By Bill Fisher

The sun rises over Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan and the power plant … -Anthony M. Cordesman

Speaking to the press just before Christmas, President Obama confidently predicted that the US would achieve its goals in the Afghan War effort.

Following the release of the US annual strategy review which noted an increase in attacks by the Taliban and groups with which it is allied, the review said that al-Qaeda’s leadership was at its weakest since 2001.

The President has said on numerous occasions that US-NATO strategy is working, despite the view of many senior US diplomats and journalists that Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is “increasingly erratic and even paranoid.” The Karzai government has done little to stem years of charges of financial corruption and election misconduct.

Among those US senior diplomats is Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He has been visiting and lecturing in Asia since the 1960s, and is a Senior Advisor to the US-Asia Institute.

Cordesman has emerged as one of the harshest critics of the Afghan operation. In a report entitled “Going in Transition: US Military and Aid Spending: FY2002-2013,” he has estimated that at the end of 2013 – the announced date for the completion of the US and NATO – these Afghan allies will have spent $641.7 billion.

Cordesman says, “This is an incredible amount of money to have spent with so few controls, so few plans, so little auditing, and almost no credible measures of effectiveness.”

It is surprisingly difficult to get a meaningful estimate of the total cost of the Afghan conflict, total spending on Afghan forces and total spending on various forms of aid. he adds.

The Cordesman report addresses the cost to the US of the Afghan War from FY2000-FY2013. It provides estimates of total cost, cost to the Department of Defense, and aid costs to State, USAID, and other federal agencies. It also reports on the total cost of international aid when this takes the form of integrated aid to Afghan development and Afghan forces – a fraction of total aid spending.

No reliable estimate exists of total international aid to Afghanistan, since so much of this aid has been direct and has not passed through the Afghan Central government.

The resulting figures show that:

  • The vast majority of aid went to the Afghan security forces and not development. President Obama has consistently stressed the importance of economic development in Afghanistan, while denying that “nation-building” was a major US objective.
  • Most aid was very erratic in annual levels of effort, making it extremely difficult to plan the most effective use of the money and ensuring that program continuity was not possible. • The bulk of the total spending and aid has been allocated since FY2009, and came after the insurgency had reached high levels. It is a clear case of too much, too late.
  • The surge in aid spending creates the irony that the maximum actual cash flow – “disbursements” – is only occurring now that transition is in place and major cuts are coming between 2012 and 2014.
  • The data only tell the amount of money made available on a total category basis. They do not tell how much money actually reached Afghanistan, they do not tie spending to any clear objectives, they do not reflect any effective contracting and auditing system, and there are no measures of effectiveness or success.
  • Not only did the money come far too late to prevent the rise of a major insurgency, when it did come, it came in areas where there were no effective overall planning, management, and contacting systems. No adequate fiscal controls, and no real measures of effectiveness. The system virtually invited waste, fraud, and abuse.

Cordesman cautions that it is important to note that reforms have taken place in many areas of contracting, and there is now better auditing. The Afghan government has also promised important reforms in its control of spending and efforts to reduce corruption.

A total of $641.7 billion, of which $198.2 billion – or over 30% – will be spent in FY2012 and FY2013. Cordesnman says, “This is an incredible amount of money to have spent with so few controls, so few plans, so little auditing, and almost no credible measures of effectiveness.”

He also charges that “the end effect has been to sharply raise the threshold of corruption in Afghanistan, to make transition planning far more difficult, and raise the risk that sudden funding cuts will undermine the Afghan government’s ability to maintain a viable economy and effective security forces.”

Cordesman explains that four sets of funds are involved with a total value of $58.6 billion in appropriations and pledges as of March 2012. The largest is the US Afghanistan Security Forces

Fund (ASFF) that provides the ANSF with equipment, supplies, services, and training, as well as facility and infrastructure repair, renovation, and construction.

Meantime, a separate audit by the State Department’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), reported little change in the cavalcade of management disasters that has plagued the Afghan operation since its inception.

