In light of recent history, perhaps it’s time to update that classic U.S. Army recruitment campaign slogan from “be all that you can be” to “build all that you can build.” Consider it an irony that, in an era when Congress struggles to raise enough money to give America’s potholed, overcrowded highways a helping hand, building new roads in Afghanistan proved no problem at all (even when they led nowhere). In fact, the U.S. military spent billions of taxpayer dollars in both Afghanistan and Iraq on nation-building infrastructural efforts of all sorts, and the Pentagon’s Inspector General (IG) repeatedly reported on the failures, disasters, and boondoggles that resulted. In 2012, for instance, the IG found that of the $10.6 billion in Afghan funding it examined, $7 billion was “potentially wasted.” And this has never ended. In 2014, the IG typically reported that “some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics, and even fire stations built by the Army [in Afghanistan] are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don’t meet international building codes.”
As of this year, more U.S. and NATO money had been “squandered” on the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan than was spent on the full post-World War-II Marshall Plan to put a devastated Europe back on its feet. And how has all that spending turned out? One thing is certain: those torrents of money helped create a devastating economy of corruption. As for reconstruction, the Inspector General found mainly “poor planning, shoddy construction, mechanical failures, and inadequate oversight.”
As TomDispatch’s Nick Turse, author of the award-winning book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, reminds us today, thanks to the counterinsurgency strategy that the U.S. military has pursued in these years, most of this spending came under the heading of “winning hearts and minds” in the countries the U.S. invaded. Any American batallion-level commander in an Afghan village could essentially reach into his pocket and pull out the funds to build a schoolhouse. And yet, in the United States, much of our educational infrastructure, built after World War II for the Baby Boomer generation, is in need of reconstruction funds that are no longer in any pockets. The same holds true for American airports (none having been built in almost 20 years), bridges (almost half of them needing “major structural investments” in the next 15 years and 11% now considered “structurally deficient”), highways, dams, levees, sewage and water systems, and the like. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a grade of D+ and estimated that, to keep the U.S. a fully functioning first-world country, some $3.6 trillion dollars would have to be invested in infrastructural work by 2020.
Fat chance. Though no one ever comments on it, the constant spending of money to win hearts and minds in distant lands should be considered passing strange when hearts and minds are at stake in Rhode Island, Arkansas, and Oregon. Stranger yet, the group designated to do that hearts-and-minds construction is also dedicated to destroying infrastructure in times of conflict. It shouldn’t be surprising that nation-building, school by school, road by road, might not be its strong point.
Worse yet, as Nick Turse reports, continuing his remarkable ongoing investigation into the U.S. military’s “pivot” to Africa, even after the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems that there are hearts and minds still to win out there and all of Africa to build in.