By Megan McCloskey
and Sisi Wei
December 18, 2015
In 2008, the Pentagon bought 20 refurbished cargo planes for the Afghan Air Force, but as one top US officer put it, “just about everything you can think of was wrong.” No spare parts, for example. The planes were also “a death trap,” according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. So $486 million was spent on worthless planes that no one could fly. We did recoup some of the investment. Sixteen of the planes were sold as scrap for the grand sum of $32,000. That’s 6 cents a pound.
You’d think someone would have been in trouble.Chairs at a school built, but never occupied, were stripped for firewood. Credit: SIGAR/Flickr
Nothing happened to anybody in charge of that spectacular screw up. No general even had to make an embarrassing appearance on Capitol Hill. Congress made not a peep.
Even worse, such jaw-dropping waste without a shred of accountability is not an anomaly. It has happened in Afghanistan again and again, and, you guessed it, again. Some of the more outlandish examples have briefly seized the attention of the news media, but really, the running tab for the waste has mounted out of sight of the taxpayers footing the bill.
And what a bill it is. There’s a widely held idea of “just” as in “just a few million.” Like the military officer who wrote that the $25 million blown on a fancy headquarters nobody used was “probably not bad in the grand scheme of things.” But those millions add up. To billions.
The problem, contrary to popular assumptions, is not unscrupulous contractors. Follow the long trail of waste and you’ll be standing at the doors of the military, the State Department and the US. Agency for International Development. It’s their bad decisions, bad purchases and bad programs that are consistently to blame.
ProPublica pored over more than 200 audits, special projects and inspections done by SIGAR since 2009 and built a database to add up the total cost of failed reconstruction projects. Looking at the botched projects collectively — rather than as one-off headlines — reveals a grim picture of the overall reconstruction effort and a repeated cycle of mistakes.
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