SIGAR reported that “almost $13 million in equipment designed to upgrade Afghanistan’s creaking power grid has been left mothballed in storage for lack of an installation plan.”

In addition, the agency discovered that a contractor was paid $5.76 million to help the Afghan national power utility, but most of the work was never carried out.

“Almost $12.8 million in equipment purchased to meet urgent needs in support of the counterinsurgency strategy is sitting unused in storage… without a clear plan for installation,” said the report by Inspector General John Sopko.

The equipment was dispatched in March, but has been stored at a US Army Corps of Engineers base in the southern city of Kandahar on wooden palettes as they ponder what to do with it, pending a clear installation plan.

A further concern is that the manufacturer’s two-year warranty on the electricity meters could run out before the equipment is installed.

Sopko said in a letter to General John Allen, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that he had audited US efforts to help the Afghan power utility.

He also highlighted that millions of dollars were paid to contractor Louis Berger Group Inc/Black & Veatch to provide training and technical assistance to the utility.

But 76 percent of the work was never completed, including “a draft and final meter installation plan, procurement and installation of 231 boundary meters, and a transition manual and handover plan.”

The two findings “warrant immediate attention prior to issuing a final report in early 2013,” Sopko wrote.

Since 2009, the US has spent some $88 million to help improve and modernize the Afghan power grid, and a further $157 million are pledged between 2013-2016.

Afghanistan, which never had a fully developed power grid, is trying to rebuild after more than three decades of war. The SIGAR report recommended that US commanders determine whether the equipment can be used in Kandahar, and draw up a plan.

It said the head of the US Agency for International Development mission in Afghanistan should assess the work done by the contractor LBG/BV and seek any reimbursement of funds due.

Finally, Paul D. Shinkman, a national security reporter at U.S. News & World Report, predicted that the facilities for security in Afghanistan will not last after (the) allied drawdown. Afghanistan won’t be ready to maintain the infrastructure for its security forces following the kind of drawdown that both candidates for president prescribed (during the recent campaign,) his report finds.

He writes that “a low hiring rate, few technical skills, an inefficient procurement process and a lack of preparedness are among the reasons the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan

Reconstruction believes that country won’t be able to operate and maintain its own security forces’ facilities after the U.S. and coalition troops begin withdrawing in 2014.”

Shinkman writes that his report follows up on the $800 million the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave a firm named Exelis, a Virginia-based contractor, in 2010, to ensure (that) Afghan security forces in both the northern and southern parts of the country would be able to maintain their facilities.

In a memo included in the report, the corps officials state Exelis was not performing sufficient quality control on the services it was contracted to supply.

The Afghan government has hired far less than 40 percent of its positions for operations and management, or O&M, of security facilities, according to the report. Apparently a discrepancy in salary between these positions and those in the private sector (is) are to blame for the lack of interest.

There are also very few people who have the technical skills necessary to maintain these facilities, such as managing drinking water, wastewater and power generation.

The government’s Ministry of Defense has been dragging its feet on providing its army with supplies, the report states, and the Ministry of the Interior did not allocate O&M money for police facilities until March of this year.

Exelis was hiring a project operations manager in support of this project in Afghanistan as of Oct. 16 to oversee 258 separate contract locations in the northern region of Afghanistan, as well as 2,400 employees and subcontractors.

The stability of Afghanistan’s security forces is a central tenet of American hopes to withdraw its troops within two years. The current condition of those forces leaves some worried for the future.

“There are police who don’t even know the meaning of the word ‘police,’” said the National Police Academy’s director Mullah Dad Pazoish in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “We have generals who have no training. They are the jihadi commanders.”

Many worry that the police force, which is largely illiterate, will fall apart if Western forces leave, Shinkman reports.

All of which brings to mind the probably apocryphal question said to have been raised by a Russian soldier as his forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988-89.”

“What,” he asked, “were we supposed to be doing here anyway?”

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt's agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.