Top 3 lessons the US military has learned in Afghanistan war

As defense budget wranglings continue on Capitol Hill, much of the debate about one of the Pentagon’s largest expenses – Afghanistan – centers around just how effective the decade-long fight has been. Put more sharply, what has America received for the $443 billion it has spent so far on the war? (That's the latest estimate from the Congressional Budget Office covering 2001-2011.)

At the Pentagon and in testimony on Capitol Hill, the US military is taking part in its own cost-benefit analysis. Here are three top lessons the US military has learned in Afghanistan.

1. Watch the money

Omar Sobhani/Reuters/File
Afghan Finance Minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, once championed by international donors for his integrity, now is under investigation, after accusations aired on Afghan television that he stashed away more than $1 million in overseas banks, Afghanistan's top anticorruption chief said Aug. 2. Mr. Zakhilwal is seen here at an interview with Reuters in Kabul in a May 18, 2009, file photo.

Staggering corruption has consistently undermined the mission of US troops in Afghanistan, according to top US officials. 

A new congressionally mandated report on Afghanistan released in late July paints a dismal picture of the scale: It finds that “a significant proportion” of the $400 million the US has invested in large-scale projects in 2011 has been “wasted, due to weaknesses in planning, coordination, and execution, raising sustainability concerns and risking adverse counterinsurgency effects.”

These are projects designed to win local support in areas where US troops are fighting. 

Yet the money continues to flow. Already, the US has committed more than $90 billion in development dollars in 2013 – a tough sell for voters in a time of fiscal austerity, noted Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday. 

“How do we justify and expect that we will effectively – if we were to commit to those funds – effectively use those funds toward the development of a sustainable economy in Afghanistan, something that I could go to taxpayers back in New Jersey and say, ‘Yeah, this is worthy of our support and it's going to be well spent based upon experience we've had so far?’ ” he said during the hearing.

It doesn’t help that the Afghan finance minister has come under investigation, after an Afghan television network turned up what may be payoffs from businesses deposited into his private bank accounts.

This does not serve to increase confidence among the Afghan citizenry ahead of 2014 elections, also the year US combat troops are set to leave the country.

“Ultimately, it is the political transition that will determine whether our military gains are sustainable, and the strength and quality of the Afghan state we leave behind,” noted Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yet corruption and graft make it difficult for both American voters and their Afghan counterparts to have any confidence in the political process.

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