward to future SIGAR reporting about how this came to be. How many non-competed contracts? How many insider deals? How much unaccounted for money? The appearance of corruption, as well as the opportunities for corruption, are evident.

    The next issue of course is what, if anything, was accomplished with all that taxpayer money absent enriching a few large corporations. Pick your trend line, and it is hard to find much bang for the buck(s) in Afghanistan. Here are some examples to get you started.

    Lastly, we are left with what economists call “waste and mismanagement” the concept that money spent in one way precludes other spending that might have been more beneficial. What might have happened if instead of the U.S. spending extraordinary amounts of money to hire police, build roads, schools and factories in Iraq Afghanistan, that money would have been spent here in America on roads, schools and factories?

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Book Review: Pomegranate Peace

    June 1, 2014 // 1 Comment »

    Pomegranate Peace, a new novel by Rashmee Roshan Lall, is a funny, sad and all-too-true piece of fiction about the failure of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and about the crippling isolation America’s diplomats impose on themselves in that misguided war. The novel is also a cookbook, but we’ll get to that later.

    Pomegranates for Freedom

    The story is built around the arrival to Afghanistan of a fresh State Department employee, quickly tasked with one of the many reconstruction projects designed by the U.S. to gain the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, eradicate poppy production to save the drug-using American people and, not coincidentally, win the war. The project could have been any of the insane ideas tried in Afghanistan (as they were in Iraq) but in this case it was pomegranates. First step was five million dollars in U.S. taxpayer money, handed over to an Afghani-Canadian contractor resident in Vancouver. Said Canadian would then use the money to get Afghan farmers to grow pomegranates to replace the evil poppy, and then arrange for the fruit to be marketed worldwide. Afghanistan apparently grows some mighty tasty pomegranates.

    Though it would be wrong to spoil the tragic-comic details of how the project rapidly falls apart (alert readers may already be questioning how someone in Canada could affect much change on the ground in Afghanistan), it does, with the only pomegranates ever exported traveling out on a single U.S. military flight, and the protagonist fails spectacularly and semi-hilariously in her whistleblowing attempts to tell the State Department how pitifully it has again failed (“If we started to second-guess our colleagues we’ll never really get on with the task at hand,” the ambassador tells her.) It’s a good story on its own, and you keep turning the pages to watch it unfold.

    “We soldiered on proposing-– and paying for-– a philanthropic revolution at every level of Afghanistan’s life as a nation but our only measure of success was that the ‘small’ grants were big and the big were simply enormous,” says the main character. Indeed, since 2001 nearly $60 billion has poured into Afghanistan. Yet the author’s description of her city– “twenty-first-century Kabul’s story appeared to be written in the dust that overlaid a definite, if ill-defined sense of decay–” tells the tale of waste. “Be nice to America or we’ll bring democracy to your country,” one character sardonically jokes.

    Living Her Story

    The author, Rashmee Roshan Lall, worked for the U.S. State Department in Kabul as a contractor. Though she is clear that her book is fiction, and that none of the characters and events are real, her descriptions of her colleagues, their surroundings and their attitudes toward their work are scary-spot on. She reminds us that the Afghan’s referred to the flow of U.S. dollars as “irrigation,” and joked that those who worked alongside the Americans had been tamed.

    Her description of daily life inside the embassy is very accurate:

    …The odds were very good if you were an unaccompanied woman. The men– predatory or passionate or just passing through on what was called TDY or temporary duty – were decidedly odd. They were a mix-– military, diplomats, development workers, private contractors. It didn’t matter if they were married, unaccompanied and prowling, or unmarried and prowling – all of them suffered acutely from an affliction that Americans in the badlands of Afghanistan knew, dreaded and awaited with dreary expectation: an acute, aching loneliness. Being an American in Afghanistan was the loneliest you could get. The money was good; the levels of stress kept pace. It is curiously stirring in all sorts of ways to be constantly told-– and to believe-– that everyone is out to get you.

    About That Cookbook

    Paralleling the main story line is a more subtle one, as the main character comes to grips with the near-complete isolation that America’s warriors in suits live in. Referring to State’s walled compound in Kabul as “Americastan,” her quest to connect with the country she is tasked with saving fails several times, until the very few Afghans allowed inside the ramparts begin bringing her local food. The food enters her life as a respite from the cafeteria glop served to the cold warriors, but quickly becomes a window into the real world outside. Alongside the narrative, the book is filled with actual recipes, which grow in complexity as the story progresses. The inclusion of recipes is distracting at first, but they are presented in italics and thus easily skipped over if you prefer. Using food in this way is a nice tool to illustrate the problem of isolation.

    What It Is Really About

    I wrote my own book about the failure of reconstruction in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and can clearly see in Pomegranate Peace that art imitates life. In Iraq we wanted to save the nation by exporting chicken, and failed, while our contractors bought condos in Dubai. We even had a failed agricultural coop venture not unlike this book’s own. And the same cast is present: bureaucrats with no knowledge tossing around millions of dollars, smart careerists pressing forward in fear of rocking the boat, a few locals making bank off us even while so many others around them slipped further behind, unable to drain the American money teat for themselves. One could retitle Pomegranate Peace as We Meant Well, Too and not be too far off the mark.

    That the story told here about Afghanistan, as in real life, is nearly exactly the story that was told in Iraq, is what this book in a larger sense is really about. Two wars that if they had any validity ever, went on too long, took too many lives and consumed too much money. Hand maidens to the failures in both cases were bureaucrats who gleefully acted on their ignorance to, almost against the odds, make a terrible situation worse.

    Pomegranate Peaceis available on Amazon.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    U.S. Government Hilariously Creates Secret-Cuba Twitter, Then Just Quits

    April 4, 2014 // 27 Comments »

    There is, clearly to at least two or three people in Washington, no greater threat to American safety and security than Cuba. America has had a Cold War hard-on over Cuba for decades, and so spending millions of taxpayer dollars on it, even if it means a lot of that money actually and knowingly gets paid to the Cuban government itself, is OK. Freedom isn’t free.

    One of the most recent such events was a failed U.S. government attempt to create a Cuba-only Twitter-like text system, and then to use subscribers’ mobile phones to seed anti-Castro propaganda. The bizarre thinking underlying all this was that such social media would foment “flash mobs” in Cuba that would somehow lead to a people power revolution to overthrow the Cuban government.

    Cuba Libre, Cuba Tweet

    In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), best known for overseeing billions of dollars in reconstruction money in the successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, decided to create a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s Internet restrictions. It was called ZunZuneo, apparently slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet. Like Twitter, get it?

