By Nick Paton Walsh, CNN
These are part of a catalog of “waste, fraud and abuse” complaints made against the United States’ reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan — an effort totaling $145 billion over 20 years — made by the United States’ own inspector general into the war. But the in-depth audits detailing these findings have, for the most part, been taken offline at the request of the State Department, citing security concerns.
The total cost of the war, according to the Pentagon, was $825 billion, a low-end estimate: even President Joe Biden has cited an estimate that put the amount at over double that — more than $2 trillion, a figure that factors in long-term costs such as veterans’ care. The interest on the debt runs into hundreds of billions already.
The $145 billion reconstruction effort lacked oversight, leading to Congress to set up the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in 2008. SIGAR published quarterly reports that gained less attention at the time than was commensurate with the expenditure they addressed, critics said, and were sometimes denied the information they needed by the Pentagon — especially when it came to assessing security in the country.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN they had asked SIGAR to “temporarily” remove the reports, owing “to safety and security concerns regarding our ongoing evacuation efforts.” They added SIGAR had the authority to restore them “when it deems appropriate.”
What follows are 10 notable cases, stripped of identifying details, collated by CNN over the years.
1) Kabul’s winter blanket
The Tarakhil power plant was commissioned in 2007 as a backup generator for the capital, in case electricity supply from Uzbekistan was compromised.
A vast, modern structure, it ran on diesel-fueled turbines, supplied by a brand-name engineering giant. There was one catch: Afghanistan had scant diesel supply of its own and had to ship the fuel in by truck — making the plant too expensive to run.
The facility itself cost $335 million to build, and had an estimated annual fuel cost of $245 million. The most recent SIGAR assessment said at best it was used at just 2.2% capacity, as the Afghan government could not afford the fuel. USAID declined to comment.
2) A half-billion-dollar fleet of cargo planes that flew for a year
Afghanistan’s fledgling air force needed cargo planes. In 2008, the Pentagon chose the G222 — an Italian-designed aircraft designed to take off and land on rough runways. That first year, according to a speech made by SIGAR’s chief John Sopko, citing a USAF officer, the planes were very busy.
But they would not be sustainable. The aircraft were only noticed by SIGAR when Sopko noticed them parked at Kabul airport and asked what they were doing there.
Six years after the procurement was launched, the 16 aircraft delivered to Afghanistan were sold for scrap for $40,257. The cost of the project: $549 million.
3) The $36 million Marines HQ in the desert, neither wanted nor used
Sopko said in a speech this 64,000-square foot control center in Helmand epitomized how when a project starts, it often cannot be stopped.
In 2010, the Marines were surging troop numbers in Helmand, the deadliest part of Afghanistan. A command and control center on the main base of Camp Leatherneck was ordained as part of the effort, although Sopko recalled the base commander and two other marine generals said it was not needed as it would not be completed fast enough.
Sopko said the thought of returning the funds allocated to Congress was “was so abhorrent to the contracting command, it was built anyway. The facility was never occupied, Camp Leatherneck was turned over to the Afghans, who abandoned it.”
It cost $36 million, was never used, and seems to have been later stripped by the Afghans, who also never appeared to use it.
Major Robert Lodewick, a DoD spokesman, said in a statement the SIGAR report contained “factual errors,” objected to how it implied “malfeasance” by some officers, and said the $36 million figure included ancillary costs like roads to the HQ.
4) $28 million on an inappropriate camouflage pattern
In 2007, new uniforms were being ordered for the Afghan army. The Afghan defense minister Wardak said he wanted a rare camouflage pattern, “Spec4ce Forest,” from Canadian company HyperStealth.
A total of 1.3 million sets were ordered, costing $43-80 each, as opposed to $25-30 originally estimated for replacement uniforms. The uniforms were never tested or evaluated in the field, and there is just 2.1% forest cover across Afghanistan.
In testimony, Sopko said it cost taxpayers an extra $28 million to buy the uniforms with a patented pattern, and SIGAR projected in 2017 a different choice of pattern could have saved a potential $72 million over the next decade.
