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Drug War and a Phantom $500 Million: Pentagon Watchdog Calls Out Two Commands for Financial Malfeasance

The investigation that hardly anyone heard about: whatever became of that $500 million?

(Photo: D-Keine / Getty Images)

2017 was a year of investigations for US Africa Command (AFRICOM). There was the investigation of the two-star commander of US Army Africa who allegedly sent racy texts to an enlisted man’s wife. There was the investigation into the alleged killing of a Special Forces soldier by Navy SEALs in Mali. There was the inquiry into reports of torture and killings on a remote base in Cameroon that was also used by American forces. There was the investigation of an alleged massacre of civilians by American special operators in Somalia. And don’t forget the inquiry into the killing of four Special Forces soldiers by Islamic State militants in Niger.

And then there was the investigation that hardly anyone heard about, that didn’t spark a single headline. And still, the question remains: Whatever became of that $500 million?

To be fair, this particular scandal isn’t AFRICOM’s alone, nor did that sizeable sum belong only to that one command. And unlike the possibly tens of thousands of dollars in cash that reportedly went missing in connection with the strangulation of the Green Beret in Mali, that $500 million didn’t simply vanish. Still, a report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General (IG), released into the news wasteland of the day after Christmas 2017, does raise questions about a combatant command with a history of scandals, including significant failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting projects across the African continent, as well as the effectiveness of US assistance efforts there.

From fiscal years 2014 through 2016, AFRICOM and Central Command (CENTCOM), the umbrella organization for US military activities in the Greater Middle East, received a combined $496 million to conduct counternarcotics (CN) activities. That substantial sum was used by the respective commands to fund myriad projects from the construction of border outposts in allied nations to training personnel in policing skills like evidence collection. Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to be used. According to the IG, neither AFRICOM nor CENTCOM “maintained reliable data for the completion status and funding of training, equipping, and construction activities.” That means no one — not the IG investigators, not AFRICOM, not CENTCOM personnel — seems to have any idea how much of that money was spent, what it was spent on, whether the funded projects were ever completed, or whether any of it made a difference in the fight against illegal drugs in Africa and the Middle East.

“US Central and US Africa Commands did not provide effective oversight of [fiscal years] 2014 through 2016 counternarcotics activities,” wrote Michael Roark, an assistant inspector general, in a memorandum sent to the chiefs of both commands as well as to Pentagon officials in December 2017. “Specifically, neither US Central nor US Africa Command maintained reliable data for the completion status and funding of counternarcotics training, equipping, and construction activities.” What is clear is that large sums of taxpayer dollars allotted to such training activities were inconsistently tracked or accounted for, including — according to Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the Office of Inspector General — $73 million in AFRICOM counternarcotics funding.

TomDispatch repeatedly contacted Africa Command for comment about the IG’s report. According to digital receipts, AFRICOM read the emailed questions but failed to respond prior to the publication of this piece.

The War on Drugs

Since 9/11, US military activity on the African continent has grown at an exponential rate. US troops are now conducting about 3,500 exercises, programs, and activities per year, an average of nearly 10 missions a day. Meanwhile, America’s most elite troops — including Navy SEALs and Green Berets — deployed to no fewer than 33 of the 54 African countries last year.

Many of the command’s missions focus on training local allies and proxies. “AFRICOM’s Theater Security Cooperation programs remain the cornerstone of our sustained security engagement with African partners,” reads its “What We Do” credo. “Conditions for success of our security cooperation programs and activities on the continent are established through hundreds of engagements supporting a wide range of activities.” These include not only foreign military aid and training, but also counternarcotics assistance.

By 2012, US Africa Command’s Counternarcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch was already providing about $20 million in aid per year to various partner nations. In doing so, it relied on special legislation that allows the military to work not only with other armed forces but with interagency partners like the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI, as well as local law enforcement agencies and the justice, customs, and interior ministries of various African countries.

The command’s African partners often suffer, however, from their own drug problems. “On the governance front, the proceeds of drug trafficking and other forms of illicit trafficking are fueling a dramatic increase in corruption among the very institutions responsible for fighting crime,” observed David Luna of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs last year in a speech on combating organized crime in Africa. “The collusion and complicity of some government officials with criminal networks have helped carve out an illicit trafficking corridor that stretches from the West African coast to the Horn of Africa, from North Africa south to the Gulf of Guinea.”