    To hide the U.S. government’s involvement in all this, fake companies were established in the Cayman Islands, while DNS spoofing and other naughty tricks were employed to disguise the origin of messages, all with the goal of making sure neither the Cuban government nor the Cuban people knew this was a U.S. propaganda ploy. The plan was, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press, for the U.S. to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content” such as soccer scores and hurricane updates. When the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, the U.S. would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” that would assemble at a moment’s notice a Cuban Spring. One USAID document said the formal goal was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” This was all at a time when the U.S. fantasized that the Arab Spring would yield the same outbreak of democracy that the Ukrainian Orange Revolution is now famous for.

    Hilarious aside: USAID in its internal project documents called hard-core Castro supporters “Talibanes.”

    No Hay Problemas

    To begin, the propaganda network coincidentally activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to surreptiously help “provide citizens access to the Internet,” was arrested. No one claims there is any connection.

    As the Cuban government became aware of the program, its users (who had no idea they were unwitting stooges in a USG black op) came under intense suspicion. This may cause Cubans to be wary of participating in future U.S. programs, and/or to be very suspicious of any legitimate third-party programs for fear of ending up in jail.

    Because sending the texts needed to participate in the program was quite expensive in Cuba, and because the U.S. sent out thousands of messages itself, significant amounts of U.S. money were paid directly to the Cuban government-owned telephone company. The good news for taxpayers was that the Spain-based front company for this mess negotiated with the Cuban government for a bulk-rate for the texts. Can I get a Viva! from the crowd?

    When the service started to become popular and exceed the technical capabilities of what the U.S. set up, the U.S. limited Cubans to only one text a day per person, unlikely to be conducive to creating flash mobs and revolution.

    Various problems capped Cuban participation in the program to only about one percent of the total population. At one point USAID claimed this was good, and kept the project “under the radar.”

    By mid-2012 Cuban users began to complain that the service worked only sporadically. Then not at all, and ZunZuneo simply vanished. The old web domain is now up for sale by a URL broker. Surprisingly, no takers to date. The ZunZuneo Facebook page is still online, last updated in May 2012. Be sure to hop online and “Like” them.

    To hide the program from Congressional scrutiny, the money spent on Cuba was taken out of funds publicly earmarked for Pakistan.

    As part of all the texting, a contractor for the project built a vast database about the Cuban subscribers, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” This will never be leaked, hacked, stolen or ever come into the hands of the Cuban government so that they can stomp out any legitimate dissent.

    A lawyer specializing in European data protection law, told the Associated Press it appeared that the U.S. program violated Spanish privacy laws because the ZunZuneo team illegally gathered personal data and sent unsolicited emails using a Spanish front company. Especially in the wake of the revelations of NSA spying throughout Europe, this is unlikely to have affect on broader relations.

    Since USAID, ostensibly a humanitarian aid organization, apparently created several international clandestine front companies, spoofed Cuban telcom networks and funneled money through Cayman Island banks, there is no chance that the CIA had anything to do with any of this.

    USAID at one point turned to Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, to seek funding for the project. Documents show Dorsey met with Suzanne Hall, a State Department officer who worked on “new media projects.” Ms. Hall, who appears to be about 26, is captured on video here, explaining how cool social media thingies are. Please note the statue of Hillary Clinton on the bookshelf on the right side of the screen.

    Nothing in the documents available lists exactly how much this all cost American taxpayers.

    Note: As we go to press, the Cuban government is still in power and doing just fine, thank you. Please note that U.S. government efforts to promote freedom in Cuba in no way conflict with U.S. government plans to maintain its off-shore penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, indefinitely.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Delusions Drive (More) U.S. Aid to Afghanistan

    February 10, 2014 // 13 Comments »

    When a person sees things that aren’t there, hears voices that tell him to do irrational things and insists on believing things that simply are not supported by fact, most psychologists would label that person delusional and seek to help him regain his toehold on reality. When that person does all the same things regarding U.S. aid to Afghanistan, it is called statecraft.

    The Obama administration unveiled Monday yet another aid package for Afghanistan. The country remains one of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries despite a dozen years of massive international aid efforts.

    The announcement from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of three new development initiatives worth almost $300 million is part of a U.S. effort to ensure that Afghanistan, as its ‘war economy’ ends, won’t “reverse gains made over the last twelve years.”

    How Much We Have Already Spent

    To fully grasp the insanity of yet another initiative that drains taxpayer money into the open sore of Afghanistan, some numbers may help. Over the past twelve years the U.S. has given the Afghans some $100 billion in aid. About half of all “aid” goes directly to the Afghan military. There have also been significant amounts of aid delivered to Afghanistan by other countries and private donors.

    The Return on Investment: 80 Percent Never Gets There

    The aid money works out to be over $3300 per Afghan, assuming any of the money actually reaches an Afghan. The reality is, according to a Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction auditor, that 70-80% of the money is siphoned off by contractors as overhead.

    The Return on Investment: Losses to Corruption

    No one knows how much of the money disappears as bribes, graft or outright theft. However, a 2009 U.S. State Department cable disclosed on Wikileaks stated “While reports vary widely, records obtained from Kabul International Airport (KIA) support suspicions large amounts of physical cash transit from Kabul to Dubai on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis. According to confidential reports, more than $190 million left Kabul for Dubai through KIA during July, August, and September.” A 2012 report showed $4.6 billion fled via the Kabul airport, about one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. The year before, $2.3 billion in cash left via the airport. In a single incident, the then-Afghan Vice President flew to Dubai with $52 million in unexplained cash.

    The Return on Investment: Funding the Taliban

    And that’s all the good news because as Douglas Wissing points out in his excellent book Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, significant amounts of U.S. money are paying for the enemy to keep fighting. U.S. ignorance and naivete in the contracting process sends money to Taliban-affiliated subcontractors, and direct payoffs to warlords and others known to work with the Taliban are made for safe passage guarantees for military supplies.

    The Return on Investment: What the U.S. Government Believes

    Here’s what the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has to say for itself:

    Our work continues to be a vital support to Afghanistan in its efforts to ensure economic growth led by the private sector, establish a democratic and capable state governed by the rule of law, and provide basic services for its people. The Afghan people rejoice in peace and freedom. They are dedicated to working for a better future for the generations to come. USAID assistance is crucial to achieving this goal… Only investment in Afghanistan’s human capital – that is, in its people – will ultimately lead the country to prosperity, peace and stability on a long-term, sustainable basis.


