Breaking News Emails
The United States has now spent more money reconstructing Afghanistan than it did rebuilding Europe at the end of World War II, according to a government watchdog.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a statement to Congress last week that when adjusted for inflation the $113.1 billion plowed into the chaos-riven country outstripped the post-WWII spend by at least $10 billion.
Billions have been squandered on projects that were either useless or sub-standard, or lost to waste, corruption, and systemic abuse, according to SIGAR's reports.
NBC News spoke to SIGAR's Special Inspector General John F. Sopko about 12 of the most bizarre and baffling cases highlighted by his team's investigations.
Paraphrasing Albert Einstein, Sopko said the U.S.'s profligate spending in Afghanistan is "the definition of insanity — doing the same things over and over again, expecting a different result."
1. $486 million for 'deathtrap' aircraft that were later sold for $32,000
The Pentagon spent close to half a billion dollars on 20 Italian-made cargo planes that it eventually scrapped and sold for just $32,000, according to SIGAR.
"These planes were the wrong planes for Afghanistan," Sopko told NBC News. "The U.S. had difficulty getting the Afghans to fly them, and our pilots called them deathtraps. One pilot said parts started falling off while he was coming into land."
After being taken out of use in March 2013, the G222 aircraft, which are also referred to as the C-27A Spartan, were towed to a corner of Kabul International Airport where they were visible from the civilian terminal. They had "trees and bushes growing around them," the inspector general said.
Sixteen of the planes were scrapped and sold to a local construction company for 6 cents a pound, SIGAR said. The other four remained unused at a U.S. base in Germany.
Sopko called the planes "one of the biggest single programs in Afghanistan that was a total failure."
2. $335 million on a power plant that used just 1 percent of its capacity
The Tarakhil Power Plant was fired up in 2009 to "provide more reliable power " to blackout-plagued Kabul, according to the United States Agency for International Development, which built the facility.
However, the "modern" diesel plant exported just 8,846 megawatt hours of power between February 2014 and April 2015, SIGAR said in a letter to USAID last August. This output was less than 1 percent of the plant's capacity and provided just 0.35 percent of power to Kabul, a city of 4.6 million people.
Furthermore, the plant's "frequent starts and stops … place greater wear and tear on the engines and electrical components," which could result in its "catastrophic failure," the watchdog said.
USAID responded to SIGAR's report in June 2015, saying: "We have no indication that [Afghan state-run utility company] Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), failed to operate Tarakhil as was alleged in your letter."
3. Almost $500,000 on buildings that 'melted' in the rain
U.S. officials directed and oversaw the construction of an Afghan police training facility in 2012 that was so poorly built that its walls actually fell apart in the rain. The $456,669 dry-fire range in Wardak province was "not only an embarrassment, but, more significantly, a waste of U.S. taxpayers' money," SIGAR's report said in January 2015.
It was overseen by the U.S. Central Command’s Joint Theater Support Contracting Command and contracted out to an Afghan firm, the Qesmatullah Nasrat Construction Company.
SIGAR said this "melting" started just four months after the building was finished in October 2012. It blamed U.S. officials' bad planning and failure to hold to account the Afghan construction firm, which used poor-quality materials. The U.S. subsequently contracted another firm to rebuild the facility.
Sopko called the incident "baffling."
4. $34.4 million on a soybean program for a country that doesn't eat soybeans
"Afghans apparently have never grown or eaten soybeans before," SIGAR said in its June 2014 report. This did not stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture funding a $34.4 million program by the American Soybean Association to try to introduce the foodstuff into the country in 2010.
The project "did not meet expectations," the USDA confirmed to SIGAR, largely owing to inappropriate farming conditions in Afghanistan and the fact no one wanted to buy a product they had never eaten.
"They didn't grow them, they didn't eat them, there was no market for them, and yet we thought it was a good idea," Sopko told NBC News.
"What is troubling about this particular project is that it appears that many of these problems could reasonably have been foreseen and, therefore, possibly avoided," the inspector general wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in June 2014.
5. One general's explanation why 1,600 fire-prone buildings weren't a problem
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built some 2,000 buildings to be used as barracks, medical clinics and fire stations by the Afghan National Army as part of a $1.57-billion program. When two fires in October and December 2012 revealed that around 80 percent of these structures did not meet international building regulations for fire safety, Sopko said he was "troubled" by the "arrogant" response from a senior USACE chief.
Major General Michael R. Eyre, commanding general of USACE's Transatlantic Division, said the risk of fire was acceptable because "the typical occupant populations for these facilities are young, fit Afghan soldiers." Writing in a January 2014 memo published by SIGAR, Eyre said these recruits "have the physical ability to make a hasty retreat during a developing situation."
Sopko told NBC News that Eyre's comments "showed a really poor attitude toward our allies." He added: "It was an unbelievable arrogance, and I'm sorry to say that about a senior officer."
6. A $600,000 hospital where infants were washed in dirty river water
Despite the Department of Defense spending $597,929 on Salang Hospital in Afghanistan’s Parwan province, the 20-bed facility has been forced to resort to startling medical practices.
"Because there was no clean water, staff at the hospital were washing newborns with untreated river water," SIGAR's report said in January 2014. It added that the "poorly constructed" building was also at increased "risk of structural collapse during an earthquake."
NBC News visited the hospital in January 2014 and witnessed some disturbing practices: a doctor poking around a dental patient's mouth with a pair of unsterilized scissors before yanking out another's tooth with a pair of pliers.
