The intention was good: find a sustainable crop to help raise nutrition rates in Afghanistan and provide Afghan farmers with a new cash crop. But as with so many rebuilding projects in Afghanistan — in this case on trying to convince Afghanistan to love soybeans — the result was one where the goals achieved didn’t come close to matching the money spent.
As the United States begins to transition out of Afghanistan, the country it has been attempting to rebuild for more than a decade, the government official in charge of documenting waste and abuse in the many American programs operating there has had his work cut out for him. The Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko on Thursday released a review of his office’s inquiry into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $34.4 million investment into soybeans in Afghanistan.
The Soybeans for Agricultural Renewal in Afghanistan Initiative (SARAI) was a project pitched and run by the the American Soybean Association with USDA funding. What Sopko found during a March visit to Afghanistan was enough to give him serious pause. “I understand that Afghanistan’s operating environment poses daunting challenges for reconstruction and development programs, and that any project in the country is bound to meet its fair share of difficulties,” Sopko wrote in a June letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “However, what is troubling about this particular project is that it appears that many of these problems could reasonably have been foreseen and, therefore, possibly avoided.”
Those problems appear to be legion, according to the letter to Vilsack. Among the most troubling is the fact that long before the SARAI project began in 2010, evidence existed that the crop would fail in the area where planting was set occur. “Scientific research conducted for the UK Department for International Development between 2005 and 2008 concluded that soybeans were inappropriate for conditions and farming practices in northern Afghanistan, where the program was implemented,” Sopko wrote.
Those studies quickly proved true, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation into the project also published on Wednesday. “The first crop failed, and subsequent harvests didn’t produce enough soybeans to operate a special factory in Mazar-e-Sharif that was constructed and managed at a cost of at least $1.5 million to create a local soybean economy,” it found. “Afghan farmers participating in the project, discouraged by crop failures, largely abandoned their growing efforts.”
The lack of soybeans for the factory meant that instead the U.S. had to fly 4,000 metric tons of American soy into Afghanistan for it to be processed, at a cost of $2 million. But due to lagging output from the Afghan farmers, once the final ten percent of the USDA stockpile is processed, there will only be enough soy from the entire crop this year to run the factory for one month.
Making matters worse the factory established was able to process soybeans into several final products — including animal feed, oil, and soy flour — but needed to produce mostly the more profitable soy flour to remain solvent. But program managers told SIGAR that “Afghans don’t like the taste of bread made with soybean flour,” leading the factory to have to sell a product that is 95 percent wheat flour and 5 percent soybean flour. That wheat, though, doesn’t even come from Afghanistan: it’s actually imported from Kazakhstan. As Sopko wrote in his initial letter to Vilsack in March raising concerns about the program, there is not “any significant demand for soybean products in Afghanistan.”
In his June letter, Sopko recommends that USDA take a long look at the Food for Progress program that SARAI was established under. The SIGAR also advised Vilsack to launch a “thorough and comprehensive evaluation of the project’s future sustainability, including a review of existing research on the economic viability of growing soybeans in Afghanistan. If a viable business case cannot be supported, withhold further investment.”
This vignette can easily serve as a parable for the entirety of the Afghan reconstruction process, which has since 2001 cost an estimated $120 billion. As NBC pointed out in its version of the CPI investigation: “No one has calculated precisely how much the United States wasted or misspent in Afghanistan, but a congressionally-chartered group estimated in 2011 that it could be nearly a third of the total. A special auditor appointed by President Obama the following year said he discovered nearly $7 billion worth of Afghanistan-related waste in just his first year on the job.”