[Conversation] | Money Trail, by Andrew Cockburn | Harper's Magazine
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“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.

The way we reward people in the government is not based on saving money. If you’re a procurement officer your reward is on how much money you procure, how much money you put on contract. If you have a reward system in place, if you have a human resources system that rotates people out every six months, what do you expect is going to happen? Welcome to my world. It was a disaster ready to happen, and it happened. We wasted a lot of money. It wasn’t that people were stupid, and it wasn’t that people didn’t care; it’s just the system almost guarantees failure.

See this airplane here? [Gesturing toward a plastic model of a twin-engine transport plane sitting on his office windowsill] That’s a model of the G222. It was an airplane we purchased out of an Italian boneyard for . . . They were almost scrap. We purchased it for 400–500 million dollars. We sent twenty of them over to Afghanistan. They were the wrong plane for the country, the altitude, the weather. They were basically referred to as death traps. They couldn’t fly over there. The Afghans couldn’t be trained on them. When I first saw them, they were sitting outside the airport in Kabul just rusting with trees growing through them. They were eventually turned into—when we started the investigation—scrap. We got three cents on the dollar. That’s a 400–500-million-dollar investment. We don’t know the exact figure. No one has been fired for purchasing that airplane.

Now, you’ve worked in some major news gathering organizations. If you lost 300 million dollars, do you think somebody would maybe say, “Gee, maybe it’s time for you to move on”? Maybe you’re not going to get your bonus this year. But this is the way the government works. If there’s one critical thing, it’s personal accountability in the government. You’ve got to fire some people. You can’t always give them awards. Because it’s cheap to give an award if everybody gets an award. It’s like kids’ soccer games when you had toddlers. Everybody gets a medal.

An unknowable quantity was just stolen. How much of that money came back here?

I can’t really say for sure. A lot did come back here. A lot of it went to other places. You’re getting into an area of classified information, but it’s amazing the countries that the money has gone to, and that’s all I can say. Everybody talks about Dubai because that’s a flight away, so bulk cash got to Dubai, and then it went from there. But money also went to a lot of other countries.

How much of the money never left here?

Quite a bit. I don’t have the percentage, but quite a bit ended up in the coffers of consultants, firms here, and it never got to Afghanistan, and that is a true complaint about our assistance program, high overhead costs. Again, nobody is minding the store. We also get instances where we do financial audits and we can’t find any records to support the costs to the U.S. government. We just had one of 130–135 million dollars.

What was that for?

It was for Afghan National Security Forces training in the eastern part of the country. [The contract was with Jorge Scientific, recipients of $1 billion in contracts.]

They just didn’t have any records, so for 130-some million dollars they couldn’t support where the money went. The prime contractor said, “It’s not our problem, it’s the sub contractor’s,” because they basically subbed the job out to somebody else. But we said, “No, no, no, under Contracting 101, going back to the 1860s, you’re supposed to be responsible. You can’t contract away, you’ve got to provide the records.” So they said, “Well go to Guernsey; that’s where our subcontractor is located.” We said, “No, no, no, we’re not going to Guernsey, we’re just going to question where this 130 million dollars went.” We’ve had instances where we’ve questioned costs and they said, “Oh, a flood or a fire,” or, you know, “Somebody lost the records.” Our concern is, when you can’t support the record, can’t support a cost, that it could just be fraudulent.

But of all of this, is there anything in particular that stands out for sort of the enormity of the waste?

I think this airplane, the G222, stands out. Not just the enormity but, I think, just the silliness. Another enormity—and this is for a different issue—this has to do with personal accountability. We just issued a report on what we call the 64K. The sixty-four-thousand-square-foot building in Camp Leatherneck where three generals on the ground said, “We don’t need it, we don’t want it, we’re not going to use it, don’t build it.” They were overruled by a general sitting back in a comfortable office, not in the fog of war, back in Kuwait or Qatar or wherever he was, and he said, “Well, since it was supplemental appropriations it would be unwise or imprudent to ignore the wishes of Congress.” So we spent 36 million dollars on a building that was totally built, never used, and has been turned over to the Afghans. As far as we know, it’s empty. That’s another example: no accountability. When we referred it to the Pentagon—because we can’t punish the general and the other people—the Pentagon said, “We didn’t think that was a problem.” Senator McCain has gone ballistic on it, and Senator Grassley and McCaskill and all saying, “What are you talking about? You just wasted 36 million dollars. Nobody’s accountable?”

Another example I like to cite for just how we don’t understand Afghanistan: somebody came up with a brilliant idea in the Department of Agriculture that Afghans really should eat more soy. So they spent 36 million dollars on creating a soy program. The Afghans don’t grow soy, they don’t eat soy, they don’t like the taste of soy. But we spent 36 million dollars doing this. We were kind of putting our value system, you know, you should have a low carb diet, onto the Afghans. It was a total disaster from the beginning to the end.

Would things have worked better if there had just been less money? Was the problem too much money?

Yeah, too much money, too fast, too small a country with too little oversight. It was like the four “too”s. That’s the problem. Number two: the experts we didn’t really listen to, Afghan experts, people who knew Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not the same as Iraq. We had too many people who said, “Oh I did this in Iraq.” They’re two different countries. Afghanistan is a totally different mindset.

We didn’t listen to our own experts, we didn’t stick with a strategy that had buy-in from not only the international community but the Afghans. We didn’t consider the corruption issue. We didn’t consider sustainability. The Afghans only raise about 2 billion dollars a year, and it’s 8–10 billion dollars to keep the government afloat. So we basically have built a government for Afghanistan that they can’t afford on their own. Why build something if you know they can’t sustain it? We didn’t really consider that. Because again, the incentives were: build something big, cut a ribbon, put money on contract, get your reward, and then go to the next assignment. That’s the problem. It was almost guaranteed to fail because of these inherent problems with the U.S. government.

The one success story in Afghanistan for thirteen years is opium. That is a growth industry. Now we spent 8 billion dollars to fight opium, and if you use any metrics, we failed. Number of people being arrested is down, the number of hectares under cultivation is up; every year it’s going up. The amount of interdiction of drugs is down. The amount of drug addiction in Afghanistan is up. So every metric that you would normally use in fighting narcotics has been a total failure.

When you go to Afghanistan, do you have security?

Yeah, I have a lot of security. [One time] when the State Department security guy was briefing me, I said, “Look I’m not going to question you, you’re a security expert, but somebody really wants to hurt me?” He said, “Mr. Sopko, are you talking about inside the embassy or outside the embassy?”

Have you encountered any outrage in the government about what you’ve been saying and reporting back here in Washington?

Well, there’s pushback from a lot of people: I’m unfair. Why am I identifying people by name? Or, “You don’t understand the situation, it’s a war.” We should waste money on a war, we can’t be accountable?

Nobody has gotten fired in Afghanistan for all of the problems I’ve exposed.

No one?

Nope. Call up DOD, call up State, see if anybody has gotten fired. I bet you no one has lost a promotion. I bet you no one has lost a bonus.

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