Money as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Commanders sometimes picked projects that ended up in the trash bin.

More than 4,800 projects out of about 18,500 were quashed before they started or died somewhere along the way. Some were simply bad ideas; others were good ideas that were never approved. The most wasteful projects were those abandoned by either the military or Afghans after the money had been spent.

Some projects were “cancelled due to lack of community need”--like the plan to supply the Afghan Olympic director with 200 volleyballs, 500 pairs of shoes and other equipment.

Other torpedoed projects exposed a lack of cultural awareness, or in the case of a Mother’s Day celebration and a women-only bazaar, idealistic notions that Afghans would embrace Western ideals about women.

Some projects revealed a tin ear to the country’s needs and technological sophistication. One proposal would have spent nearly $465,000 on a project to put in street lights powered by solar panels in Khost Province.

John Sopko, the special inspector general, said he once heard of a solar panel project for bus stops and told officials that unless they sought a SIGAR investigation they might want to rethink that one. “When was the last time you saw a bus?” Sopko said he asked officials. “Afghanistan is not Northern Virginia” is a favorite sentiment of his.

The military also proposed promising projects such as fixing the collapsed roof of a butcher shop, repairing mosques, and clearing dangerous, abandoned buildings, but for unknown reasons was never able to move forward with them.

In Helmand, the military had planned to spend $60,000 on two vehicles for a district governor so he could “travel the district for civil support and governance.” But the project was, luckily for the governor, cancelled “due to excessive IEDs and lack of security.” The next province over in Kandahar dealt with the safety issue by giving a governor an armored SUV  for $200,000.

Then there were projects derailed by fraud.

In 2010, village elders in Logar province wanted to improve a school with a boundary wall, patios with benches and a robust playground complete with a volleyball court and soccer fields. It wasn’t cheap at $140,000, but the military thought it would “empower teachers and safegaurd (sic) their students” and “aid the Village elders belief in their government.”

All but $100 was paid out to a contractor who didn’t complete the work. The military was forced to terminate the project due to lack of funds and alert the contract fraud agency to launch an investigation.

Operating in one of the most corrupt countries in the world posed special challenges, and sometimes disreputable leadership resulted in a failed project. A $73,500 project to build a bridge in 2011 was tanked by Afghan elders who refused to accept [the] winning contractor” in the bidding process.

Projects were also just plain mismanaged, perhaps because service members often weren’t trained to run construction projects. One hospital was never completed because the military accepted a bid that, at $475,000, was about half of the other bids. “Apparently this did not raise any flags and they started the project when it should have been reevaluated,” a service member wrote. The money ran out well before the project was completed.

With no funds available to complete construction, the military terminated the project, leaving the locals with a “half-complete hospital that which (sic) the [Minister of Public Health] never planned to equip or staff regardless.”

Other times projects seemed to trail off. In Herat, a governor requested a fruit-and-vegetable refrigeration unit for a community so isolated in the winter that “travel is very difficult if not impossible for them.” The military proposed spending $75,000 on the project because it helped “meet the basic need of food for the population.” Then it was “terminated for lack of action.” 

And an idea to fix a dam that was “in need of serious repair” was abandoned because the military couldn’t get the Afghan leaders to show up to meetings about it, then decided it was too late. “There is too little time left before we close the [provincial reconstruction team], and it is inconsistent with our closure plan.”

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Illustrations: Sarah Way for ProPublica. Data: Assembled from several different Department of Defense databases by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and provided to ProPublica under a Freedom of Information Act Request.