Afghanistan Reconstruction: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
Special Inspector General John F. Sopko inspects damaged ANSF vehicles at Camp Shorabak in Helmand in 2012.
Image Credit: Flickr/SIGAR

Afghanistan Reconstruction: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

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The Weill Cornell Medical College may seem at first glance to be an odd place for John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) to deliver a speech. But as he said in his opening remarks:

Obviously, the thought was that with your expertise in treating intractable diseases, you would also be interested in Afghanistan reconstruction.

As Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction—SIGAR for short—my business is checking alleged facts, digging out actual facts, and identifying weaknesses, failures, uncertainties, corrupt acts, and delusions. I hope that makes me the bureaucratic counterpart of a careful diagnostician, and not a low-budget version of Doctor Oz.

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Jokes aside, however, Sopko used the speech to comment on the difficulties of data and the importance of parsing fact from fantasy with regard to U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. He concludes that “we know a lot more than nothing, but a lot less than we think.”

Sopko says that “just as doctors must be willing to face the truth about whether a treatment is working, we in the United States must be willing to face the truth” about how effectively the more than $100 billion invested in Afghanistan reconstruction has been spent. Add to that the more than $700 billion in military operations since the U.S. first intervened in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the human costs–the lives of more than 2,000 U.S. service members, another thousand from coalition countries, and more than 13,000 Afghan army and police. The number of civilians casualties is estimated to be more than 21,000, according to Costs of War, a nonprofit scholarly initiative based at Brown University.

U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have been broad, touching “nearly every aspect of Afghan life,” from digging wells to standing up the Afghan army; building schools, clinics, and roads to developing alternative crops in order to shift farmers away from cultivating poppy. In many of these areas, Sopko says, “large amounts of taxpayer dollars have been lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Poppy cultivation is at an all-time high, thousands of weapons have gone missing, no one really knows how many Afghan soldiers there are, schools crumble due to shoddy construction, there are clinics without doctors or medicine, and countless dollars have gone missing.

Sopko says the disasters and failures of reconstruction “often occur when the U.S. officials who implement and oversee programs fail to distinguish fact from fantasy.”

Sopko comments that U.S. counternarcotics initiatives are “one of our top Afghan-reconstruction fantasies or facts – depending who you work for.” Despite spending $8.4 billion on counternarcotics in Afghanistan, poppy cultivation continues generally unabated.  “Like New Year’s resolutions, such inputs and outputs means very little if they don’t lead to actual positive outcomes.”

He uses the counternarcotics example to illustrate that “it is all too easy to focus on metrics and measurements without asking how salient they are, what they really signify, and what they suggest needs to be done, not done, or stopped.”

The famous saying “lies, damn lies, and statistics” applies here as well.

Then Sopko turned toward a question more immediately relevant to his audience: that of changes in Afghan life expectancy. World Bank estimates in 1980 places Afghanistan at the extreme low end of life expectancy–41 years. A cheery USAID fact sheet in 2014 said life expectancy–after over $1 billion spent through USAID programs–has risen to 62. Simultenously, the CIA estimated it at 50.49 years. Lower estimates have been made by the UN Population Division, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the World Health Organization.

Sopko does not question the intentions of USAID and others but notes that “conducting a comprehensive public-health survey in a war zone is bound to entail some uncertainty.” Some parts of the country remain off-limits and social taboos regarding revealing family information are strong. Reports from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) question “‘alluring narratives of success—crafted to suit political and military agenda’ and ‘overly optimistic rhetoric’ that benefits from a dearth of reliable statistics.”

Sopko says “that much of the official happy talk on health should be taken with a grain of salt—iodized, of course, to prevent informational goiter.”

In another area, schools and education, Sopko says that we don’t really know what’s going on–how many students there are or even what they are being taught. USAID has spent over $750 million on education programs in the country but the Afghan Ministry of Education keeps questionable records. “For one thing, they are not independently verified.” Their data is also oddly calculated. The ministry reported in 2014 that 8.35 million students were enrolled, 6.6 million were “present” and 1.55 million “absent.” However, “the ministry counts absent students as ‘enrolled’ for up to three years before dropping them from the rolls”:

That’s right: a student who has not attended school in nearly three years is still considered as “enrolled.” That’s like saying a spouse who packed up and left three years ago is still committed to you.

Sopko is not known for pulling punches. He criticized USAID, the Embassy and others for being “unable to explain the important logical connection between inputs, outputs and outcomes.” He notes that “official happy talk and cheerleader-style press releases” won’t make the struggle in Afghanistan any easier. And that improving that changes of mission success requires:

…as a start, accurate, verifiable, and pertinent data—accompanied by a recognition that some key indicators require subjective evaluation by experienced and independent observers in the field. Let me emphasize the independence issue. Poor data and disregard of nonquantitative assessments that is biased by self-interest and turf protection can only lead to unrealistic judgments, unjustified hopes, and outright fantasies with no link to reality.

While over $100 billion in reconstruction funds have been spent, a further $15 billion remain appropriated but not spent. It’s clear that although the war in Afghanistan is winding down (if you’re not Afghan, that is) SIGAR “will press on in the years ahead to carry out its assignment of pinning down facts; calling out fluff, felonies, and fantasies; and recommending improvements.”

Update: a full copy of John Sopko’s remarks are available here.

Correction: An earlier version of this article used an incorrect title for Weill Cornell Medical College, the error has been corrected.

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