The United States Forces-Afghanistan responded to SIGAR's report in January 2014 saying it would investigate why the building was not constructed to standard.
In a separate report, SIGAR said that USAID reimbursed the International Organization for Migration for spiraling costs while building Gardez Hospital, in Paktia province.
The IOM's "weak internal controls" meant it paid $300,000 for just 600 gallons of diesel fuel — a price of $500 per gallon when market prices should not have exceeded $5, SIGAR said.
7. $36 million on a military facility that several generals didn't want
The so-called "64K" command-and-control facility at Afghanistan's Camp Leatherneck cost $36 million and was "a total waste of U.S. taxpayer funds," SIGAR's report said in May 2015.
The facility in Helmand province — named because it measured 64,000 square feet — was intended to support the U.S. troop surge of 2010.
However, a year before its construction, the very general in charge of the surge asked that it not be built because the existing facilities were "more than sufficient," the watchdog said. But another general denied this cancellation request, according to SIGAR, because he said it would not be "prudent" to quit a project for which funds had already been appropriated by Congress.
Ultimately, construction did not begin until May 2011, two months before the drawdown of the troops involved in surge. Sopko found the "well-built and newly furnished" building totally untouched in June 2013, with plastic sheets still covering the furniture.
"Again, nobody was held to account," Sopko told NBC News, adding it was a "gross ... really wasteful, extremely wasteful amount of money."
He added: "We have thrown too much money at the country. We pour in money not really thinking about it."
8. $39.6 million that created an awkward conversation for the U.S. ambassador
A now-defunct Pentagon task force spent almost $40 million on Afghanistan's oil, mining and gas industry — but no one remembered to tell America's diplomats in Kabul, according to SIGAR, citing a senior official at the U.S. embassy in the city.
In fact, the first the U.S. ambassador knew about the multi-billion-dollar spend was when Afghan government officials thanked him for his country's support, SIGAR said.
The project, administered by the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), was part of a wider $488 million investment that also included the State Department and USAID. These organizations "failed to coordinate and prioritize" their work, which created "poor working relationships, and … potential sustainability problems," according to SIGAR.
It was, according to Sopko, "a real disaster."
One USAID official told the watchdog it would take the U.S. "100 years" to complete the necessary infrastructure and training Afghanistan needs to completely develop these industries.
9. $3 million for the purchase — and then mystery cancellation — of eight boats
SIGAR said the U.S. military has been unable to provide records answering "the most basic questions" surrounding the mystery purchase and cancellation of eight patrol boats for landlocked Afghanistan.
The scant facts SIGAR were able to find indicated the boats were bought in 2010 to be used by the Afghan National Police, and that they were intended to be deployed along the country's northern river border with Uzbekistan.
"The order was cancelled — without explanation — nine months later," SIGAR said. The boats were still sitting unused at a Navy warehouse in Yorktown, Virginia, as of 2014.
"We bought in a navy for a landlocked country," Sopko said.
10. $7.8 billion fighting drugs — while Afghans grow more opium than ever
Despite the U.S. plowing some $7.8 billion into stopping Afghanistan's drug trade," Afghan farmers are growing more opium than ever before," SIGAR reported in December 2014.
"Poppy-growing provinces that were once declared 'poppy free' have seen a resurgence in cultivation," it said, noting that internationally funded irrigation projects may have actually increased poppy growth in recent years.
The "fragile gains" the U.S. has made on Afghan health, education and rule of law were being put in "jeopardy or wiped out by the narcotics trade, which not only supports the insurgency, but also feeds organized crime and corruption," Sopko told U.S. lawmakers in January 2014.
Afghanistan is the world's leader in the production of opium. In 2013, the value of Afghan opium was $3 billion — equivalent to 15 percent of the country's GDP — according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.
Sopko told NBC News the picture is no more optimistic today. "No matter which metric you use, this effort has been a real failure," he said.
11. $7.8 million on a nearly-empty business park
The USAID-funded Shorandam Industrial Park in Kandahar province was transferred to the Afghan government in September 2010 with the intention of accommodating 48 business and hundreds of local employees. Four years later, SIGAR inspectors found just one active company operating there.
This was due to the U.S. military building a power plant on one-third of the industrial park to provide electricity to nearby Kandahar City, causing "entrepreneurs to shy away from setting up businesses" at the site, SIGAR said in its report of April 2015.
After the military withdrew in mid-2014, the investigators were told that at least four Afghan businesses had moved into the industrial park. However, SIGAR said that it could not complete a thorough inspection because USAID's contract files were "missing important documentation."
12. $81.9 million on incinerators that either weren't used or harmed troops
The DOD spent nearly $82 million on nine incineration facilities in Afghanistan — yet four of them never fired their furnaces, SIGAR said in February 2015. These four dormant facilities had eight incinerators between them and the wastage cost $20.1 million.
In addition, SIGAR inspectors said it was "disturbing" that "prohibited items," such as tires and batteries, continued to be burned in Afghanistan's 251 burn pits. U.S. military personnel were also exposed to emissions from these pits "that could have lasting negative health consequences," the watchdog said.
The Department of Defense said it was "vitally interested in exploring all possible ways to save taxpayer dollars and ensure we are good stewards of government resources."
A spokesman added: "We'll continue to work with SIGAR, and other agencies, to help get to the bottom of any reported issues or concerns."
A spokesman for Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani declined to comment on this story.