But corrupt allies, as the Pentagon’s Inspector General points out, are only one of the problems facing US counternarcotics efforts there. AFRICOM itself is another.

The Wisdom of the Crowd vs. a Simple Spreadsheet

In 2014, Coast Guard captain Ted St. Pierre, the division chief of AFRICOM’s Counter Narcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch, turned to the consulting firm Wikistrat to design and conduct a “scenario-driven simulation” to aid the command in developing strategies to combat drug trafficking in northwest Africa. That simulation was sold as a crowd-sourced, futuristic approach to a twenty-first-century problem. “The idea is that this technology leverages the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ just as averaging the guesses of the crowd at the county fair will come very close to the amount of jelly beans in a jar,” said Tim Haffner, a program analyst for AFRICOM’s Counter Narcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch and its point man for the simulation project. As it turned out, AFRICOM’s counternarcotics officials could have benefited from far lower-tech assistance — like help in maintaining accurate spreadsheets.

Take the radio equipment that the command procured to help Senegal battle narcotics trafficking. According to a spreadsheet provided to the Inspector General by AFRICOM, $1.1 million was budgeted for that in 2014. Leaving aside whether such equipment is helpful in curtailing drug trafficking, it was at least clear how much money was spent on those radios. Until, that is, IG investigators consulted another spreadsheet also provided by AFRICOM. Its data indicated that nearly triple that sum — $3.1 million — had been budgeted for and spent on those radios. The question was: Did Senegalese forces receive $1 million worth of radios or three times that figure? No one at AFRICOM knew.

In fact, those two spreadsheets told radically different stories about the larger US counternarcotics campaign on the continent in 2014. One indicated that taxpayers had funded 55 different projects budgeted at $15 million; the other, 134 activities to the tune of $24 million. Investigators were especially troubled by the second spreadsheet in which the “budgeted, obligated, and expended amounts… were identical for each activity causing the team to question the reliability of the data.” So which spreadsheet was right? How many projects were really carried out? How many millions of dollars were actually spent? The IG’s office concluded that AFRICOM counternarcotics officials didn’t know and so “could not verify which set of data was complete and accurate.”

Or take Cameroon in 2016. That year, according to AFRICOM officials, the United States budgeted $143,493 for training that country’s forces in “evidence collection.” (This was at a moment when AFRICOM officials seemed oblivious to copious evidence that civilian detainees were being tortured, sometimes even killed, on a Cameroonian base used by American forces.) Yet a 2016 spreadsheet examined by the Inspector General’s investigators indicated that only $94,620 had actually been budgeted for such training, while $165,078 had been “obligated” — that is, an agreement was made to pay that sum for services rendered — for the same activities. In the end, according to the IG’s December 2017 report, AFRICOM counternarcotics personnel couldn’t say how much money had actually been spent on training Cameroonians in evidence collection because of “a law enforcement agency error in tracking funding.”

Records of construction activities were in a similar state of disarray. While counternarcotics officials provided IG personnel with a spreadsheet specifically devoted to such projects, its information proved inconsistent with other AFRICOM documents. In reading the IG’s account of this, I was reminded of an interview I conducted several years ago with Chris Gatz of the Army Corps of Engineers Africa about construction projects for Special Operations Command Africa. “I’ll be totally frank with you,” he told me, “as far as the scopes of these projects go, I don’t have good insights.” I then asked if some projects had been funded with counter-narco-terrorism funds. “No, actually there was not,” he assured me, which led me to ask him about Niger. I knew that the US was devoting significant resources to such projects there, specifically in the towns of Arlit and Tahoua. When I explained that I had already uncovered that information, he promptly located the right paperwork, adding, “Oh, okay, I’m sorry. You’re right, we have two of them… Both were actually awarded to construction.”

