Afghanistan has a rich culinary tradition, but soybeans have not been a part of it. American agricultural experts who consider soybeans a superfood find this dismaying, and so over the past four years, they have invested tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to try to change the way Afghans eat.
The effort, aimed at making soy a dietary staple, has largely been a flop, marked by mismanagement, poor government oversight and financial waste, according to interviews and government audit documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
Warnings by agronomists that the effort was unwise were ignored. The country’s climate turns out to be inappropriate for soy cultivation and its farming culture is ill-prepared for large-scale soybean production. Soybeans are now no more a viable commercial crop in Afghanistan than they were in 2010, when the $34 million program got started, according to a government-funded evaluation of the effort this year.
These are the bureaucratic explanations. The ambitious effort also appears to have been undone by a simple fact, which might have been foreseen but was evidently ignored: Afghans don’t like the taste of the soy processed foods. This view survived even the U.S. government’s use of what it called “food technologists” to teach families how soybean products can be used to make tasty meals.
As one of the project’s managers said, it was a “risky but honorable endeavor,” meant to improve the nutrition of malnourished Afghans by raising the level of protein in their diets. As such, the project’s problems model the larger shortcomings of the estimated $120 billion U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, including what many experts depict as ignorance of Afghan traditions, mismanagement and poor spending controls.
No one has calculated precisely how much the United States wasted or misspent in Afghanistan, but a special congressionally-chartered group known as the Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated in 2011 that it could be nearly a third of the total. A special auditor appointed by President Obama the following year said he discovered nearly $7 billion worth of Afghanistan-related waste in just his first year on the job.
“We didn't have a reconstruction effort, we just spent a lot of money,” mostly to get the Afghan military working and keep its government afloat, commented Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East specialist and former defense intelligence analyst who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit group in Washington. The funds allocated to rebuild the country mostly went to “short-term aid projects, without an assessment of the overall economy, with reliance on contractors. And for most of the time you didn't have effective auditing procedures,” Cordesman said.
The Afghan diet reform effort, formally known as the Soybeans for Agricultural Renewal in Afghanistan Initiative, was overseen by the Agriculture Department (USDA) and implemented by the main trade association for the industry, the American Soybean Association. It encountered problems from the start.