    When I wrote my book on the waste and failure of the similar U.S. money hemorrhage in the Iraq War, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, there was no widespread agreement. Many people, both in and out of government, questioned my conclusions. Fair enough, though they were obviously proven wrong.

    With Afghanistan, it is difficult to find anyone, outside of a few true believers and U.S. government PR people, who believe the money spent on aid to Afghanistan is not a waste. What charitably could be called at the time a difference of opinion over Iraq allowed the taxpayer money to keep flowing. With Afghanistan, there is no charitable explanation.

    One service member characterized the situation as “A war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached.” That service member served in the British Army that was destroyed in Afghanistan in 1843.

    Delusional. That’s really the only word that applies.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    How Many Afghan Hearts and Minds Do You Win When a School Collapses?

    August 14, 2013 // 8 Comments »

    This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.

    One (of thousands) of examples of how we lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people was our shoddy management of the things we built. To be fair, the lack of oversight was often due to our own limited personnel (in numbers and in intellect) and the ever-worsening security situation that made getting out into the field difficult. That said, the problem was often just our own laziness and plain not caring; our bosses were satisfied with trumped-up reports of success and cared not a zot for the truth.

    Reconstruction, the Iraq Edition

    The milk plant was a good example. Leaving aside our plan to disrupt an indigenous milk production and distribution system that had worked for the Iraqis for say, 2000 years, in favor of a neo-Stalinist centralized way of handling things, our refrigerated storage facility was a bust. After dropping $500,000 of your tax money on a local contractor who assured us everything was A-OK, we then sent out an Iraqi engineer in our employ to verify things. He sent back a message that everything was A-OK before disappearing. Finally, after a couple of months, I got a chance to see the A-OK stuff myself. Instead of delicious refrigerated milk, I walked into a room with crooked plumbing stitched together, rusted “stainless” steel and holes in the storage tanks big enough to accommodate my chubby fingers. The contractor ripped us off, the engineer took a bribe to tell us everything was fine and the Iraqis we were supposed to be helping thought we were insane, stupid, corrupt or all of the above. No hearts and minds were won.

    Reconstruction, The Afghan Edition

    With such examples fresh in their minds, you’d figure the State, DoD and USAID reconstructors in Afghanistan would be doing better. If you do, you’re as dumb as they are.

    Our good friends at the Special Inspector General of Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; motto: We Have the Worse Jobs Ever, Please Kill Us Now) recently sent letters to the usual suspects pointing out that two schools built by the U.S. to win over hearts and minds are in danger of instead killing Afghans.

    Case One is the Bathkhak School addition in the Bagrami district, Kabul province, Afghanistan. Here’s what SIGAR said:

    Our inspection of the Bathkhak School addition found that it has not been constructed in accordance with contract requirements. The contractor substituted building materials without prior U.S. government approval or knowledge. Furthermore, the school addition appears to have design and construction flaws. Specifically, the school’s interior and exterior walls appear to be insufficiently constructed to hold the weight of the concrete ceiling. As a result, the building’s structural integrity could be compromised.

    Because the first U.S. government oversight visit did not take place until six months after construction started, there may be other deficiencies that cannot be seen. Our concerns are heightened by the fact that Bathkhak School is located in an area of high seismic activity. In light of these construction flaws and the distinct possibility that an earthquake resistant design was not used, we have serious concerns for the safety of the hundreds of faculty and children that will be using the classrooms at any given time.

    A-OK, let’s move on to Case Two:

    Our inspection of the Sheberghan teacher training facility in Jawzjan province, Afghanistan found problems with the electrical, water, and sewage systems that could pose potentially serious health and safety hazards for its occupants. SIGAR inspectors found that the facility’s electrical wiring does not meet the U.S. National Electrical Code–as required by the contract– and other problems that create potential electrocution risks and fire hazards for its occupants.

    Although the facility currently does not receive power from the electrical generator provided under the contract, serious risk for its occupants are present due to improper entry into the electrical system–known as a “tap”–and by the improper connection to an alternative electrical power supply. In addition to the electrocution hazard, the facility currently lacks operational water and sewage systems, raising potential health issues for the building occupants.

    Despite the fact that the building is still under construction, our inspectors found that the Afghans have already begun using the building. As you know, the U.S. government is still responsible for the facility’s operations and maintenance and any occupational health and safety issues because the U.S. Agency for International Development has not yet transferred the facility to the Afghan government.

    God, after twelve years in Afghanistan, this is so depressing.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    From the PRT Diaspora: PTSD is Real

    March 15, 2013 // 3 Comments »

    Because of this blog, I occasionally receive emails from people who also participated in the reconstruction programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most writers are civilians, a few military. With the writer’s permission, I publish some of the letters here.

    Today’s I publish to call attention to the very real issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). All of us suffer from it, some more than others, some more aware of it than others. For me, I benefited from good care (which I had to pay for myself but it was worth it). I have also found most veterans’ groups I’ve run across welcoming– it takes all of 30 seconds to establish that we civilians experienced most of what they did and have more in common than we have apart. To be frank, writing the book and blog are also part of my catharsis. To anyone out there suffering, get help. It makes things better. Anyway, here’s the letter.

    Dear Peter,

    I’ve been reading your blog since its inception and ordered your book while serving with a PRT in Afghanistan. While devouring your book in my “hooch”, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Everything you reported on in Iraq was happening AGAIN in Afghanistan. You actually saved me the time of writing my own book “How I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people”. I felt as if I had found the Holy Grail and ran around my PRT encouraging others to read We Meant Well. My State Department colleague was less than thrilled and was busy bidding on her next assignment while my PRT military colleagues were so burned out (due to multiple deployments) that they either didn’t care or knew that in true military tradition they were there to follow orders and helpless to do anything about the hellhole we found ourselves in. I was stunned that no one appreciated what I had found. They wanted me to quit talking and just do my time (i.e..stop being a trouble maker). Some members of the PRT were in denial and believed COIN was working while others knew that we were failing and didn’t need your experience to remind them.

    It has taken me more than a year to write to you as I’ve been dealing with a great deal of anger and feared I would send you a 10 page rant outlining the insanity of wasted lives and resources that I witnessed during my 12 month deployment. I was offered additional time in Afghanistan but declined. I was afraid my already mild PTSD would be completely unmanageable after another deployment. Our well-deserving veterans are fortunate to have the VA to access once they come home (although I’m told the waiting list for mental health services is horrendous) and find other vets to talk to. These wars have now created yet another fine mess. There are now well over 200,000 people (from various nations) which include former diplomats, civilians who worked directly for the USG, contractors, NGO aid workers and even journalists that come home to no support whatsoever. I can only imagine the broken marriages, broken homes, alcoholism, isolation and other social ills that plague those with full blown PTSD and TBI. To my knowledge, no one is writing about that or even acknowledging it exists outside the military.

