War in Afghanistan Reaches New Heights of Absurdity
Earlier this month, it was reported that one of the largest U.S. government contractors in Afghanistan was being fined nearly $70 million for having "knowingly and systematically overcharged the U.S. government." But just two months after a whistleblower revealed the Louis Berger Group's deliberate and systematic overcharging, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded the company a new joint contract worth $1.4 billion. That seemingly large fine turned out to be but a minor business expense.
The one part of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan that is going very well is the contracting. Not the results of the contracting, the money being made off it. Less than two weeks ago came this news:
U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, has ordered a dramatic expansion in contracting. Other than asking a brigadier general to investigate problems with military contracts, so far he's failed to address their flaws.
A McClatchy investigation has found that since January 2008, nearly $200 million in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers construction projects in Afghanistan have failed, face serious delays or resulted in subpar work. Poor recordkeeping made it impossible for McClatchy to determine the value of faulty projects before then. The military tries to recover part of a project's cost, but in many cases, the funds were already spent.
McClatchy's investigation also found that the Corps accepts bids that don't cover such obvious costs as security or the contractor's profit margin. One might think security costs in Afghanistan would be significant. One might think a contractor's profit margin should be a factor when considering whether to send said contractor piles of taxpayers' cash. Remember that whole deficit thing? Apparently, the Corps doesn't. And, of course, it gets even worse.
Rather than scrap a project that's failing, the government sometimes rewrites the contract to require only the work that's been done and declares the effort a success. The process is called "de-scoping."
McClatchy also found that the bulk of the contractors doing such lousy work haven't been banned from getting new contracts. Of course. And U.S. taxpayers continue to pay contractors whose ownership is unknown, meaning that no one is accountable, and it's not even certain to whom U.S. tax dollars are going. And more and more of it will be going.
Despite these challenges, the Corps' work in Afghanistan is set to more than double in the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, to nearly $2 billion from $900 million in the northern half of Afghanistan alone, according to a recent presentation by Army Col. Thomas Magness, the commander of the Afghanistan Engineer District-North.
We keep hearing about the deficit, and how we don't have the money to nation-build the United States, and that it's so bad that no government program should be considered off the table for possibly being cut, but we're doubling the money shipped to contractors in Afghanistan, despite their not doing the work, their not being accountable, and their ownership not even being known. And, of course, it gets even worse.
McClatchy yet again:
In all, McClatchy found nearly $4.5 billion in contracts that were awarded to companies even though they violated laws or had high-profile disputes over previous projects. Such legal or financial troubles could indicate that a company isn't prepared to finish a project or is prone to wasting taxpayer money.
The lax scrutiny, critics say, has created an American contracting culture where almost any past indiscretion can be overlooked.
And the Corps of Engineers isn't the only source of problems:
Making matters worse, U.S. agencies have acknowledged that their databases are so unreliable that they can't account for how much money they've spent rebuilding Afghanistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for instance, is one of the main agencies overseeing projects in Afghanistan, but it couldn't vouch for information submitted to the government's federal contracting database.
And you knew this was coming:
A subsidiary of Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater, was awarded a quarter of all contracts issued in Afghanistan by the Army Space and Missile Defense Command from 2007 to 2009, according to government records. McClatchy reported earlier this year that the Obama administration decided not to bring criminal charges against the security contractor after a nearly four-year investigation found sanctions violations, illegal exports and bribery.
And among the other contractors continuing to get huge piles of U.S. tax dollars despite violations was ITT Corp., Northrop Grumman, Agility (formerly known as Public Warehousing Co.), Venco-Imtiaz Construction Co., and the Louis Berger Group.
All of this would be bad enough if the war strategy itself wasn't such a bloody and continuing failure. All the rationales for the war long ago were proved false. Bin Laden is thought to be in Pakistan. Al Qaeda barely even exists in Afghanistan anymore, even as it settles in elsewhere. The Taliban are no more likely to be permanently removed from Afghanistan than are the nation's largest demographic group. The Afghan "government" is chronically corrupt, and its leadership continues all but to mock the Obama administration. And the Afghan people continue to suffer, which is what happens to civilians in a war zone. We hear things may be going well in the current offensive in Kandahar, which is exactly what we were told about the previous offensive in Marjah, which was so inaccurate that the telling of it was offensive.
In what is becoming typical of the surreality of the war in Afghanistan, Karachi, Pakistan, is now a logistical center for both NATO and insurgent forces. One imagines agents of the two sides sitting beside each other at cafes, oblivious to each other's presence-- unless they're sitting with each other... which isn't much of a stretch. After all, perhaps no recent story has better summarized what's happening in Afghanistan than did this:
For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement.
But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and high-level discussions conducted with the assistance of NATO appear to have achieved little.
“It’s not him,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul intimately involved in the discussions. “And we gave him a lot of money.”
We give a lot of money to a lot of people who may as well be imposters. And maybe more are. And this story wasn't even unique:
American officials pursuing lower-level Taliban defections have also struggled with identifying who they are dealing with. The senior NATO official said that about 40 percent of the time the men turning themselves over to the government may not be the Taliban fighters they claim to be, but rather are looking for money or protection or something else.
"It's hard to verify who they are," the official said.
It's hard to verify who is whom. It's hard to verify where the billions of U.S. tax dollars are going. It's hard to verify what exactly is supposed to be accomplished by continuing the war. It's hard to verify the existence of an exit strategy and it's hard to verify the existence of an an exit date.
To be continued.