President Obama is beginning a slow drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and outlining America’s future role in the worn-torn nation. A decade after the United States invaded Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden, the country has become a quagmire for money and personnel—leading politicians on both sides of the aisle to question the U.S. role there.
Over the past 10 years of war, the Center for Public Integrity has written numerous reports on Afghanistan. With the Obama administration beginning to remove tens of thousands of troops from the former Taliban stronghold, it is an opportune moment to review the various challenges that have faced the U.S. government over the past decade.
One of the ongoing issues in Afghanistan has been federal oversight of contractors. Last July the Center reported on a stunning lack of investigations regarding sex trafficking allegations by U.S contractors — including claims that American companies were running brothels, populated by sex slaves imported from China, for western customers in Kabul.
That report followed up on an earlier story about two former Blackwater employees who accused the military contractor of defrauding the government for years through phony billing, which included charging taxpayers for alcohol-fueled parties, spa trips and a prostitute.
The Center’s reporting on Afghanistan contractors goes back to the early days of the conflict. The ”Windfalls of War” project was the first to report that Halliburton, the former company of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, was the top contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sequel, “Windfalls of War II,” updated the rankings of the biggest contractors in those two countries.
Foreign contractors have also posed a challenge for the United States. Last August the Center reported on how the government has struggled to control foreign subcontractors. The use of foreign subcontractors is vital to maintain U.S. forces around the globe, but the confusing world of subcontracting can often lead to fraud, shoddy work, or even taxpayer funds ending up in the hands of enemy fighters. Just two weeks ago, the Center followed up with a piece on how the U.S. has failed to vet Afghan contractors well enough to ensure that government funds are not ending up in the hands of terrorists.
Another theme that runs through the Center’s coverage of Afghanistan revolves around various failed initiatives by the Pentagon. February’s “Ghost Soldiers” story revealed how the Department of Defense’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command has struggled to adequately train reservists being sent in to win the “hearts and minds” of locals in Afghanistan and Iraq. The phrase “ghost soldiers” refers to reservists who couldn't perform their duties in a combat zone for a variety of reasons — but were kept on the books by commanding officers, leading to an inadequate number of capable reservists overdeployed in dangerous situations.
Meanwhile, a March story from the Center focused on JIEDDO, the Pentagon unit which has spent billions in failed attempts to limit the damage from improvised explosive devices that have killed and maimed thousands of soldiers on both war fronts.
And although the military successfully killed bin Laden in May, the Center found that the total cost of pursuing the most wanted man in the world was over half a trillion dollars. Despite the drawdowns to be announced on Wednesday, the overall cost of the war will keep growing as long as Americans maintain a presence to stabilize the country and pursue terrorists and anti-government militants.