“The problems with the utterly shambolic, ham-fisted way in which the United States has spent money in this incompetently run war is infuriating and the two examples above are just a tip of the iceberg. “
Last Sunday the gonzo journalism show “VICE” aired its second season premiere on HBO. If you haven’t yet watched it, you should immediately do so. But prepare to be outraged by what you see.
That’s because the first report from “VICE”’s intrepid reporters is an accounting of the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and an examination of just what, exactly, has become of all that equipment we sent there and aid projects you, the American taxpayer, funded over the past 12 years. Depressingly, if not surprisingly, it seems we’ve accomplished little except fund a cavalcade of waste, fraud and corruption on a vast and nearly unimaginable scale.
According to “VICE”’s report, which is based on estimates provided by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), of the $100 billion or so in funds — more than the United States has spent rebuilding any other country, including Germany after World War II — allocated to rebuild that shattered country, most, if not all, of it has been frittered away to absolutely no effect. It has, put simply, either been stolen outright by corrupt contractors or allowed to evaporate into thin air by incompetent, unaccountable Pentagon and State Department officials who know they will never be held accountable for their gross, some would argue criminal, mismanagement.
“For some reason when you are a bureaucrat and you lose forty to fifty million dollars, you’ll get a promotion,” SIGAR’s chief, John Sopko, a former prosecutor renowned for taking down the mob here in the United States, told “VICE.”
Indeed, the litany of waste that Sopko and “VICE” document should, at the very least, make heads roll, if not cause governments to fall.
Consider, for example, a much-touted aid project aimed at bringing electricity to Kabul. Thanks to the project, a $300 million diesel-powered generating plant sits unused because the fuel needed to power it is too expensive, forcing the Afghans to use U.S. money to import power from neighboring countries simply to keep the plant’s, and Kabul’s, lights on.
What’s worse, reports “VICE,” the Kabul government can’t even collect money from users of the electricity it — meaning, you — provides because of a lack of security. Instead, the Taliban collects the money, which it then uses to help fund its ongoing insurgency against Kabul and the U.S.
As explained with brutal honesty by “VICE”’s reporter and SIGAR’s Sopko, we are, in essence, merely building infrastructure to the tune of billions of dollars for the Taliban to take over after U.S. forces fully withdraw and the Kabul government inevitably collapses. “A lot of times, as the U.S. military pulls out,” said Sopko, “the Taliban move in and buildings are turned over to the insurgency.”
Then, there is the military aid aimed at boosting Kabul’s ability to fight back and hold its own against the encroaching Taliban. This, too, is largely a loss. In one particularly enraging example, for instance, “VICE” reported on an Afghan air force base near Kandahar funded and equipped by Washington that notably features helicopters and planes that don’t work. They are constantly being repaired by U.S. contractors Kabul can’t afford to pay without U.S. aid. And anyway, there are far too few pilots — who are, again, trained and or paid for by you and me — to fly.
The Kandahar base, said Sopko, was a brilliant example of the type of “stupid waste” that has been drowning U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
“They [the Afghans] can’t even use the planes they currently have. Only seven out of the 47 pilots they have could actually carry out counter-terrorism missions. Over 70-percent of the maintenance is done by U.S. contractors. They don’t have the pilots, they don’t have the ground crews — they don’t have the workers,” said Sopko.
The problems with the utterly shambolic, ham-fisted way in which the U.S. has spent money in this incompetently run war is infuriating, and the two examples above are just a tip of the iceberg. From brand new U.S. army equipment being sold for scrap in Afghanistan’s flea markets to $34-million headquarters buildings that have never been used to rural aid projects that accomplish little except coming in over budget and lining the pockets of Kabul administrators, nearly every penny spent in Afghanistan seems to have been squandered or stolen.
It has gotten so bad that Sopko has gone on the record as saying that the U.S. doesn’t even know how much it is spending for what, for whom or even how. Afghan infrastructure, he reports, is disintegrating faster than we can build it, while legions of ghost soldiers and policemen are being paid for out of Uncle Sam’s largesse. Taken as a whole, the morass that is the Afghan money pit seems inexplicable.
Where is the outrage?
