Security Brief

Corruption in Afghanistan as ‘Big a Threat’ as Taliban

Congress and watchdogs aren’t pleased about billions of wasted taxpayer dollars in the so-called forever wars.

US soldiers from 1st Regiment 320 Field Artillary 101st Airbourne stand guard outside COP Stout before the opening ceremony for a newly completed mosque in the village of Tarok Kolache in southern Kandahar province on April 1, 2011 where the US military is funding its rebuilding.
U.S. soldiers from 1st Regiment 320 Field Artillery 101st Airborne stand guard outside COP Stout before the opening ceremony for a newly completed mosque in southern Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on April 1, 2011. Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. Let’s start off with something completely different: For anyone who’s nostalgic for the Pleistocene era, there’s a new job opportunity for people who want to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. Okay, now back to business.

The highlights this week: A government watchdog outlines billions of dollars wasted in Afghanistan reconstruction, Biden releases a new national security strategy document, and a new study reveals shortcomings in U.S. counterterrorism efforts in West Africa.

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Billions in Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Afghanistan Development

It only cost U.S. taxpayers over half a billion dollars, but to be fair, they got back almost $41,000 for all the trouble.

A pair of damning new U.S. government watchdog reports shed light on the industrial-scale waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan. And it’s a sign of how inured Washington is to mismanagement in the Afghan War that the matter barely made a dent in the Washington news cycle. But one key U.S. lawmaker is speaking out.

Grounded. The U.S. Air Force wasted $549 million on purchasing Italian-made cargo planes for the Afghan government that didn’t work back in 2008, and now the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said no one involved in the deal will be held to account. SIGAR is the U.S. government watchdog monitoring how the government carries out stability and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

It said that after a rushed acquisition process that skirted federal guidelines, the Air Force eventually sold 16 faulty planes for scrap metal for $40,257.

Unaccountability. SIGAR coordinated an investigation with the Defense Department and FBI, and referred the matter to the Justice Department for potential prosecution. The Justice Department has declined to prosecute anyone involved, according to the SIGAR report, saying it would be too difficult a case.

But wait, there’s more. A second SIGAR report released this week that takes a wider look at U.S. reconstruction projects found that Washington spent billions of dollars on projects that were either unnecessary or unwanted by the Afghan government. The agency assessed $7.8 billion spent since 2008, finding that $2.4 billion in assets were unused, abandoned, deteriorated, or destroyed. Only $1.2 billion worth were being used “as intended,” and only $343.2 million of the assets—or just over 4 percent of the total—were maintained in good condition.

The big takeaway? The assessments paint a grim picture of U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and finally withdraw from the country after two decades of war—a top priority for President Joe Biden. They also punctuate what some top Afghan analysts have been warning about for years: Large-scale corruption, fueled in part by an influx of U.S. and international donors, poses as great a threat to the future of Afghanistan as do the Taliban and other militant groups.

Par for the course? A key U.S. lawmaker who oversees spending on national security told Security Brief in an interview he wasn’t surprised to hear about the widespread waste of taxpayer funds. “It was extremely disappointing, although not surprising,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security.

“The level of corruption there is just incredible, and it’s as big a threat I think as the Taliban is,” he added. He said federal agencies need to do a better job heeding warnings from the inspector general’s office to prevent more fraud and abuse on future reconstruction projects.

Some lawmakers and U.S. officials see reconstruction projects, as flawed as they are, as key to helping stabilize the Afghan government and its weak economy as a bulwark against the Taliban and more instability.

Who’s Joining Team Biden Next

Meet the Nephew. Richard Nephew, that is. The well-known sanctions expert who served on the original State Department team in the Obama administration that negotiated the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is back for the sequel, this time as deputy Iran envoy to Robert Malley, whose appointment prompted protests from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Warming the climate bench. Wall Street and Democratic fundraising high-roller Mark Gallogly is joining John Kerry’s climate team, which is still staffing up, Axios reports. Gallogly will handle outreach to the business community for Kerry, Biden’s current special envoy on climate change and former secretary of state under President Barack Obama.

The Week Ahead

Friday, March 5: Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and former Defense Secretaries Mark Esper and Leon Panetta speak at an event on U.S. national defense issues with the Reagan Institute.

