By Josh Smith
KABUL, Afghanistan — By the time its combat troops depart at the end of 2014, the United States will have appropriated more money trying to fix Afghanistan than it did on the Marshall Plan that helped Europe recover economically after World War II, according to an analysis by a government watchdog.
The comparison in the latest quarterly report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction draws attention to the mixed results of U.S. investments in Afghanistan — $104 billion appropriated since 2002 — versus the success of the Marshall Plan, which is credited with helping to spur the economic revival of Western Europe.
The Marshall Plan cost about $13.3 billion at the time, but dollars during the 1950s could purchase much more than today’s dollars. Adjusting for inflation and stated in today’s dollars, the Marshall Plan investment would be equal to $103.4 billion, SIGAR concluded. Using the same adjustments, the SIGAR report, calculated that the actual investment in Afghanistan equals more than $109 billion.
The intent and focus of the two programs — one launched in the midst of war and the other after peace was restored — differ significantly, making comparisons difficult. Although the U.S. investment in Afghanistan has not brought extensive change, nonetheless there have been improvements that should be maintained, analysts say. This will require continued commitment by the U.S. and other countries, even after combat troops withdraw.
Much of the Marshall Plan funding was spent on imports such as food, machinery, fertilizer and other items needed in the post-war reconstruction of Europe, which had been devastated in the war. By the early 1950s, economic output in most West European nations had surpassed pre-war levels.
But what the billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan have achieved remains an open question.
The Taliban insurgency remains entrenched and many reports indicate it is making gains as international combat troops depart. Civilian casualties are rising to record levels, and Afghanistan itself is regularly listed as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
The American aid effort has been regularly criticized by SIGAR and others.
“The 30 audits, inspections, special projects, and other reports SIGAR issued this quarter examined programs and projects worth approximately $18.2 billion,” the watchdog noted in its report, released Wednesday. “Unfortunately, most uncovered poor planning, shoddy construction, mechanical failures, and inadequate oversight.”
Support among Americans for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is at an all-time low. According to a February Gallup poll, nearly half of Americans now think the war there was a mistake, and more than 80 percent have an unfavorable view of Afghanistan.
“There are limits to the comparison between the Marshall Plan and Afghanistan, but there’s no question we’ve made a huge commitment and no question that the return on that investment might be less than we hoped for,” said Scott Smith, who directs the Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace. Still, he said, while most money and effort has been poured into the security side, that is perhaps the area where the least progress has been made.
The money appropriated for reconstruction does not include the billions spent fighting the war in Afghanistan, but unlike the Marshall Plan, it does include a vast amount of cash — nearly $62 billion — for building and sustaining local military and police forces.
But Smith and others said Afghanistan has seen some progress on social issues.
“If you look at things like the mortality rate, education, and communications, we’ve had more good news stories on the civilian side,” Smith said.
SIGAR, however, warns that its ability to make sure aid money is going where it’s needed will be drastically lessened as NATO withdraws its troops.
“Large areas of the country — larger even than SIGAR anticipated last year — will soon be off limits to U.S. personnel due to base closures and troop withdrawals,” the report said.
Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center said that gains have been made with the help of U.S. aid, but he worries that they are now at risk.
“Conventional wisdom is rooted in a bird’s eye view that’s actually quite misleading,” he said. “Take a closer look, and you’ll see the tremendous advances in women’s education, public health and minority rights — not to mention in Afghanistan’s security forces. These are success stories that U.S. assistance has played a part in bringing about.”
But uncertainty remains over Afghanistan’s presidential election, the future of U.S. troops in the country and the political will among donor countries to sustain aid for Afghanistan.
“Our reconstruction aid is essentially a lifeline for Afghanistan’s economy,” Kugelman said. “If it’s withdrawn, or significantly reduced, the implications could be deeply troubling. This means that despite the horror show that U.S. aid projects in Afghanistan have sometimes become — the new facility that’s never used, the tracking program that’s unable to track — we have a responsibility to maintain our investment in Afghanistan.”