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President Obama recently said that “it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” as he outlined his plan to withdraw all the troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2016. However, he had little to say about the financial cost of reconstructing a country ravaged by the longest war in American history.

More than $103 billion has already been spent to help rebuild Afghanistan– more than the U.S. has ever spent on any other single country. While the money is supposed to go to rebuilding necessary infrastructure like prisons and hospitals, not all of it has been accounted for or spent appropriately, and Special Inspector General to Afghanistan (SIGAR), John Sopko has noticed. “We’ve wasted a lot of money,” he said.

Appointed by President Obama in 2012, SIGAR is tasked with providing oversight of reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. Essentially,Sopko’s job is to track down corruption, waste and fraud and to make sure it doesn’t keep happening. SIGAR has 340 ongoing probes and has secured 42 convictions.

(Above: a building being demolished at Baghlan Prison in northern Afghanistan after faulty construction led to damage. Less than two years after it was built with U.S. funds, the prison is falling apart and is vastly overcrowded. Photo: SIGAR)

Most recently, the office released a report on the Baghlan prison, a State Department funded project that cost taxpayers $11.3 million and is racked with problems. “Unfortunately, like we see in a lot of situations, it was poorly constructed not to U.S. standards,” Sopko said of the prison. “It’s so poorly built that you can take the bricks out and escape.”

This points to an ongoing issue in Afghanistan: the difficulty of planning and completing construction in a dangerous country with serious security risks. “If you don’t do oversight in a country like Afghanistan on construction, you’re bound to have some problems,” said Sopko.

While there needs to be better oversight, and Congress has started to take SIGAR recommendations seriously, Sopko said the U.S. government doesn’t even have an accurate list of where the money has gone.

With another $18 billion of money yet to be spent, he said it’s imperative to keep looking forward. “What’s really critical,” he said, “is any gains we have made, any fragile gains, are at risk if we really don’t pay attention to that money going forward.”  

“We spent too much money, too fast, in too poor a country with too little oversight, and that’s the lessons learned for the future,” he said.

On today’s “To the Point.”

America’s longest war is winding down, but it’s not over yet, and there are as many unresolved issues as there are parties involved. The White House and the Pentagon haven’t agreed on the pace of troop withdrawal or how many US soldiers should stay after 2014. Talks with the Karzai regime and the Taliban raise more questions than answers about security and corruption. Will a wildly inflated economy collapse when foreign troops and contractors are gone? Will democracy, free expression and human rights have a future?

We are in a moment of declining leverage [in Afghanistan]. There is no incentive for the Taliban to make a peace deal with us as we are walking out the door.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran speaking to Warren Olney on today’s To the Point