Wednesday, March 10: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

What We’re Following

Time for some good old-fashioned strategery. The Biden administration has presented its national security strategy—sort of. On Thursday, the White House released its so-called interim national security strategic guidance, a document that will help cabinet agencies plan for the full National Security Strategy expected in early 2022.

Some highlights of the 24-page document include calls to boost diplomacy as a tool of first resort, for the United States to “responsibly end” the war in Afghanistan (without providing specifics on how to get there), and for the United States to reestablish itself as a leader in arms control while paring back reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. Want more? See for yourself.

“It would be an absolute F.” That’s the grade that advocates for victims of military sexual assault are giving the Pentagon. But as an independent commission prepares to deliver recommendations to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the next 90 days, advocates say the Pentagon will have its work cut out: The number of reported assaults in the military has more than doubled over the past decade, and the actual number could be much higher.

“You have to make the water so toxic for sharks to swim, that they can’t attack people,” retired Sgt. 1st Class Quinton Mcnair said in an interview with PBS NewsHour that aired this week.

First in Security Brief: Unintended consequences. Nations like conflict-ridden Burkina Faso are using U.S. security assistance to militarize their domestic policy, with authorities in the West African nation using counterterrorism to repress minorities, justify authoritarian leanings, and enrich cronies. That’s according to the Cost of War Project at Brown University, which sent co-director Stephanie Savell on an investigative trip to Ouagadougou.

She found that the U.S. narrative of the “war on terror” allowed Burkina Faso’s government to attack the country’s Fulani minority and restrict press access, all while attacks from Islamist militant groups are surging in Burkina Faso and the wider Sahel region. The report indicates U.S. and international efforts to stem the rise of terrorism in West Africa through military support are backfiring in some important ways. “

The case of Burkina Faso and its treatment of the Fulani shows how local power dynamics are mobilized and enmeshed in counterterrorism,” Savell writes in a report shared first with Foreign Policy.

Pop Quiz

Inauguration day. Up until the 1930s, March 4 was Inauguration Day for U.S. presidents. Which president gave the shortest inaugural address, and which president gave the longest?

First to send us the correct answer gets a shoutout in next week’s Security Brief!

Congrats to last week’s winner Jack Rieger, who correctly answered that Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American to be sworn in as a member of Congress 151 years ago last week. Revels, a Republican and Civil War veteran, served as a senator from Mississippi during the Reconstruction era.

Movers and Shakers

Roper-ed in. Former Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Will Roper is joining the board of commercial drone delivery company Volansi, Defense News’ Valerie Insinna reports. Roper was known for pushing for the use of new commercial technology at the Pentagon and helped establish the Strategic Capabilities Office.

I wanna dance. The former Austrian foreign minister who famously danced with Russian President Vladimir Putin at her wedding appears to be getting more good vibes from Russia. Karin Kneissl has been nominated to the board of the state-controlled energy giant Rosneft.

New FBI intel chief. The FBI announced that M.A. “Mo” Myers has been tapped as the new executive assistant director of the Intelligence Branch at FBI Headquarters.

Amnesty gets new leader. Paul O’Brien, former vice president at Oxfam America, has been named as the new executive director of Amnesty International USA, the global human rights advocacy organization.

Quote of the Week

“My intelligence officer pulled me aside and basically said, ‘Sir, I’ve got some bad news for you.’ ‘What’s up?’ ‘We have information that Iran is fueling 27 medium-range ballistic missiles and their intention is to level this base and we may not survive.’”

—U.S. Army Maj. Alan Johnson to CBS, on the Iranian ballistic missile attack against U.S. forces in Iraq in early 2020 that brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war

Odds and Ends

For Capitol Hill denizens. Hill staffers, rejoice. The beloved Cups cafe in the Russell Senate Office building is scheduled to reopen in April, a heartening sign that a return to some semblance of post-coronavirus normalcy is on the horizon for coffee-addicted Hill staffers (and, speaking from experience, journalists frantically trying to get a caffeine fix while running between committee hearings).

Why I’m more of a dog person. Via 9News Australia: “Plane forced to return to airport after cat attacks pilot.”

You better call Kenny Loggins. Because you’re in the Danger Zone… well, the Lego Danger Zone, that is. The internet has remade the “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer with Legos replacing Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer. We’re not fighter pilots here at Security Brief, but we’d dare to say it packs more G-force than the original. See for yourself.

That’s it for this week.

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Update, March 4, 2021: This story has been updated to include the official job title of the author of the Brown University report.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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