Cautionary tales question wisdom of adding resources.
One shirt, one pair of pants. Those are the basics for outfitting an Afghan soldier. But in that simple uniform combination are the threads of two troubling stories — one about the waste of millions in American taxpayer dollars, the other about the perils of propping up a partner army in a seemingly endless war.
Together these tales help explain why some in Congress question the wisdom of investing even more resources in Afghanistan, nearly 16 years after the United States invaded the Taliban-ruled country in response to the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Army general who runs the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan calls it a stalemate. Defense Secretary James Mattis says the U.S. is “not winning,” and he vows to “correct this as soon as possible.”
The Trump administration is searching for an improved approach to achieving the goal it inherited from the Obama administration: to get the Afghan government to a point where it can defend itself and prevent its territory from being a haven for extremists.
Mr. Mattis has said he expects to have that revised strategy ready for Congress by next month. This coming week he will consult with NATO allies in Brussels on troop contributions and other Afghan issues.
The long war has generated repeated examples of wasted funds, which may be inevitable in a country such as Afghanistan, where the military has been built from scratch, is plagued with corruption and relies almost completely on U.S. money for even the most basic things, including salaries and uniforms.
Among the costs rarely noted publicly: The Pentagon has spent $1 billion over the past three years to help recruit and retain Afghan soldiers.
The money wasted on uniforms is small potatoes by comparison with other U.S. missteps in Afghanistan, but it is emblematic of broader problems.
The Pentagon has not disputed the gist of findings by its special inspector general for Afghanistan, John Sopko, that the U.S. spent as much as $28 million more than necessary over 10 years on uniforms for Afghan soldiers with a camouflage “forest” pattern that may be inappropriate for the largely desert battlefield.
In a report released this past week, Mr. Sopko’s office said the Pentagon paid to license a propriety camouflage pattern even though it owns patterns it could have used for free. The choice, it said, was based on the seemingly offhand fashion preference of a single Afghan official.
“This is not an isolated event,” Mr. Sopko said in a telephone interview. The U.S., he said, has been “in a mad rush to spend money like a drunken sailor on a weekend furlough.” It reflects a pattern, he said, of spending too much money, too quickly, with too little oversight and too little accountability.
Mr. Sopko’s office is still investigating the camouflage uniform contract process, which it found “questionable.”
“This was more than just a bad fashion move,” he said. “It cost the taxpayer millions of dollars” more than might have been necessary.
Money is rarely part of the debate over what the United States should do differently or better in Afghanistan, and thus the accumulating costs are often overlooked.
Since 2002, the U.S. has spent $66 billion on Afghan security forces alone. In recent years this spending has grown, even though President Obama’s stated goal was to wean the Afghans from U.S. military help after he formally ended the American combat role there three years ago. U.S. spending on Afghan forces rose from $3.6 billion last year to $4.2 billion this year, and President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget asks for $4.9 billion.
Afghan army soldiers, like this one on the outskirts of Kabul, are dependent on the U.S. for basic materials, such as bullets. After 16 years and without an end in sight, some are questioning the wisdom of investing more resources in the conflict.