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How the U.S. Government Squandered $1 Billion in Taxpayer Funds on “Ghost Schools” and Warlords in Afghanistan

BuzzFeed News obtained internal Ministry of Education data for 2011 that has never before been made public. For Afghanistan overall, the data showed 1,174 schools — almost 1 in every 12 — was a ghost school, an educational facility that the Afghan government publicly claimed was open but that was, in fact, not operating. In the provinces that are the most dangerous to monitor — and into which the U.S. poured the most aid money — that proportion soared. In Kandahar province, where DeNenno served, a full third of the 423 schools the Ministry of Education publicly reported as open in 2011 were not functioning, and in Helmand, it was more than half.

But teacher salaries continued to go to these ghost schools — and still do, according to numerous Afghan and U.S. sources. While the Afghan government puts in some of its own money to pay teachers, more than two-thirds of teacher salaries are provided through a World Bank fund, to which the United States is the biggest donor. The World Bank fund did not respond to requests for comment, but USAID said that World Bank financial controls guard against salaries going to ghost teachers.

And just as with ghost students, the U.S. government has known about ghost teachers for years. Back in 2005 and 2006, an internal education ministry task force calculated that at least $12 million in salaries were going to so-called ghost teachers annually, according to several former employees of the USAID contractors embedded in the ministry. A scathing, confidential 2013 USAID audit of the Afghan education ministry obtained by BuzzFeed News reveals that the United States had been injecting hundreds of millions of dollars for more than a decade into a ministry marred by an “inadequate payroll system” and lacking even the most basic auditing practices.

In some areas, the belief that ghost schools have enriched fat cats at the expense of Afghan children has stoked such widespread ire that American education aid is actually doing the opposite of what the U.S. intended: It’s turning locals against the government.

– From the Buzzfeed article: Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools

In the wake of so many wasteful, inhumane and disastrous foreign policy failures, the U.S. government has been desperate to highlight some significant successes in order to justify all of these tragic foreign imperial blunders.

One such supposed success relates to education in Afghanistan, an area into which some $1 billion in taxpayer money has been spent to build schools and pay teachers according to Buzzfeed. U.S. Government officials have consistently trumpeted all of the good work that has been done in this regard, but there’s one slight problem. Not only are most of the statistics complete bogus, but in many cases, a lot of this U.S. wealth that was meant to be targeted for education, has gone straight to the coffers of some of the most ruthless warlords in the county. How could this happen you ask? Here’s how.

From Buzzfeed:

Nearly four years later, water seeps through the leaky roof and drips onto students in this more than $250,000 construction. Doors are cut in half; some are missing altogether. There is no running water for the approximately 200 boys — and zero girls — who attend. But the school did enrich a notorious local warlord. In exchange for donating the land on which the school sits, he extracted a contract from the U.S. military worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Over and over, the United States has touted education — for which it has spent more than $1 billion — as one of its premier successes in Afghanistan, a signature achievement that helped win over ordinary Afghans and dissuade a future generation of Taliban recruits. As the American mission faltered, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted impressive statistics — the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent — to help justify the 13 years and more than 2,000 Americans killed since the United States invaded.

But a BuzzFeed News investigation — the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning, based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews — has found those claims to be massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper. The American effort to educate Afghanistan’s children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system. And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype.

BuzzFeed News exclusively acquired the GPS coordinates and contractor information for every school that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) claims to have refurbished or built since 2002, as well as Department of Defense records of school constructions funded by the U.S. military.

At least a tenth of the schools BuzzFeed News visited no longer exist, are not operating, or were never built in the first place. “While regrettable,” USAID said in response, “it is hardly surprising to find the occasional shuttered schools in war zones.”

USAID program reports obtained by BuzzFeed News indicate the agency knew as far back as 2006 that enrollment figures were inflated, but American officials continued to cite them to Congress and the American public.

All they do is lie. Constantly, and about pretty much everything.

As for the schools America truly did build, U.S. officials repeatedly emphasized to Congress that they were constructed to high-quality standards. But in 2010, USAID’s inspector general published a review based on site visits to 30 schools. More than three-quarters suffered from physical problems, poor hardware, or other deficiencies that might expose students to “unhealthy and even dangerous conditions.” Also, the review found that “the International Building Code was not adhered to” in USAID’s school-building program.

This year, BuzzFeed News found that the overwhelming majority of the more than 50 U.S.-funded schools it visited resemble abandoned buildings — marred by collapsing roofs, shattered glass, boarded-up windows, protruding electrical wires, decaying doors, or other structural defects. At least a quarter of the schools BuzzFeed News visited do not have running water.

