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America's utter failure in Afghanistan, in one depressing statistic

In village of Walayatti, near Kabul, $194,572 of US taxpayer funds was spent to build an 11-room medical clinic to provide basic health care for the 7,000 inhabitants of the village.
In village of Walayatti, near Kabul, $194,572 of US taxpayer funds was spent to build an 11-room medical clinic to provide basic health care for the 7,000 inhabitants of the village.
Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A new government report on Afghanistan reconstruction includes a startling fact: The US has spent more money — a lot more money — trying to rebuild Afghanistan than we did rebuilding Europe after World War II.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) submitted a statement to Congress on Wednesday in a hearing to review the fiscal year 2017 budget request and funding justification for the US Department of State. It included this line:

Since FY 2002, Congress has appropriated approximately $113.1 billion to rebuild Afghanistan. That is at least $10 billion more, adjusted for inflation, than the amount the United States committed in civilian assistance to help rebuild Western Europe after World War II.

This obviously depends on how you do the calculation. The method SIGAR says it used gave them an adjusted total of $103.4 billion in 2014 dollars for the Marshall Plan. When I ran a simple comparison of 1952 spending versus 2016 spending, adjusting for inflation, I found that US spending on the Marshall Plan actually translates into $118 billion in today's dollars, so a bit more than we spent in Afghanistan.

But the point remains that our spending on Afghanistan today is pretty similar to what we spent to rebuild Western Europe after World War II. And despite spending a similar amount of money on a relatively narrower mission in Afghanistan, we have much, much less to show for it. It's staggering.

Between 1948 and 1952, the US gave approximately $13.3 billion to 16 Western European countries to help them recover and rebuild in the aftermath of World War II. And although economists still debate exactly what role the Marshall Plan funds played in Europe's economic recovery, the fact remains that the Western Europe that emerged from the Marshall Plan years was a much more stable, prosperous, peaceful place than it had been beforehand.

The political effects of the Marshall Plan were also profound. As Diane Kunz, a history professor at Yale University, explained in DW, "The Marshall Plan served as the economic and political foundation for the Western alliance that waged the Cold War."

So we spent the equivalent of more than $100 billion, and what we got for our money was a major continent-wide economic recovery and an alliance that defeated the Soviet Union. Not too shabby.

Now let's compare that with what we've gotten for our $113.1 billion investment in rebuilding Afghanistan:

  • The Taliban is resurgent. According to another SIGAR report from last month, "The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001." Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, found as of October of 2015 that about one-fifth of Afghanistan was verifiably controlled or contested by the Taliban. In reality, he wrote then, "they probably either control or heavily influence about a half of the country."
  • ISIS has now established a foothold in Afghanistan. Though it is estimated to have only between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters in the country, it is launching attacks — including, most recently, bombing the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad, killing seven people. And it is building what Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called "little nests" in the country's east.
  • The Afghan security forces are a mess. In August 2015, Afghanistan expert Gary Owen wrote, "Since the Afghans assumed control of the country’s security in 2014, more civilians have been killed, more soldiers have died, more Afghan troops have deserted than ever before, and security forces are still torturing one-third of their detainees."
  • Afghans are fleeing the country in droves. In just the third quarter of 2015 alone, some 56,700 Afghans filed applications seeking asylum in the EU, according to Eurostat data. Afghan refugees are second only to the number of Syrians seeking asylum in the EU from the brutal civil war in Syria.

But while the US and other countries involved in Afghanistan haven't achieved anything quite like a Marshall Plan, there have been some positive developments.

In August 2015, Stephen Watts and Sean Mann of RAND noted that according to the World Bank's World Development Indicators, in Afghanistan "child mortality rates have fallen by over one-quarter, more than half of children attend school (compared to approximately 15 percent — none of them girls — under the Taliban), and income levels are roughly six times what they were before the US intervention."

Those positive developments are a reminder that while Afghanistan today sure doesn't look like Western Europe after the Marshall Plan, it also started at a much lower point.

But it's also a reminder that the country's increasingly unstable security situation and resurgence of the Taliban threaten to undo even those modest achievements.

The bottom line is that, unlike the brilliant success story that was Western Europe after the Marshall Plan, we have very little to show for the billions of dollars we have spent trying to rebuild Afghanistan.

This is a major financial blow for US taxpayers and, more importantly, a tragedy for the millions of Afghans who were promised the world and are still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.