How could all this have happened on such a scale? Where is the outrage?
Unfortunately, when it comes to anything associated with war-making and foreign policy, the U.S. seems uniquely tolerant to consistently wasting such huge amounts with barely a bat of the eye in response from official Washington. The doomed Iraq fiasco was so riddled with corruption and incompetence that entire pallets of cash — literally, piles of billions of dollars — disappeared for months and years. As in Afghanistan, projects funded by aid dollars and meant to help the Iraqi people were consistently wasted and stolen, undermining U.S. efforts, threatening the lives of our men and women in uniform and sapping the reputation of American power in the process.
The same, of course, has happened in every American war, but since the end of World War II, efforts to raise hell about it here at home have noticeably slackened. Harry Truman, for instance, came to national prominence while serving as a U.S. senator from Missouri by holding inquiries into war profiteering and waste even as that war was going on. Even earlier, both during and after World War I and the U.S. Civil War, war waste was eagerly hunted after by members of Congress seeking to embarrass the sitting president or to make a point about the evils of foreign entanglements. There was even, if you can imagine such a thing, genuine outrage over the financial scandals that inevitably came to light because of these investigations.
Today, however, these stories are so commonplace that the only explanation is that we as a country have simply grown used to them. After all, if the trillion-dollar boondoggles that are the Air Force’s F-22 and F-35 fighters, the Navy’s littoral combat ship and the Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle aren’t enough to create mobs of outraged citizens descending on the Pentagon and White House with torches and pitchforks, warzone corruption and waste certainly isn’t going to, either. So, what happened?
Clearly, the emergence of a permanent war establishment — both in government and in the private sector — has had a prominent role to play in creating a general sense of apathy toward military and foreign-policy waste of this type. What were relatively tiny or non-existent industries before World War II, are today corporate monstrosities with huge public-relations departments that line the pockets of executives, shareholders, politicians and employees across the country. Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex has clearly come to pass.
Papering over corruption and theft
Possibly more important than the mere venality of profiting off America’s wars and conflicts, however, is the degree to which so much of this corruption and theft is either kept secret or papered over by the needs of that vague term, national security. In turn, national security is kept from the prying eyes of cynics and skeptics by that last refuge of scoundrels, patriotism.
That’s because questioning spending of this sort necessarily raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions not just about the spending itself, the people who allocated it, the people who spent it and the people who benefit from it, but also the goals that spending was trying to achieve. If it turns out that spending like this is doomed to fail, then the implication is that the underlying policies promoting them — generally interventionist and pro-military — are also quite possibly flawed and/or unachievable. Such a conclusion would have all sorts of grave consequences.
Such thinking, for example, is obviously dangerous to those that stand to gain financially or professionally from expanding and maintaining America’s empire of geopolitical interests. It also, however, calls into question the very ideology that has been created to justify it. Given that much of this corrupt empire building has been legitimized by the idea that it is America’s responsibility and mission to police the world, contain or rollback its dangerous actors and generally use its power to spread our “blessed” values and way of life around the world, then questioning the spending that makes that possible is a dagger pointed at the very heart of how America — or at least its decision makers — views itself.
Questioning the spending necessarily casts doubt on America’s sense of itself, its role in the world and ultimately the very values it publicly says it is committed to. Like Dorothy peeking behind the curtain or the little boy pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, a close investigation of what America’s war spending has actually achieved over the past several decades reveals several Potemkin village’s worth of wholesale hypocrisy and fraud. When push comes to shove and we’re forced to actually acknowledge what all this empire building has wrought, the objective facts reveal that there is, quite simply, no “there” there. All that blood. All that treasure. It has been mostly for nothing.
And that, dear reader, is exactly why stories like this keep getting ignored by those with any power to do anything about them. Admitting all that would strike deep at the idea of what modern America is and is not. Like the British who could not conceive of themselves without their empire, America without its modern-day equivalent is shorn of a gratifying image of itself that many, if not most, Americans cling to like a drowning man does to a life raft. It is the penny without which the purse is empty, and like all narcissists, we cannot stand the idea that once we remove that penny, the purse of which we are so proud doesn’t have much in it at all.