    Unlike your “no experience necessary” chapter, I did have years of international development experience. But, I saw plenty that fell into the “no experience necessary” category and it was frightening. Not to mention the out of shape and the overweight (of all ages) who could not get in and out of an MRAP without assistance. No wonder civ-mil had its problems. This is all so terribly sad. I’m still trying to figure out a way to move forward after becoming so disillusioned with my government and the military. It’s now taken me three months to send this.

    In addition to expressing gratitude for your book, I’m also writing to you in memory of the USAID officer, serving in Kunar Province, who was killed in August 2012 (link added). I find it appalling that his death and those of his three military colleagues got about 10 seconds of TV news coverage in the states. If anyone tells me that they died for my freedom, I may seriously lose it. From what I can conclude, they died for the profits of defense contractors, the careers of some high ranking military officials, the pockets of crooked Afghans, and most of all for self serving politicians and diplomats. My freedom had nothing to do with it. You tried to tell them but they didn’t listen. Instead, they tried to kill the messenger. Without knowing it, you’ve been a good friend these past 21 months and I apologize for taking so long to say thank you. Best of luck as you continue to fight for justice.

    I meant well,

    Name Withheld by Request

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Want to See a USG Plan for Infrastructure Development? (Not in the US)

    September 24, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    One of the issues in the current presidential election is the role of government in creating infrastructure as a path to economic prosperity and job creation. One side argues it requires government to build roads and dams, and another claims government should get out of the way and allow the free market to do what is needed.

    Yet despite the robust debate, once you move the issue abroad both the Republicans and the Democratics are of one mind: use US tax dollars to build infrastructure, build it big, in Afghanistan, as a way to create jobs and grow that economy.

    We’ll leave the discussion of whether developing the Afghan economy will actually address the problems driving the insurgency (OK, OK, it won’t: a US occupying army and a corrupt Karzai government are much larger drivers of instability than poverty) for later. What is clear is two-fold: the US believes spending big on infrastructure is the way to go, and USAID and its universe of contractors live on a fantasy planet of unicorns and fairy dust when they make their plans.

    We (Heart) Nangarhar

    Have a look at the USAID-sponsored NANGARHAR INC BUSINESS PLAN – MAR 08, outlining plans to spend billions of US taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. The whole thing is worth your time to browse through, if only to give you an idea of how far out in space these people are. They are not only out of touch with reality, they are not even in cell phone range; no bars, baby.

    Right in the intro we learn that Nangarhar seems to be different than the Afghan places we otherwise hear about. It has “A progress oriented Provincial Government,” and is “One of the most secure provinces in all of Afghanistan” and sets “The national standard for successful counter-narcotics efforts.” Sounds like a real estate agent selling swamp land in central Florida.

    The real estate agent forgot to tell you about the September 4 suicide bomber in Nangarhar who killed 25 civilians and wounded another 30 at a funeral for a village elder. Or how in July insurgents put mines in a school and destroyed six classrooms. The provincial governor is sort of pro-American, even as he is described as corrupt and vindictive by his own people. His predecessor was a warlord and poppy grower, and is now a Kabul politician.

    A more sober description of Nangarhar states that following the “ban on poppy cultivation farmers were promised alternative livelihoods. But these promises were not fulfilled… (a less authoritative source claimed “the eradication program has often left peasant farmers destitute and, in 2006, farmers were reported to have surrendered their children to opium dealers in payment on their debts.”) there is a lack of coordination between different NGOs working in the province and between NGOs and government departments… a lack of human and financial resources in government departments due to low salary and incentives compared to the NGO sector… security issues hinder development activities… a lack of trust between government departments and the public and misconceptions about NGOs and their work… corruption, nepotism and favoritism in government departments.”

    Wasted Away Again in Wonkaville

    And so it is not surprising that the goals for this USG business plan are equally stuck in Wonkaville: Nangarhar will become “One of Central and South Central Asia’s premier commercial and logistics centers… most technologically advanced center for value-added production, processing, and distribution… Afghanistan’s leading development environment, fostering both public and private investment returns… with Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s highest rate of region-wide investment recapitalization, with Central and South Central Asia’s most highly skilled labor force measured by productivity per capita… Central Asia’s benchmark for socially responsible economic development, harmonizing public and private capital ventures within the overarching framework of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.”

    All it was going to take in the 2008 acid-riddled minds of the report’s writers was money.

    Lots of money.

    Billions and billions of US tax dollars.

    The report advocated that USAID provide Nangarhar with $35 million worth of generators to hold them over until the $290 million hydroelectric plants and the $10 million worth of solar panels came on line (while the solar debate rages in America, it is concluded overseas for the USG). Some of that electrical power will be needed for a $21 million cold storage network that will wipe out the inefficiencies of small family farms in favor of US-scale mega-agribusiness. $82 million is requested for an airport. Check out the “culturally aware” airport terminal design on page 42 of the report, with its Islamic crescent and Afghan-kite themed architecture. Despite the reality that Afghanistan at the time had no operating rail infrastructure, $650 million was planned to build railroads. $182 for roads and bridges for the cars Afghans don’t own.

    It goes on and on, 62 pages of spending, with many projects marked as already underway.

    So What Happened?

    It can be pretty hard to tell what has and has not been accomplished in Nangarhar, or anywhere else in Afghanistan for all the cash dropped. USAID has an eleven page summary of accomplishments that reads like a freshman’s desperate effort at resume writing. Have a look; the “fact sheet” is full of words like “enabled” and “upgraded” and “supported” but never actually gives you much of a picture of things. Exhibits have been held, women empowered and elders met, but it remains very unclear if any of 2008’s lofty goals have even been approached, never mind met. Maybe USAID intended the document to read that way.

    The bottom line is that reconstruction spending in Afghanistan continues to happen. While America’s politicians debate whether or not our government has a role to play in rebuilding America’s own infrastructure even as it corrodes around them, they seem to have no issues with spending billions and billions of US taxpayer dollars on fool’s gold abroad.

    So Here’s an Idea

    I think we should reconstruct America. Please say this to every politician and political candidate you run across:

    For me to give you my vote, do this: for every school, home and road we build in Afghanistan, build two here in America.

