No, the US did not spend $43 million on a gas station in Afghanistan

No, the US did not spend $43 million on a gas station in Afghanistan
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There he goes again.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko has just released an audit of the Defense Department’s long-defunct Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO). Sen. Charles GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting Senate GOP poised to break record on Trump's court picks This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation MORE (R-Iowa) and then-Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteNew Hampshire governor signs controversial voting bill Former Arizona senator to shepherd Supreme Court nominee through confirmation process Shut the back door to America's opioid epidemic MORE (R-N.H.) requested it in January 2016.

What the senators asked for was an audit of TFBSO programs, spending and performance. What they got instead was a review of TFBSO contract deliverables, and the usual SIGAR banalities on how the Task Force should have strategized, planned, coordinated, monitored and managed its operations. 

Development projects are executed through contracts and grants, and the audit reports that 28 of the 35 Task Force projects — fully 80 percent, accounting for 74 percent of the $316.3 million obligated directly to them — met some, all or most of their deliverable targets. That’s not perfect by a long shot. But it’s far from bad for expeditionary economic development in Afghanistan. What the audit doesn’t bother to discuss is TFBSO’s economic impact, in spite of excellent analytical work showing that its impact was — and will remain — considerable.

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More notable is audit data showing that the narrative Sopko concocted in July 2015 — alleging that TFBSO spent $43 million on a prototype natural gas fueling station — was pure hokum. It was clear from the start that the $43 million number was wildly off base. SIGAR itself reported to Congress just six months earlier that the station cost only $5 million. I called Sopko out on it at the time, and so did Politico and the Washington Post. When the Senate Armed Services Committee demanded an explanation, Sopko blamed the Defense Department.

 

But Sopko didn’t stop using the number. Instead, he doubled down and kept ballyhooing the $43 million myth to any audience that would listen. Scores of media outlets did, and eagerly repeated it — from Al Jazeera and MSNBC, to Fox News and Stars and Stripes. He also used it as a recurring punch line in interviews and speeches, including to Defense News, the Associated Press, NBC News, Brown University, Syracuse, Duke and others.

Now, after two years of hyping the $43 million soundbite, SIGAR’s own audit confirms what SIGAR knew in 2014: that the actual cost of the gas station was just $5.06 million.

Oops. 

The audit goes on to note that this was among TFBSO’s “best-planned, well-managed, and appropriately scoped” projects. The Afghan facility operator effused over it, telling the audit team that it is fully self-sustaining and they hope to expand.

Don’t look for apologies from Sopko, though, or from the gullible media outlets that believed him.

On my third deployment to Afghanistan, as director of development in Kabul from September 2010 to January 2012, I got to know the Task Force up close and personal. For 17 months, my staff — including over a dozen elite US military Afghan Hands — worked closely with TFBSO to troubleshoot, coordinate and de-conflict strategic infrastructure projects with those of USAID and two dozen other major international development agencies. What I saw there bore no resemblance to Sopko’s bizarre characterization of the task force. Just the opposite. TFBSO was an organization that knew exactly what it was doing, why and how.

In its early years, under the leadership of Director Paul Brinkley, the task force established a benchmark for expeditionary economics in Iraq and Afghanistan that will stand for a long time as a model for how to do this critical kind of work. And it largely succeeded, in spite of war zone kinetics, congressional dithering, a Defense Department that didn’t get it, and resentment if not obstruction from State and USAID. 

The task force was a catalytic force for economic development, doing work that other development organizations either could not or would not. At the very highest levels, the military got that and so did some at State — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, General David Petraeus, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Special Representative Richard Holbrooke to name four. So did the Afghan government, and it still does: Ask President Ashraf Ghani if he’d like the task force back.

Since Task Force operations were killed off in 2014, this audit will likely end Sopko’s vendetta against it. But it won’t end the critical need for TFBSO-like capabilities in Afghanistan and other insurgent nations. If anything, that need is greater now than ever. As a RAND Corporation assessment of the task force concluded, “economic development is likely to remain a key component of U.S. contingency operations, including private sector elements akin to those employed by TFBSO.”

Who will do that work now is the subject of considerable debate. But the need is urgent, especially in Afghanistan. Sadly, with this audit Sopko blew an opportunity to contribute something constructive to the discussion. Instead, he just validated again his lack of credibility on issues of economic development. 

Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer. In a 29-year career, he worked on the ground in 49 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Goodson served 31 months in Afghanistan, including a year as USAID chief of staff and 17 months as director of development at International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul under Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. John Allen.