by Andrew Cockburn, published November 6, 2015 at Harper’s Magazine
“We spent 36 million dollars on a building that was totally built, never used, and has been turned over the Afghans. As far as we know, it’s empty.”
This week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report that outlined how the Pentagon spent nearly $43 million on building a gas station in the Afghan provincial town of Sheberghan. Though comparable stations in Pakistan cost only $500,000, the report cited Pentagon claims that it could provide no explanation for the enormous cost of the project.
The compressed natural gas (C.N.G.) automobile filling station was constructed under the auspices of something called the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (T.F.B.S.O.), an $800-million project to which the Pentagon “appears determined to restrict or hinder SIGAR access.” There was no indication that the Task Force, which answered directly to the secretary of defense, had conducted a feasibility study before building the station. If they had, the SIGAR report remarked drily, they “might have noted that Afghanistan lacks the natural gas transmission and local distribution infrastructure necessary to support a viable market for CNG vehicles. [Additionally,] it appears that the cost of converting a gasoline-powered car to run on CNG may be prohibitive for the average Afghan. TFBSO’s contractor, CADG, stated that conversion to CNG costs $700 per car. . . . The average annual income in Afghanistan is $690.”
For the most part, the inspector’s regular reports of such fiascos have become part of the background noise in Washington, irksome reminders to the bureaucracy of scandalous waste that has been the 100-billion-plus-dollar U.S. program to “reconstruct” Afghanistan. To find out more, I visited the man responsible for this sustained exercise in truth telling, in his office in Pentagon City, a prosperous district a few minutes’ drive from the Pentagon itself, in which almost every office tower is jammed with corporations large and small feeding at the national security trough.
John Sopko is a lawyer and a veteran investigator for Congress and government, appointed to the job in 2012. He heads a team of 200 investigators and support staff, more than a quarter of them in Afghanistan. When he visits the country, he moves with a large security detail, since he is considered a high-value target—though not necessarily by the Taliban.
Where did the one hundred and something billion dollars go?
One hundred and ten billion I think is where our best guesstimate is. It may even be higher now. The [cost of] the total conflict there is over a trillion dollars. The actual fighting of the war over the last thirteen to fourteen years cost a lot more than reconstruction. War fighting is more expensive. Reconstruction is relatively cheap if it’s done right. A lot of it was lost, fraud, waste, and abuse. I don’t know what percentage. We just don’t have the time or the ability to calculate the loss, but a significant amount of that number is lost.
When you go there, do you see 110 billion dollars worth of reconstruction? Could you put a price on what you do see?
No, I can’t. We keep finding horror stories all the time. A lot of it was just stolen.
When you get into a war it’s like you’re on steroids, everything is just crazy, people are shooting at you. When you’re on steroids, when you’re in Afghanistan, you’re spending more on AID [the Agency for International Development] than the next four countries combined. But the head of AID only visited Afghanistan twice. He rarely focused on it. He was more interested in something else, other issues were more important to him. It wasn’t a priority.