    When the politician says we can’t pay for that, tell’em to pay for it exactly the same way they pay for it overseas. When they say we can’t do that because it’s unfair, or unequal or socialism, tell’em to do it here for whatever the heck reason justified it over there. When they say we had to spend the money abroad to defend America, just smile at ‘em and say that building jobs in America defends America better than anything abroad. Make them respond to all that.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    US to Focus $358 Million on Infrastructure: Not in US

    September 6, 2012 // 5 Comments »

    The US is gearing up to drop $300 million of our taxpayer dollars on rebuilding infrastructure, in Palestine.

    Here is what the US plans for the Palestinians. Can anyone find a town in America which would not benefit from $300 million worth of work in:

    • Transportation networks such as primary and secondary roads, bridges and/or other transportation infrastructure;

    • Water systems including the supply, storage, treatment, transmission and/or distribution of water;

    • Sanitation infrastructure including solid waste management and disposal, wastewater treatment and reuse, pollution control, and/or ecological sanitation;

    • Vertical infrastructure including schools, clinics, health facilities, public buildings, government buildings and facilities, sports facilities, warehouses, food storage facilities, youth and sports centers, and/or other vertical infrastructure designed to benefit the public interest;

    • Electrical Power sector infrastructure to include alternative, sustainable and/or traditional forms of power generation (such as wind turbines, photovoltaic, solar thermal, geothermal, and/or fossil-fuel-fired thermal power plants), and/or electricity transmission and distribution systems;

    In addition, the State Department/US AID will lay down a sweet $58 million to promote tourism and other private sector job-creation in Palestine.

    Stunned that no one wants to use your tax money to rebuild your infrastructure? Unhappy that no one is dropping $58 million on your community to create private sector jobs? Want to know why?

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Serious Questions about a Haiti Reconstruction Puff Piece

    August 20, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    The default media plan at State is to follow anything negative in the press with a planted puff piece. Rather than tackle the facts in a negative story (seeking to refute them with other information, or to make corrections), State’s modus is to seek ink that just says everything is actually wonderful, without mentioning the offending original articles.

    Following a scathing Associated Press investigation into the failure of State to reconstruct Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake (Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, $329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery), State first tried an “Op-Ed” by the ambassador blithely mumbling that all was well. That was back in late July.

    It took almost a month more, but State did finally select its author for what appears to be a real puff piece, in this case some hack named David Brown at the hometown Washington Post (slogan: still dining out on that Watergate thing). Brown’s work at the Post has been mostly on health issues, mainly HIV/AIDS, with the odd bit about Warren Buffet’s prostrate (not good) and Dick Cheney’s artificial heart (“doing exceedingly well”). As such, he was obviously the perfect guy to write authoritatively on reconstruction in Haiti.

    Without too much surprise, Brown tells us of the wonderful work State, via its USAID arm, has done in one micro-neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. The short version is that in this one neighborhood, 500 people have new houses, lots of locals were employed to do the work, and civic improvements accompanied the new homes. It is a real success story. Read it yourself.

    Some Questions

    Here are the questions I sent to the Washington Post Ombudsman about the article. Should I receive a reply, I will feature it on this blog. Had the article addressed these points it might have floated above puff piece.

    Did David Brown locate this rebuilt neighborhood on his own, or did State direct him to it? Did Brown fly to Haiti specifically to do this story? What role did State/USAID play in his access to the neighborhood? Was he accompianied by anyone from State/USAID at any time? Brown does not seem to cover Haiti, State or reconstruction issues. How did he end up with this story?

    The story says $8.5 million US tax dollars were spent repairing or replacing 500 homes. That works out to a very rough figure of $17,000 per home. Haitian GDP is about $1300 a person a year, among the world’s impoverished. Is $17k per home expensive? Typical costs? What does the figure actually mean?

    Why did reconstruction seem to succeed so well in this one micro-area while failing broadly? Are there lessons to be learned and applied elsewhere in Haiti or is this an anomaly?

    The Associated Press piece focused in part on how little reconstruction money actually makes it to Haiti instead of being siphoned off by US contractors. Brown’s article claims all but four workers used on this project were Haitian. At the same time, he notes that the project sent only $1.4 million of the $8.5 million total into the local economy. That seems to suggest over $7 million bucks went somewhere else. Where did it go?

    Brown’s article, which ran on the front page of the Post and continued inside, quoted only two people connected with the project by name, the project manager paid by USAID and one engineer paid by USAID. Why were there no quotes from any of the Haitian residents of the new dwellings? Why were there no quotes from any local Haitain officials? Did the WaPo editors cut out such quotes? Did they not ask Brown to obtain such quotes? How did Brown fact-check the details given to him by the USAID-paid people? DID Brown fact check those details?

    As I learned in Iraq, building things is relatively easy given massive amounts of money. The real magic is sustainability. Brown tells us “Groups of houses share 23 septic tanks and 100 bucket-flush toilets, which can be locked for privacy. Twenty solar-powered lights illuminate streets.” What plans and whose money are in place to repair and maintain that technology? Who/how will the septic tanks be drained or pumped out? What happens when the first solar light needs replacing? Will any of this be there working a year from now? If so, under what plan? The article calls the work in Haiti a “renaissance,” a pretty dramatic word that is empty, meaningless and damned temporary unless there is a sustainability plan in place.

    Almost all the details in the story are unsourced. Brown talks about the number of septic tanks, a kidnapping and decisions taken collectively by the neighborhood. He does not say where any of this information came from. Where did this information come from?

    Brown states:

    Another big problem was that wider paths and outdoor places to sit were neighborhood priorities but there was not any unoccupied land for them. As the project evolved, 201 households agreed to reduce the size of their plots, 171 agreed to reshape them, and 51 agreed to share their plots with another family by living in two-story houses.

    This is a huge thing to have accomplished. In reconstruction work, the easiest thing to do is simply to redo what was destroyed, urban problems and all. Destroyed too-narrow streets are replaced with new too-narrow streets because it proves inexpedient to resolve the many disputes. How did this process actually work out in Haiti? Did it really happen? If it did, the method used should be a critical element toward replicating this success throughout Haiti. Did State/USAID lead negotiations? Was there some sort of local micro-government?

    Since it is unlikely that such agreement spontaneously emerged, leaving out the process raises questions about whether Brown had any idea what he was writing about, or was simply a notetaker for USAID’s propaganda machine.

    Over to you, Washington Post Ombudsman.