By obtaining internal records from the Afghan Ministry of Education, never before made public, BuzzFeed News also learned that more than 1,100 schools that the ministry publicly reported as active in 2011 were in fact not operating at all. Provincial documents show that teacher salaries — largely paid for with U.S. funds — continued to pour into ghost schools.

Some local officials even allege that those salaries sometimes end up in the hands of the Taliban. Certainly, U.S.-funded school projects have often lined the pockets of brutal warlords and reviled strongmen, which sometimes soured the local population on the U.S. and the Afghan government.

One place where it’s a lot less than it’s cracked up to be is the province where America poured more aid money than almost any other: Kandahar, home to Zhari district, where DeNenno’s school sits.

Habibullah Jan had fled the country, but when the Americans overthrew the Taliban in 2001, he returned and reimposed his checkpoints. With more than 2,000 men under his command and, soon, a seat in parliament, he became the most powerful man in Zhari. When his old foe the Taliban began to surge in 2005, the Americans turned to him for help.

To put it plainly: The U.S. allied itself with a warlord so oppressive and kleptocratic that he helped create the Taliban in the first place.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

Few American soldiers knew that Haji Lala and Habibullah Jan were brothers, let alone of Habibullah Jan’s role in fomenting the Taliban. “I liked Haji Lala,” a soldier in DeNenno’s unit said. “I’m pretty sure he did some bad stuff, but for us he was helpful.” He added, “I knew he was a warlord, but he was our warlord.”

America: Apple pie, democracy and Afghan warlords.

One of the most common payments the military made was compensation. If U.S. soldiers killed an innocent bystander, or blew up a civilian’s house, or killed someone’s sheep, commanders would pay compensation. The amounts were often modest — from less than $100 to more than $25,000 — but in total they added up to more than $2.5 million, from which strongmen could take a cut. DeNenno said that Haji Lala would sometimes tell the Taliban, “Go blow up this area because we wanna get the Americans to pay for it.”

The American taxpayer, the biggest patsy on earth, as usual.

But the goal was never just to educate children. Education was also a means to advance America’s short-term military and political objectives. In 2003, a National Security Council–led “Accelerating Success” program demanded that USAID hasten its work and complete 314 schools by June 2004. The reason: The U.S. wanted achievements — statistics — to extol ahead of the Afghan presidential election.

As a result of the NSC directive, USAID Director Patrick Fine wrote in an October 2004 internal memo, first obtained by the Washington Post,“awards were made without having design specifications, without agreed sites selected or surveyed or a process to do this, and without adequate consultation with either the [Ministry of Education or Ministry of Health] or the beneficiary communities.” The target numbers, he continued, “had gained a life of their own and were driving USAID to continue to rush the process.”

Profiteers exploited that rush. A full reckoning of the waste and outright fraud has never happened, in part because cases of corruption have often been hidden for years.

When an accountant went to federal investigators in 2006 with evidence that one of USAID’s largest contractors, Louis Berger Group, had been defrauding the agency of millions for years, the investigation was kept under federal seal until late 2010. Only then did the Justice Department reveal that two executives had pleaded guilty to fraud and announce the deal it had reached behind closed doors: The company as a whole would avoid criminal charges and be allowed to continue winning government contracts in exchange for implementing new financial controls and paying nearly $70 million in fines. Since the whistleblower came forward, USAID has awarded the company contracts worth more than 10 times what it was fined.

Looks like Louis Berger was handed out some banker justice. Must be nice.

From 2008 to at least August 2013, USAID claimed it had built or refurbished more than 680 schools in the country since the U.S. invaded — a figure the agency sometimes used to counter bad press and that it repeated on Twitter and in blog postspress releases, and a report from USAID’s Office of the Inspector General, not to mention in Secretary Clinton’s submission to Congress.

But over the last two years, USAID has quietly whittled away at that number without explaining what happened to the more than 115 schools it no longer says it built or refurbished. After BuzzFeed News pressed for an answer, Larry Sampler, the head of USAID’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, said the agency had “revised its operational definition of school construction” to a “stricter definition.”

Less than 20 miles southeast of DeNenno’s school, Deh-e-Bagh Primary School was recorded in U.S. military records as completed in 2012, at cost and up to standard. The nine-room building, along with latrines and a security wall, would allow children to go to school regularly and provide a “tangible source of community pride and legitimacy” for local elders and the Afghan government, the records say.

But Deh-e-Bagh Primary School has never seen a single student.Only partially completed in 2012, its doors have never opened. There are no latrines, no running water. Without a security wall surrounding it, the building has deteriorated. Windows are smashed. Rooms are littered with construction materials.