DoD spokesman Lodewick said the report “overestimated” the cost, and “incorrectly discredited the value of the type of pattern selected,” adding a lot of the fighting in Afghanistan occurred in verdant areas.
5) $1.5 million daily on fighting opium production
The US spent $1.5 million a day on counter-narcotics programs (from 2002 to 2018). Opium production was, according to the last SIGAR report, up in 2020 by 37% compared to the year before. This was the third-highest yield since records began in 1994.
In 2017, production was four times what it was in 2002. A State department spokesperson noted “the Taliban have been the primary factor contributing to poppy’s persistence in recent years” and “that the Taliban have committed to banning narcotics.”
6) $249 million on an incomplete road
An extensive ring road around Afghanistan was funded by multiple grants and donors, totaling billions during the course of the war. Towards the end of the project, a 233-kilometer section in the North, between the towns of Qeysar and Laman, led to $249 million being handed out to contractors, but only 15% of the road being built, a SIGAR audit reported.
Between March 2014 and September 2017, there was no construction on this section, and what had been built deteriorated, the report concluded. USAID declined to comment.
7) $85 million hotel that never opened
An extensive hotel and apartment complex was commissioned next to the US Embassy in Kabul, for which the US government provided $85 million in loans.
In 2016, SIGAR concluded “the $85 million in loans is gone, the buildings were never completed and are uninhabitable, and the U.S. Embassy is now forced to provide security for the site at additional cost to U.S. taxpayers.”
The audit concluded the contractor made unrealistic promises to secure the loans, and that the branch of the US government who oversaw the project never visited the site, and neither did the company they later hired to oversee the project. A State department spokesperson said they did not manage the construction and it was “a private endeavor.”
8) The fund that spent more on itself than Afghanistan
The Pentagon created the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) expanded from Iraq to include Afghanistan in 2009, for whose operations in Afghanistan Congress set aside $823 million.
Over half the money actually spent by TFBSO — $359 million of $675 million — was “spent on indirect and support costs, not directly on projects in Afghanistan,” SIGAR concluded in an audit.
They reviewed 89 of the contracts TFBSO made, and found “7 contracts worth $35.1 million were awarded to firms employing former TFBSO staff as senior executives.”
An audit also concluded that the fund spent about $6 million on supporting the cashmere industry, $43 million on a compressed natural gas station, and $150 million on high-end villas for its staff.
DoD spokesman Lodewick said SIGAR did not accuse anyone of fraud or the misuse of funds, took issue with “weaknesses and shortcomings” in the audit, and said “28 of TFBSO’s 35 projects met or partially met their intended objectives.”
9) The healthcare facility in the sea
A 2015 report into USAID’s funding of healthcare facilities in Afghanistan said that over a third of the 510 projects they had been given coordinates for, did not exist in those locations. Thirteen were “not located in Afghanistan, with one located in the Mediterranean Sea.” Thirty “were located in a province different from the one USAID reported.”
And “189 showed no physical structure within 400 feet of the reported coordinates. Just under half of these locations, showed no physical structure within a half mile of the reported coordinates.” The audit said that USAID and the Afghan ministry of Public Health could only provide “oversight of these facilities [if they] know where they are.” USAID declined to comment.
10) At least $19 billion lost to “waste, fraud, abuse”
An October 2020 report presented a startling total for the war. Congress at the time had appropriated $134 billion since 2002 for reconstruction in Afghanistan.
SIGAR was able to review $63 billion of it — nearly half. They concluded $19 billion of that — almost a third — was “lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.”
DoD spokesman Lodewick said they and “several other U.S. Government departments and agencies are already on record as having challenged some of these reports as inaccurate and misleading” and that their conclusions “appeared to overlook the difference between reconstruction efforts that may have been mismanaged willfully/negligently and those efforts that, at the time of the report, simply had fallen short of strategic goals.”