    BONUS: The Haitian government has hired an ex-Bill Clinton administration guy to act as a lobbyist, seeking to influence US decision-makers on aid and rebuilding issues.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Abu Muqawama Explains the State Department, USAID to You

    August 1, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    Andrew Exum blogs as “Abu Muqawama” at World Politics Review.

    A recent column, State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors, explains the State Department to you. The bold emphasis below is added as Andrew is too polite to have done so himself.

    In the month since Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran published Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, his brutal review of the U.S. and allied war effort in Afghanistan, it has been interesting to observe the reactions from the various tribes of the Beltway.

    No one escapes criticism in Chandrasekaran’s narrative, this columnist included, but the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Marine Corps come under especially heavy fire.

    The reaction from the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. military as a whole has been to add the book and its criticisms to the list of lessons that need to be learned from the disastrous U.S. experience in Afghanistan.

    The State Department and USAID, by contrast, have reacted angrily to Chandrasekaran’s account, blaming the messenger rather than looking into what they might learn from the message.

    On the surface, these disparate reactions illustrate how the U.S. military has evolved into a learning organization since the end of the Vietnam War and how other U.S. departments and agencies have not. But these reactions reveal much more than that.

    First, yes, let us praise the fact that the U.S. military is more willing to learn from its experiences, and errors, than other departments and agencies. Both top-down efforts promoted by the U.S. military’s senior leadership and grass-roots efforts initiated by junior officers have combined over the past 40 years to make the military a better learning organization. The formalized After Action Review process, the Center for Army Lessons Learned and websites like CompanyCommand.com have allowed the military to gather and promulgate operational and tactical lessons.

    But it is easy to criticize yourself and thus learn lessons when you are a confident organization. Since at least the First Gulf War, American society has raised the U.S. military onto a pedestal, constantly praising the military, even when its performance has been, by objective standards, not terribly great. Is it any wonder U.S. military leaders feel they have room for introspection and self-criticism?

    The State Department rarely garners similar praise from the American people or its elected leaders. Republican congressmen on Capitol Hill talk a big game on national security and vow never to cut the military’s budget, while at the same time threatening to slash the International Affairs budget by 20 percent. U.S. military officers and troops are held up as the best of what America has to offer, while diplomats . . . well, few Americans are quite sure of what diplomats even do.

    That’s a pity because, despite bungling the admittedly challenging Afghanistan mission, the State Department has a pretty good story to tell about itself. One of the illicit delights of reading the WikiLeaks cables has been to discover what wonderful diplomats the United States has in its service. The reports written by U.S. ambassadors and their subordinates are knowledgeable, literate, pithy and often amusing. They confirm, in a larger sample size, my anecdotal experiences visiting embassies around the globe. I remember, for example, spending an afternoon with the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh in 2010 and being blown away by the competence and professionalism of the staff. Many foreign service officers were on their third tours in the country, and even the newest officer — charged with running the motor pool, of all things — spoke fluent classical Arabic as well as several dialects.

    Unfortunately, the State Department is not very good at telling its story to either the U.S. Congress or the American people. When people effectively stand up for the budget of the State Department and make the case for a larger International Affairs budget, it is too often either U.S. military officers or conservative, “pro-military” defense intellectuals. The State Department and its foreign service officers deserve some of the blame here. I recently finished John Lewis Gaddis’ biography of George F. Kennan, and Kennan’s life is a reminder that those Americans who are most knowledgeable about other cultures can often be the most contemptuous and ignorant of U.S. domestic political culture. Foreign service officers who do not hesitate to spend endless afternoons drinking chai with Central Asian warlords somehow can’t, by and large, stomach the occasional coffee with a junior congressman from Nebraska.

    The result is that the State Department as an organization constantly feels that it is under pressure and underappreciated by its appropriators. We should not wonder, then, why such an organization fails to be introspective or critical of itself. That shortchanges both America and the State Department, though, because as Chandrasekaran’s book details, much of the civilian effort promised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Afghanistan has been an embarrassment.

    I have thus far excluded USAID from criticism because, in the same way that the U.S. military does not have just one organizational culture but rather a collection of organizational cultures, USAID itself has at least three separate cultures. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) are very different organizations than the rest of USAID. On the whole, OTI has been up to the challenges in Afghanistan, whereas USAID in general has not. Again, the problems and the blame can be divided between appropriators and the agency itself. But as Andrew Wilder and other researchers have suggested, though much of the money spent in Afghanistan may have contributed to the amelioration of certain development indicators, it has also contributed to the destabilization of the country itself by, among other things, creating the mother of all rentier states.

    Social scientists have more trouble proving why things did not happen than why things did happen. A military can defend — or learn from — its performance during a war, but diplomats and aid workers can rarely demonstrate how their efforts toward conflict-prevention preclude a need for the military to get involved in the first place. And the efforts of diplomats and aid workers rarely benefit the economies of congressional districts in the same way military bases or the arms industry does.

    Nonetheless, if the State Department and USAID are ever going to have the confidence to be as self-critical as the U.S. military, they have to better sell their efforts to the American people and its representatives in Washington. Otherwise, to paraphrase Robert Komer, bureaucracy will “do its thing” in the next conflict as well.


    The State Department shooting the messenger, cited above in the case of Chandrasekaran’s book, is all too familiar to me, being thrown out of my job of some 24 years at the State Department for my own book critical of the Iraq reconstruction. A theme I return to again and again in that book, echoed on this blog and written of by Exum, is that the State Department is simply incapable of self-reflection and self-criticism.

    Exum is right in saying that the lack of introspection is due to a crisis in confidence. Lacking a clear mission in general as America militarizes its foreign policy, and lacking a seat at the grownups’ table in the first years of the Iraq fiasco in the particular, the State Department could not consider failure as an option. It wanted to prove itself worthy alongside the military. When its own fears and damning bureaucracy defeated State more soundly than al Qaeda ever could have hoped to do, State simply told itself (over and over, internally) that it succeeded in Iraq. Easy. Such internal self-inflation only works in the void of outside information (see North Korea) and bursts painfully when someone from the inside (like me, who saw it all happen) or outside (Chandrasekaran, a cool reporter not easily deflected) lays out the failure.

    Most people at State will never understand the choice of conscience over career, the root of most of State’s problems. There are higher goals than obedience.

    There is simply no other explanation. People in the State Department are smart, many are very smart. They know good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure. What happens institutionally is that they are taught to thrive organizationally they need to be on guard against public disclosure, Congressional oversight and journalistic insight. They are taught that what the Department tells them– they are performing superbly under difficult conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan– cannot be questioned openly except at risk of your job. Books like Chandrasekaran’s and mine, which create cognitive dissonance, are viruses that need to be expelled.

