Nation Building in Afghanistan

Nation building is tremendously expensive. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports that “approximately $113.1 billion has been appropriated for Afghanistan relief and reconstruction since 2002.” In total, the war has cost over $1 trillion, which is around $33,000 per Afghan citizen.

SIGAR is an accountability agency that was created by Congress “to provide independent and objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects and activities.” The organization performs audits and investigations with two goals in mind: first, to “promote efficiency and effectiveness of reconstruction programs,” and second, to “detect and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Unfortunately, SIGAR has found plenty of waste and inefficiency in how U.S. taxpayer money was spent in Afghanistan. In 2011, SIGAR found that $36 million was squandered on a still-unused command and control center that was built despite U.S. generals in Afghanistan deeming it superfluous. More recently, SIGAR found that the U.S. Department of Defense spent roughly $43 million dollars on an “ill-conceived” compressed natural gas station that should have cost about $500,000. In other words, the Department of Defense built one gas station for the price of 86. Though cost overruns are expected in a war zone, these projects are particular egregious, because we ignored local knowledge and dismissed the recommendations of our own experts. Unfortunately, spending doesn’t equal results.

Given these humiliating examples of waste, it’s unsurprising that the Pentagon has attempted to deflect SIGAR auditors from accessing their databases. After accounting for only $21 billion of its $66-billion Afghanistan reconstruction budget, the Pentagon claimed that their databases were so complicated that accounting for the remaining $45 billion dollars would not be feasible. These failures, combined with a complete lack of accountability, serve as a microcosm for the United States’ entire nation-building endeavor.

Today, in spite of our costly efforts, Afghanistan’s government remains on the precipice of total dysfunction and is constantly hounded by still-unvanquished militants. Given the rise in security-related incidents in 2015 as well as the exodus of the well-educated, it seems that while the United States certainly won the initial military battle, it has failed in the struggle of nation building.

On May 18, the Charles Koch Institute hosted prominent national security experts from around the country to discuss issues like the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Was it an effective use of our resources? What lessons are there to learn from that war? Read the recap of Advancing American Security: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy.

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