That same year, 2012, a military unit distributed supplies to the Sher Mohammad Hotak Primary School, located just a few miles down Highway 1 from DeNenno’s base. Fifty girls attended the school, according to the unit’s records. In photos the unit posted to Facebook, both girls and boys are seen smiling and collecting new backpacks. Together, USAID and the Pentagon have pumped more than $200,000 into the school.

But in an unannounced visit to the school this March, not a single girl was in attendance. Instead, the seven tents that made up the school were filled with boys, some of whom had no chairs or desks. They sat on rocky ground, fading backpacks emblazoned with the Afghan flag next to them.

It was that way across Afghanistan, with school after school visited by BuzzFeed News showing fewer students than were on the books. In 2011 and 2012, USAID sent monitors to many of the schools it had funded to check the number of students and other key information. Since then it has relied almost exclusively on data provided by the Afghan Ministry of Education to determine how many students and teachers are in schools. But no matter who came up with the official count, it often exaggerated the reality on the ground.

At the USAID-funded Mujahed Sameullah Middle School in Kunar province, for example, there were fewer than 50 boys, sometimes sitting two per classroom. That’s only about a fifth of the 274 boys USAID’s quality assurance monitors recorded in 2011 or the 264 the Afghan government told BuzzFeed News are currently enrolled.Overall, in the schools BuzzFeed News visited for which comparison data was available, official figures overcounted students by an average of nearly a fifth — and girls by about two-fifths.

In response to questions, USAID said that it takes seriously any allegations of falsified data and “will continue to work with the ministry to improve reliability.” It also said that beginning in 2012, the agency and other donors recommended that the ministry tighten that standard from three years to one. To date, the ministry has not done so. Still, USAID told BuzzFeed News that while it could not “be absolutely sure of all attendance numbers in all Afghan schools at all times,” in general it “is confident in overall attendance numbers provided by the MoE.”

But Elizabeth Royall, a U.S. liaison to the ministry in 2011 and 2012, said, “There was a lack of scrutiny. I would just report MOE numbers, and that’s what we went with.”

The U.S. just went with the ministry’s numbers for teachers, too. And those numbers were used to pay salaries — even when the teachers weren’t teaching.

BuzzFeed News obtained internal Ministry of Education data for 2011 that has never before been made public. For Afghanistan overall, the data showed 1,174 schools — almost 1 in every 12 — was a ghost school, an educational facility that the Afghan government publicly claimed was open but that was, in fact, not operating. In the provinces that are the most dangerous to monitor — and into which the U.S. poured the most aid money — that proportion soared. In Kandahar province, where DeNenno served, a full third of the 423 schools the Ministry of Education publicly reported as open in 2011 were not functioning, and in Helmand, it was more than half.

But teacher salaries continued to go to these ghost schools — and still do, according to numerous Afghan and U.S. sources. While the Afghan government puts in some of its own money to pay teachers, more than two-thirds of teacher salaries are provided through a World Bank fund, to which the United States is the biggest donor. The World Bank fund did not respond to requests for comment, but USAID said that World Bank financial controls guard against salaries going to ghost teachers.

And just as with ghost students, the U.S. government has known about ghost teachers for years. Back in 2005 and 2006, an internal education ministry task force calculated that at least $12 million in salaries were going to so-called ghost teachers annually, according to several former employees of the USAID contractors embedded in the ministry. A scathing, confidential 2013 USAID audit of the Afghan education ministry obtained by BuzzFeed News reveals that the United States had been injecting hundreds of millions of dollars for more than a decade into a ministry marred by an “inadequate payroll system” and lacking even the most basic auditing practices.

In some areas, the belief that ghost schools have enriched fat cats at the expense of Afghan children has stoked such widespread ire that American education aid is actually doing the opposite of what the U.S. intended: It’s turning locals against the government.

At one point, the provincial police chief shouts out who he thinks are commandeering the payments: “Everyone knows the salaries of teachers come to the province, and then they go to the Taliban.”

Military spending under the CERP program required very little paperwork for most projects. The point was to help win a war. But that flexibility means, quite literally, that the military does not know what it spent on education in Afghanistan, or what it got for its money. The military conceded that many CERP projects were not entered into “procurement database systems” but said it “does maintain extensive project records.” Last year, however, the Defense Department told the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction just how little it knew: For more than 40% of CERP projects, the Pentagon could not say who ultimately received its money.

Pressed by BuzzFeed News, the Pentagon said it could not provide an exact number of schools it actually built. It also could not say how the more than $250 million in CERP funding earmarked for education was actually spent. To try to drill down on those figures, BuzzFeed News filed a Freedom of Information request and obtained CERP funding records — but found that entire projects were missing, including Joe DeNenno’s permanent school.

“The CERP database was an absolute mess, literally a disaster,” one government official familiar with the records said. “Saying disaster doesn’t even do it justice.”