The fog of waste

Posted 9/16/21

Trying to calculate just what the 20-year war in Afghanistan cost taxpayers runs into a number of obstacles. For one, it’s impossible to place a dollar figure on the number of lives lost …

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The fog of waste


Trying to calculate just what the 20-year war in Afghanistan cost taxpayers runs into a number of obstacles. For one, it’s impossible to place a dollar figure on the number of lives lost fighting the Taliban, who quickly took over the country the moment we pulled out. 

Second to the human loss is the financial toll, which is staggering and incomprehensible. It’s yet another reminder that government by its very nature is astoundingly wasteful. 

Few would argue that government has no legitimate role in providing national defense. Yet even when it’s within its proper role, government needs to be limited. The war in Afghanistan illustrates that all too well. 

Consider the 2008 program to provide the Afghan Air Force with transport planes. The U.S. military spent about $86 million on Italian-made Aeritalia G-222 planes. Turns out the planes can’t handle sand very well, which you think would be a deal breaker for contracts in a desert.  Eventually 16 of the planes were scrapped for 6 cents per pound, for a total of $30,000, and the other four were put into storage in Germany. 

The same year, Congress created the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to oversee $140 billion appropriated for the Afghanistan nation building effort. By last October, SIGAR had audited $63 billion of the reconstruction spending and found that $22.4 billion of that amount was lost to waste, fraud and abuse. Let that sink in: Our federal government lost $22.4 billion, and that’s just on one single aspect of the whole war.  

Among the losses SIGAR uncovered was $43 million to build a compressed natural gas station, which was originally estimated to cost $50,000. Over the course of five years, $3 million was lost to fraudulent meal cards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The feds spent $280 million on a program to help 60 Afghan women enter the workforce; it was supposed to help 75,000. American taxpayers spent $3.6 million to broadcast various sports, including buzkashi; it’s a traditional Afghan sport like polo, but they use a headless goat instead of a ball — no joke. Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that the program failed to result in regular broadcasts, but it would have been nice to have spent that taxpayer money on Americans. 

SIGAR audited a very small portion of the roughly estimated $2 trillion that was spent in Afghanistan, and we’ll almost certainly never know just how much of the total was likewise wasted. 

This was not just a matter of bean counters being de-prioritized in the chaos of war. Even here at home, every single year, this kind of waste occurs throughout federal spending. Right now President Joe Biden is proposing $3.5 trillion in federal spending, which will be paid for by a combination of tax hikes and $1.75 trillion in government borrowing. That would be on top of the nearly $30 trillion national debt we currently owe. Besides the fact that debt threatens to destroy the U.S. economy, there is the sad truth that so much of that gargantuan pile of money was wasted on programs that more often than not result in little to justify the spending. 

Whenever there is a problem or a need, people often look toward government to address it, despite the government’s well documented history of producing so little for the cost. No doubt someone who pushed for the earmarks that supported broadcasting buzkashi can explain, perhaps even persuasively, why it could have been a beneficial program in the effort to transform Afghanistan into a democratic government that respects the rights of its individuals. But that is why our debt keeps growing. People justify the spending based on its intentions rather than its results. This mindset needs to change. 

Government programs are never short on good intentions, as was the war in Afghanistan, and it’s time to accept that an organization absolved of risk by spending other people’s money is simply incapable of producing fiscally sound results.