The Cable

Afghanistan Watchdog: Poor U.S. Planning Puts $488 Million at Risk

According to a new report from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, lack of government strategy puts $500 million of American taxpayers' money at risk.

Afghan miners walk into a mine to remove the bodies of their colleagues who died in a mine collapse in Ruyi Du Ab district of Samangan province on September 16, 2013. The coal mine in a remote area of Samangan province caved in after a gas explosion on September 14, and at least 28 miners were confirmed dead, officials said. AFP PHOTO/Farshad USYAN (Photo credit should read FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Coordination between American officials in Afghanistan is so rare that in one instance, according to a U.S. watchdog, a senior official from the embassy in Kabul didn’t know about a $39.6 million business project until Afghan officials thanked the ambassador for supporting it.

And according to John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, that lack of communication among the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations now puts $488 million of American taxpayer money at risk.

A new report released by Sopko’s office Tuesday said officials from the three entities “agreed that coordination efforts had all but fallen apart by December 2014.”

The three groups were supposed to coordinate efforts to revamp Afghanistan’s extractive industries. But lack of U.S. strategy meant they each went their own way and as a result created programs that will likely not survive without continued American support.

These industries are crucial to Afghanistan’s economy. The country’s mineral deposits are worth $900 billion, and the natural gas industry could be worth more than $220 billion. Had American programs done the job they set out to do, the revenues from these industries could have provided billions of dollars in yearly revenue for the Afghan government and reduced reliance on foreign aid.

Much of this lack of coordination, Sopko said, was due to the Pentagon task force’s “perception that it did not have to coordinate with other U.S. agencies.” But according to the report, the embassy in Kabul also did not do enough to coordinate efforts among the groups. One senior task force official even said he saw coordinating with the embassy to be more of a “courtesy” than a requirement.

Both the task force and USAID provided assistance to the extractive industry. The task force, which ceased operations on March 31, administered 11 initiatives — the contracts and costs for which totaled more than $282 million. USAID implemented three programs that totaled $206 million.

But despite the nearly half-billion dollars invested in these projects, no U.S. agency left in Afghanistan has further plans to oversee many of these programs now that many development workers and troops have withdrawn.

Although the task force’s information sharing was labeled a problem by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2011, the weaknesses were hardly addressed over the course of the next four years.

Sopko recommended that the Pentagon assess the economic impact and final status of each task force initiative. He also recommended that USAID review which projects transferred to Afghan control could benefit from assistance from the agency.

This is just the latest embarrassment for the American mission in Afghanistan, which has faced massive criticism for its wastefulness, especially since Sopko began his harsh reviews in 2012. Just last week, Sopko published a report about a $7.8 million industrial park built in Kandahar that has room for 48 businesses, but only hosts one: an ice-cream packing plant.

Photo credit: FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images

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