Over the last twenty years in Afghanistan, 2,443 Americans were killed and 20,666 were wounded, as $2.26 trillion were spent in the quixotic and foredoomed hope of transforming the graveyard of empires into a stable, Western-style republic. But if you were to go to Afghanistan today to try to see the effect of all this profligate spending (which I wouldn’t actually advise, under the circumstances), you’d have an easier time spotting how American money was put to use in the luxury homes of former Afghan government officials rather than, obviously, in actual successes in pushing back the Taliban.
Americans got a telling glimpse of their taxpayer dollars at work in Afghanistan when the Taliban on August 15 entered the residence of General Abdul Rashid Dostum in Mazar-i-Sharif. Dostum was a marshal in the disgraced and dissipated Afghan National Army, and served as first vice president of Afghanistan (which had two, because you can never have too much of a good thing) from 2016 until February 2020. He was a vociferous foe of the Taliban and a key U.S. ally when the first Taliban regime was toppled, although his relationship with Washington later soured (he was accused of war crimes) to the degree that, even while serving as first vice president in the American-backed Afghan government, he was barred in 2016 from entering the U.S.
Nevertheless, he remained an integral part of the government that the U.S. was propping up, and so when Taliban jihadis filmed themselves walking around his unbelievably opulent residence, it was hard not to think about all the rusting bridges, trestles scrawled with graffiti, and pothole-laden roads in America, and wonder if our taxpayer money might have been put to better use. Dostum’s place was what Caesar’s Palace would look like if it were remodeled by a multi-billionaire who thought the original was too modest and austere. Dostum’s place was what the Palace of Versailles would look like if it were remodeled by the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
Taliban inside General Dostum’s house. pic.twitter.com/yVj1hu3gUd
— BILAL SARWARY (@bsarwary) August 14, 2021
How could this dedicated military officer and public servant possibly have amassed the funds to pay for his Disneyland dream palace? Why, you and I paid for it, along with all the other American taxpayers. And that’s by no means all that we bought. Dostum wasn’t the only Afghan official who got a luxury home. A report in the UK’s Daily Mail on Saturday noted that “one powerbroker at a Kabul bank used a web of fake firms to make fraudulent loans to ministers, officials and warlords, leading to losses equivalent to one-twelfth of the size of the country’s economy. The bank also spent £117 million [$164 million] on 35 luxury villas on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah island complex, which it used for entertaining.” One unnamed Afghan vice president (they had so many) grabbed $52 million in cash and took off for Dubai, where the parties were no doubt hearty.
In sum, “the waste of taxpayers’ money was astonishing, with ‘ghost’ schools and military forces, counter-narcotic efforts that backfired, dodgy construction and fuel deals siphoning off billions, and cash and gold smuggled out through Kabul airport.” The Pentagon even spent $5.4 million on Tuscan goats imported from Italy into Afghanistan in order to give a boost to the nation’s cashmere industry: the Italian goats were supposed to mate with Afghan goats and create a hardier stock. But the project was botched from the beginning, and the goats simply disappeared. Asked if they had been eaten, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, responded: “We don’t know. This was so poorly managed.” There went $5.4 million in taxpayer money.
Some money was spent on projects that made some superficial sense, until one pondered them for a minute or two: “Take the spending of £32 million [$44 million] on a single natural gas fuel station – 140 times more than a similar one in Pakistan – only to discover it cost more than the average annual income for Afghans to convert their cars to drive on natural gas, so there was little use.”
The Daily Mail report adds: “At one point, the US Congress estimated £3.3 billion [$4.4 billion] – equal to 22 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP – was being smuggled out of the country, with two-thirds of this illegally earned.”
Imagine if even some of this money had been restored to its rightful owners via lower tax rates, or put to use in the United States. Nothing was too good for our Afghan allies, while Americans struggled economically and the American infrastructure crumbled. But the “America-First” president was an egregious upstart who had to be removed at all costs.