    Fearing the daylight, State seeks to shut the blinds. State, in my case, edited any commentary I wrote online out of its internal news summaries, still blocks contrarian sites such as TomDispatch.com on its internal intranet (because of “Wikileaks”), maintains far more restrictive social media policies than the military and inculcates into its new diplomats a fear of journalists and Congress. Both groups, the newcomers are told, seek to destroy the Department. It is closer to Scientology than diplomatic training, though the results are about the same.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Great Moments in Public Diplomacy: $10 mil Sesame Street Pakistan Fail

    June 5, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    After wasting half the money, the US terminated a $20 million project to develop a Pakistani version of Sesame Street, the US Embassy announced.

    The decision came as a Pakistani newspaper reported allegations of corruption by the local puppet theater working on the initiative. The Pakistan Today newspaper reported Tuesday that the cause was “severe” financial irregularities at the production company. The producers allegedly used the US money to pay off old debts and awarded lucrative contracts to relatives.

    As recently as late April of this year, just five weeks ago, the US Embassy in Islamabad featured a story about Ambassador Cameron Munter and Consul General Nina Fite visiting the Sesame Street set at Pakistan Children’s Television to reaffirm the US government’s commitment to children’s education in Pakistan. This was the Ambassador’s second showcase visit to the project.

    Each episode was to be based around a word and a number, like the US version, and tackle general themes like friendship, respect and valuing diversity. This last theme is particularly important in Pakistan, where Islamist extremists often target minority religious sects and others who disagree with their views.

    Unfortunately, the lesson taught was that the US cannot find its own butt for a hole in the ground, once again, as another “hearts and minds” project implodes.

    Reached for comment, a Sesame Street spokespuppet said: “Elmo sad.”

    What It Means

    As much as it is fun to write lines like “Today’s public diplomacy Failure is brought to you by the letter F,” or, “No word on where the US oversight was while $10 million in taxpayer money was eaten by the Cookie Monster,” this project shares too many similarities with State’s failed efforts at hearts and minds work in Iraq and Afghanistan:

    –The fanfare came first, and came on strong, with two high-profile Ambassadorial visits before any results were seen. Results first, press releases later, is a better policy.

    –Where was the oversight? The US had been putting money into this project since 2009 and only after $10 million was thrown down the hole did anyone pull the plug.

    –The press releases trumpeting this project proclaimed “Starting April 2011, seventy eight Urdu language television episodes and 13 episodes in each of the four major provincial languages will broadcast throughout Pakistan. The same number of radio programs will be developed and broadcast as well. The project will also bring 600 live puppet performances and video shows to various rural areas. In addition, the project will work to include out-of-school children in various educational activities.” In fact, only thirteen episodes were produced. Who at State was overseeing the other aspects of this project? A touch of humility, with modest, sincere goals, builds US credibility.

    –Why is it required that an outside source, in this case a newspaper, do State’s due diligence on these projects? Corruption is endemic and close monitoring should be required.

    –If the point was to influence Pakistani youth by having the US give them Sesame Street, what is the public diplomacy impact of the US taking Sesame Street away?

    –(rhetorical question) Will anyone on the US side be fired for another waste of US money and credibility? Or, more likely, will someone be fired for leaking the story?

    Inside Baseball Bonus: The $20 million was USAID money. Inevitably some bonehead will write in to me claiming this was a failed USAID project and not a failed public diplomacy project. Guess what? As far as Pakistan is concerned this is a failed United States project, so get on the team, stop infighting and try to accomplish something besides adding rhetoric to the already steaming pile.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    State Dept Ducks Oversight on Iraq Reconstruction Projects

    January 29, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    The Washington Post has an important article online and in print criticizing the World’s Most Expensive Embassy (c) for choosing to not provide a complete list of all the projects undertaken as part of the reconstruction of Iraq.

    “After eight years, we still don’t have a full account of what it was we provided the Iraqis,” Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the US special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said in the article. “There was no unity of command, no unity of effort.” The inventory listed 5,289 projects valued at about $15 billion as of June 30, 2011, according to auditors. Bowen said there were actually tens of thousands of projects valued at approximately $40 billion.

    In response, the World’s Most Expensive Embassy (c) in Baghdad said they had negotiated an agreement with Iraq so its government could “focus its limited resources” on large capital projects. Embassy officials also cited bookkeeping of previous agencies and said the auditors’ criticisms failed to recognize that Iraq already has assumed more control over projects.

    Of course this is all, respectfully of course, bullshit.

    Everything funded via CERP (Commanders Emergency Response Program, Army money) is fully documented in a database. Same for everything paid for by State via their QRF (Quick Response Funds), it is all documented in an online database. Every State project carried a unique number (most projects referenced in my book We Meant Well include these unique numbers as references). I am not sure what the other two sources mentioned in the Post refer to, but one of them is likely USAID and they also maintained a database. If the fourth source is US Department of Agriculture, who spent a lot of money in Iraq, those are also well-documented. Any subcontractors hired were required to report on their projects.

    So if this information is available for all of the effort of hitting the “print” button, why conceal it?

    State most likely wants to hide a lot of its waste and mismanagement, as well as bury the many smaller projects that “walked away” as the Iraqis simply sold them off, dismantled them or noticed that what the US claimed was built or bought never really existed. State has no interest in having some of its more comical, stupid and pointless efforts exposed, as hinted at on Foreign Policy.com.

    State continues to insist no independent agency, such as SIGIR, has jurisdiction to oversee its work in Iraq. Does anyone still wonder why State insists no oversight applies?

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Corruption Consuming Up to 30% of Afghan Reconstruction Money!

    November 22, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Yea Juggalos, we’re winning again in America’s Never-Ending-Gob-Smacker-Sucker of a war, the Afghan-Taliban-Pakistan Warapalooza!

    For those who have been in a coma or tied up Occupying somewhere, we have been defeating the Taliban for the past ten+ years in Afghanistan, and reconstructing that same place for pretty much the last ten+ years. But for reconstruction, it is perhaps best to think in dollar terms, not time: we have spent over $70 billion (borrowed) on rebuilding.

    By most accounts, the reconstruction has not been successful, and lots of people are unsure why not.

    Now we have an idea, from a new Congressional Research Service report released November 14. Here are a couple of the money quotes:

    One USAID official estimated that on some projects, up to 30% of contracted project costs can be attributed to corruption. A number of government and industry officials stated that corruption is the ‘price of doing business’ in Afghanistan.

