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Column: In Afghanistan, American Dollars Have Bought Little

In June of 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall delivered a wholly unexpected commencement speech to the newly minted graduates of Harvard University. The United States, Marshall announced, would launch a massive reconstruction effort to rebuild Europe in the devastating aftermath of World War II. The subsequent effort, the Marshall Plan, put Europe back on the path to prosperity and has been hailed as a monumental, if wildly expensive, achievement of U.S. foreign policy. All told, the United States funneled an inflation-adjusted $103.4 billion to the plan’s recipients over the course of four years.

But the Marshall Plan has now been knocked off its pedestal as America’s most expensive nation-building project. Afghanistan now reigns supreme, having gobbled up $104 billion in American aid. And, unlike in Europe, that money hasn’t bought the kind of world-class infrastructure that became the cornerstone of numerous flourishing economies. Instead, the funds have mainly bought empty buildings, malfunctioning power plants, and a corrupt government that will be wholly dependent on Western — read: American — aid well into the future.

Last week John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, released his quarterly report to Congress. The document reads like an early epitaph for the American nation-building effort in Afghanistan. With $104 billion already spent, another $5.8 billion has been requested for 2015. Of the money appropriated, $15.95 billion remains to be spent.

A significant portion of that money has been directed toward projects that are comically ill conceived or badly carried out. The United States has spent $7.6 billion on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, but opium cultivation there — a key Taliban funding source — has risen for the past three years, and helped push global quantities of the crop to a record level. The U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $34.4 million toward a soybean project in the face of scientific evidence indicating that the crop was “inappropriate for conditions and farming practices in northern Afghanistan, where the program was implemented.” The United States Agency for International Development has pledged $75 million toward the ill-fated Kajaki Dam project, but the inspector general questions whether that project is at all economically viable. The United States has spent $626 million to provide weapons and equipment to Afghan forces. That aid includes 465,000 small arms, but, according to the IG, for 43 percent of those arms, information was missing in a database used to track their receipt in Afghanistan. Indeed, equipment expenditures have been a key outlay during the American presence in Afghanistan.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that the report notes that the Afghan government is far from financial independence. Last year, the Afghan government saw revenues of about $2 billion. Its budget was far larger: $5.4 billion. Donors mostly made up that difference. In January, Afghanistan approved a $7.6 billion budget, with donors chipping in about $4.8 billion.

Of the $104 billion the United States has poured into Afghanistan since fiscal year 2002, some $62 billion has gone toward creating the Afghan army. (It should be noted that when comparing the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan with the Marshall Plan that in the aftermath of World War II, the United States did not have to stand up any European armies.) To save money, the size of that force is being reduced from 352,000 to 228,500 men. Even at that reduced size, the Afghan government takes in far less money than will be required to fund the army: an estimated $4.1 billion annually.

Hobbled by a weak state, persistent poverty, and a mostly rural population, Afghanistan has historically struggled to collect taxes, which Sopko identifies as one of the key challenges for Kabul in the years ahead. But so far, the government is struggling to make progress. According to the IG’s report, the Afghan government missed by 20 percent its revenue targets during the first four months of the current fiscal year. At the same time, expenses are expected to rise, creating a situation in which Afghanistan will remain highly reliant on the generosity of donor nations.

And while the money will keep pouring into Afghanistan, the U.S. government’s ability to oversee how it is being spent is about to decline, according to Sopko. Less than 20 percent of Afghanistan is expected to be accessible to U.S. oversight personnel by December, a 50 percent decrease since 2009.

Sopko’s report comes at a crucial turning point for the country. The runoff election between presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah is undergoing an audit of all 8 million ballots. A new Afghan president cannot be declared fast enough for Washington, which is waiting on a winner to sign a bilateral security agreement. Without the agreement, the United States has said it will have to withdraw all troops by the end of the year. If the next Afghan president does sign it, President Barack Obama has said 9,800 American troops will remain, drawing down to roughly 4,900 by the end of 2015.

In his letter accompanying the report, Sopko describes his most recent trip to Afghanistan in June. “The U.S. effort to bring its men, women, and materiel home from Afghanistan already is proceeding at a tremendous pace,” Sopko notes, and as the United States withdraws, “the Afghan National Security Forces will be responsible for securing Afghanistan.”

But Sopko’s oversight efforts cast doubts on whether they will be able to do so effectively. Earlier this week, his office released a report explaining that those forces may have lost track of as many as 43 percent of the nearly half a million small arms provided by the United States. A day later, his office released a report casting doubt on whether the ANSF’s fleet of armored personnel carriers will be viable in the long term.

Amid these questions over equipment and procurement, Afghan forces have been sustaining heavy casualties. Between March 2012 and May 2014, the Afghan National Army saw 2,330 of its soldiers killed in action. The United States, the primary financial benefactor of those forces, has paid a heavy price here, too. In the 11 years since the war began, the United States has lost 2,338 troops and seen more than 19,000 wounded.

Elias Groll is a staff writer for Foreign Policy.