- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2014

On the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Obama used the occasion last week to remind Americans that “our combat mission in Afghanistan will come to an end” in three months.

But the cost to U.S. taxpayers for reconstruction in Afghanistan will continue.

The U.S. has spent $104 billion to rebuild Afghanistan’s security forces, infrastructure, economy, and health care and education sectors. America is spending more on the effort this year alone than it’s spending on foreign assistance for Israel, Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan combined, said John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

Congress has appropriated another $16 billion for reconstruction that government agencies have yet to spend, and Mr. Sopko said it’s “widely believed” that the U.S. will spend $5 billion to $8 billion annually in Afghanistan for years to come.

More troubling, he said, is that the expenditure ultimately could be wasted through a combination of poor planning, local corruption and the influence of drug trafficking in Afghanistan.

“When we build things the Afghans can’t use, and when we don’t take their resources into account, we’re not just wasting money; we’re jeopardizing our mission of creating a self-sustaining Afghanistan that can keep insurgents down and terrorists out,” Mr. Sopko said Friday at Georgetown University.

In this midterm election year, Mr. Obama and his advisers rarely talk about the soaring costs of rebuilding Afghanistan. They prefer to emphasize that the president is keeping his promise to end the war and bring U.S. troops home. Mr. Obama plans to leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after December and only 5,000 soldiers by the end of 2015.

“As a result, many people believe America’s involvement in Afghanistan will therefore end,” Mr. Sopko said. “That is wrong. Despite the drawdown, our reconstruction mission is far from over and I would say will continue at a high tempo for some years to come if we want to keep the Afghan military and government afloat and protect our reconstruction successes.”

Mr. Obama called Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates last week and urged them to reach a power-sharing deal to stabilize the country after the departure of Hamid Karzai. The president told Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani that such a deal would foster more international support.

The rival candidates dispute the results of the April election amid concern that they could form competing governments and exacerbate instability in the country where the 9/11 masterminds plotted their attacks under the protection of the Islamist Taliban government.

Mr. Ghani last week called for the release of results of a fraud investigation and said any political deal to end the crisis should not result in a “two-headed government.”

Retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who served as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said corruption is the biggest threat to the country’s future. Mr. Obama last week tapped Mr. Allen to coordinate the international effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Mr. Sopko said despite numerous official reports about corruption, and continual U.S. efforts to combat fraud, the Obama administration still doesn’t have a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy.

“This is astonishing, given that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and a country that the United States is spending billions of dollars in,” he said. “In fact, things could get worse with the drawdown.”

In addition, Afghanistan’s opium trade is flourishing despite $7.6 billion in U.S. efforts to combat it, Mr. Sopko said. The drug trade provides significant support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

“By every conceivable metric, we’ve failed,” Mr. Sopko said. “Production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, financial support to the insurgency is up, and addiction and abuse are at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan. As with [government] sustainability and corruption, the expanding cultivation and trafficking of drugs puts the entire Afghan reconstruction effort at risk.”

He said the Afghan government has an annual budget of about $7.6 billion but can raise only about $2 billion in revenue. Maintaining the Afghan National Security Forces alone requires about $2 billion per year.

“Currently, the United States and other international donors fund more than 60 percent of the Afghan national budget, as well as countless reconstruction programs and projects that currently operate off-budget,” Mr. Sopko said. “With the troop withdrawal, greater responsibility for those off-budget programs and projects is being given to the Afghan government.”

His conclusion: “It appears we’ve created a government that the Afghans simply cannot afford.”

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