    Corruption takes many forms, including government officials charging bribes for transporting goods across the border and extorting protection payments. Many analysts view large swaths of the judicial sector and the attorney general’s office as corrupt, as evidenced by the lack of prosecutions against high-ranking government officials or warlords accused of being involved in criminal activity or rampant corruption. In other instances, members of the Afghan security forces use their position to demand bribes and extort shipping companies at Afghan borders and airports.

    The billions of contracting dollars spent to support military operations and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan raise a number of potential questions for Congress that may have significant policy implications for current and future overseas operations. These questions include to what extent U.S. government development and CERP contracts contributing to the overall mission in Afghanistan.

    That last paragraph of course is a hoot; people, it has been over ten years of doing the same stuff in Afghanistan and only now are you asking if it supports the overall mission? Did someone just forget to think of that question earlier? Isn’t it sort of late in the “game” to wonder if our reconstruction efforts were supporting the overall mission?

    Anyway, if you have the stomach for it, the whole report is online.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Quick Corruption Update: $192k, Afghanistan

    October 5, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Not to disturb anyone’s TV viewing, but a former senior construction manager pleaded guilty today to seeking $190,000 in payments as a reward for steering U.S.-funded contracts in Afghanistan.

    Neil P. Campbell, 61, of Queensland, Australia, pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court to one count of accepting an illegal payment. According to court records, starting in January 2009, Campbell worked in Afghanistan as a contractor and acted as an agent for the International Organization on Migration. The IOM has received more than $260 million in your taxpayer money from USAID since 2002 to construct hospitals, schools and other facilities.

    And also to pay bribes. Thank you for your time citizens, and we’ll return now to your normal programming.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Victory in Iraq Update

    June 23, 2011 // Comments Off on Victory in Iraq Update

    Four bombs ripped through Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad Thursday evening, killing at least 40 people in the worst violence the capital has seen in months, Iraqi officials said.

    Stay tuned for the Shiite retaliatory attack in the next day or two, followed by the Sunni re-retaliatory attack, followed by the…

    An American civilian aid specialist was killed in a separate attack. The State Department released this statement:

    The United States condemns a terrorist attack in Baghdad today that claimed the life of international development and finance expert Dr. Stephen Everhart and wounded three others. Dr. Everhart was an American citizen who was working in Iraq for an implementing partner of the United States Agency for International Development’s Mission in Iraq. He was killed while working on a project to introduce a new business curriculum to a Baghdad university in a program supported by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education. His support of efforts to advance a modern and efficient financial sector has benefited the people and business enterprises of Iraq and his lifelong dedication to public service has improved the lives of countless people around the world.

    We are saddened by this tragedy and extend our thoughts and prayers to Dr. Everhart’s family and loved ones, and to the three other injured victims and their families.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    Blah Blah USAID Project Dies from Fraud Blah Blah

    May 25, 2011 // Comments Off on Blah Blah USAID Project Dies from Fraud Blah Blah

    Though State maintains a warm spot in my heart, for brazen incompetence you just can’t beat USAID, the US Government’s Santa Claus agency abroad. I could write one of these articles daily about how some USAID project in Iraq or Afghanistan wasted money, failed to accomplish anything, failed to appear or was consumed by fraud blah blah blah.

    USAID may not have any actual employees. Most of their people I met in Iraq were contractors, hired by someone at “USAID” to hire an “implementing partner” (middle man) who would hire another contractor to do something such as dig a well in some village. Each layer of the fluffy cake took a cut (most implementing partners sucked off about 30% of any project) so a million dollars thrown out the window of USAID HQ was only $10 and change by the time it hit the ground.

    If you can stomach more details, Google around for the Community Stabilization Program, which ended up redirecting millions of dollars to the insurgents through dummy trash pickup contracts. In my book I chat about some USAID programs in my own area that did little but feed your money to thugs. One program I discuss was so riddled with fraud that the Iraqis who were profiting from the fraud felt compelled to complain.

    But I did want to share a recent report on a USAID failure in Afghanistan with you because:

    a) USAID pulled the report off its web site after someone read it, but of course it is still available elsewhere on the web. Is it USAID alone that does not know the Internet is written in ink?

    b) One of the conclusions of the report as to why this massive fraud occurred was that “The mission did not have a policy requiring its contractors and grantees to report indications of fraud in host-government institutions or possible problems that could reasonably be considered to be of foreign policy interest to USAID and the US Government.”

    That last one is a hoot– with such a contract clause, would fraud go away? Do we really need to contractually obligate US Government contractors to tell us stuff that might be of interest to us, their employers, like people stealing our money?

    Anyway, enjoy reading the whole text of “Review of USAID/Afghanistan’s Bank Supervision Assistance Activities and the
    Kabul Bank Crisis

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    The Whole Reconstruction Mess in Two Paragraphs

    May 3, 2011 // Comments Off on The Whole Reconstruction Mess in Two Paragraphs

    death or glory The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran (who wrote one of the better books about the early days in Iraq, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, summed up the ongoing failure of reconstruction in Afghanistan in two simple paragraphs:

    US commanders and diplomats had hoped that the new programs would assist in cementing recent military gains against the Taliban, which have come at a significant cost of American lives. They believe that if Afghans have expanded access to jobs and can rely on local governments for basic services, many will renounce the insurgency.

    A development specialist who recently completed a year-long assignment at USAID’s mission in Kabul blamed the delays on a staff turnover rate of more than 85 percent a year, shifting priorities among senior officials responsible for setting policy, and an ongoing conflict within the agency between short-term programs and longer-range development work.

    If you really don’t want to read my book, or anything else ever about the failures of reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan or soon, maybe Libya or Yemen, just re-read those two paragraphs and you’ll have most of the sad story.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military

    What is a PRT?

    April 5, 2011 // Comments Off on What is a PRT?

    My year in Iraq, and our efforts to reach the hearts and minds of Iraqis, was focused on the work of the PRTs, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Some stood alone, with their own security and administrative staff, some were embedded and dependent on the military (ePRT).

    Here’s what Embassy Baghdad has to say about what a PRT is.

    But you better also read what former PRT staffer and now Adjunct Professor at the National Defense University Blake Stone has to say before you sign up.

    Fancy a turn on the Baghdad Embassy’s golf driving range? Read all about it.

    Don’t worry– there are still plenty of PRT jobs available in Afghanistan. Search USAJobs.gov for “PRT.”

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Economy, Iraq, Military