Congress Can't Ignore Afghanistan in Budget Talks

A new report shows irresponsible spending by the Defense Department in Afghanistan.

U.S. Marines and Afghan border police off-load from a helicopter in Afghanistan.
By + More

Michael Shank is adjunct professor at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum. He is a senior aide to a Democratic member of Congress.

This month, hidden amid election excitement, a report was delivered to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Likely few in Washington read it. The U.S. war in Afghanistan wasn't a big part of pre-election politicking and now, post-election, the biggest thing on congressional members' minds is fiscal cliff finagling, not foreign policy. What Congress doesn't realize, however, is that the special inspector general's report is entirely relevant and completely germane to the cost-cutting conversation.

How? The latest report, which is required by Congress on a quarterly basis, shows some astonishing financials that remain under-reported by the U.S. press and underemphasized by Congress. While Americans have long pointed fingers at the waste, fraud, and abuse by Afghan leaders who are mishandling precious U.S. taxpayer dollars in this debt-funded war, the truth is, the misdeeds are equally ubiquitous within the Defense Department.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

This is not merely an Afghan problem, but an American one as well. Late this September, for example, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant was charged with smuggling $1 million in cash from Afghanistan to the United States. This Pentagon employee attempted to smuggle the cash inside numerous DVD recorders, which were loaded for shipment to the United States. The same month, another U.S. Army Sergeant pled guilty to smuggling $100,000 from Afghanistan. This sergeant smuggled the money to America in a backpack at the end of her overseas tour. Also in September, a former U.S. Army Chief was convicted of conspiracy for his role in a bribery/kickback scheme, after soliciting a $60,000 bribe.

I could go on. The stories are pervasive: from a U.S. Army Sergeant First Class stealing $225,000 in funds earmarked for reconstruction, to a U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group sergeant stealing tens of thousands of dollars hidden inside a teddy bear. These are just a few stories from this fall's quarterly report by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The convictions are constant, the charges are countless, and the monies lost are by now in the billions. But don't take my word for it, read the special inspector general report.

We cannot forget, amid fiscal cliff fecklessness, that as taxpayers of this debt-funded fight we are sending nearly $10 billion every month to Afghanistan for the war (a.k.a. deconstruction) and post-war reconstruction efforts. Last year alone, American taxpayers accumulated well over $113.9 billion worth of debt so that this war could continue. At the end of 2012, we'll see a similar tally for total debt-funded war expenditures.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

And we aren't leaving anytime soon. Despite claims that this war will draw down in 2014, and despite recent drawdowns of 30,000 troops sent over for the surge, we must remember that not only will 30,000 troops likely stay on well past 2014, but that we are also paying for roughly 100,000 private defense contractors to operate, without transparency or accountability, in Afghanistan. The long-term presence of private defense contractors in Afghanistan will be at the whim of the Pentagon as it's not subject to the critical public eye in the same way U.S. troops are discussed or drawn down.

These costs are merely the most explicit and direct costs to be incurred by the American taxpayer, again through debt since we don't have the money to actually fight this war. The other, less obvious costs have to do with sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces, which the Pentagon ramped up to 350,000, as well as the 30,000 "militias" that we've sponsored and armed, with munitions and monies. Militias isn't my word, mind you, it was described to me this way by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The Pentagon tries to present these militias as an Afghan Local Police, but they are little more than local warlords, deemed fit by local commanders to receive millions of defense dollars and weapons in a wholly ad hoc and unstrategic fight.