That construction began — at least on paper — in 2013. It seems that, in the time since, little has changed when it comes to record-keeping. When IG investigators looked into more recent construction efforts in Niger for their report, they found, for example, a phantom counternarcotics project — a classroom somehow integral to the fight against drugs in that West African country. When they requested documentation for the 2015 construction of this classroom, the investigators were told by AFRICOM officials that the project had been terminated. The classroom was actually never built. Yet none of the data in any of the spreadsheets previously provided by the command indicated that the construction had been canceled.

Both AFRICOM and CENTCOM also left substantial funds on the table, monies that were apparently never spent and might have been used for other counternarcotics activities, had they not been lost, according to the IG report. For example, a “law enforcement agency” conducted 20 counternarcotics training classes over two years in an unspecified African nation (or nations), leaving an estimated excess of $805,000 in funding untouched, at least based on the officially budgeted costs for such instruction. As it turned out, however, AFRICOM officials had no idea that all of the funds hadn’t been spent. The report, in its typical bureaucratic prose, summed up the situation this way: “[T]he amount unused could be higher or lower because USAFRICOM does not know how much was actually expended for the trainings executed.”

In all, faulty accounting seems to have resulted in at least $128 million worth of CENTCOM and AFRICOM counternarcotics funding for 2014-2016 going unspent.

Prior Bad Acts

This is hardly the first time that Africa Command has run into trouble accounting for work performed and dollars spent. In 2014, TomDispatchrevealed the results of an Inspector General’s report (“Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa Needed Better Guidance and Systems to Adequately Manage Civil-Military Operations”) that was never publicly released. It uncovered failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting humanitarian projects by AFRICOM’s subordinate Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).

At the time, the IG found record-keeping so faulty that CJTF-HOA officials “did not have an effective system to manage or report community relations and low-cost activities.” A spreadsheet tracking such projects was so incomplete that 43% of those efforts went unmentioned. Nonetheless, the IG did manage to review 49 of CJTF-HOA’s 137 identified humanitarian assistance and civic assistance projects, which cost US taxpayers about $9 million, and found that the military officials overseeing the projects “did not adequately plan or execute” them in accordance with AFRICOM’s objectives. Examining 66 community relations and low-cost activities (like the distribution of sports equipment and seminars on solar panel maintenance), investigators discovered that its officials had failed to accurately identify their strategic objectives for, or maintained limited documentation on, 62% of them.

In some cases, they failed to explain how their efforts supported AFRICOM’s objectives on the continent; in others, financial documentation was missing; in yet more, personnel failed to ensure that local populations were equipped to keep the projects running once US forces moved on. The risk, the report suggested, was that projects like American-built wells, water fountains, and cisterns would quickly fall into disrepair and become what one official called “monuments to US failure.”

Drug Problems

After years of failing to maintain reliable data about and effective oversight of its counternarcotics activities, Africa Command has, according to the Pentagon’s Inspector General, finally taken corrective measures. “USAFRICOM officials developed standard operating procedures that fully addressed the recommendation” of the December 2017 IG report, Bruce Anderson of the Office of the Inspector General told TomDispatch. “They also provided their [fiscal year] 2018 Spend Plan as evidence of some of the processes being implemented.” Whether these new measures will be effective and other types of assistance will also be comprehensively tracked remains to be seen.

While AFRICOM may be cleaning up its act, the same cannot be said of CENTCOM, which, according to Anderson, apparently wasted or didn’t adequately track almost $423 million in counternarcotics funds between 2014 and 2016. Like AFRICOM, Central Command failed to provide answers to TomDispatch’s questions prior to publication, although the command did respond to email messages. More than a month after the December 2017 report was issued, CENTCOM would not say if it had implemented the IG’s recommendations. “As you know, this is a complex issue, and it needs to be coordinated within the chain of command,” spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Earl Brown wrote in an email. Bruce Anderson of the IG’s office was, however, able to shed further light on the matter. “The two recommendations to USCENTCOM remain unresolved,” he told TomDispatch. “USCENTCOM implemented some corrective actions, but the actions only partially addressed the recommendations.”

More troubling than the findings in the IG’s report or CENTCOM’s apparent refusal to heed its recommendations may be the actual trajectory of the drug trade in the two commands’ areas of responsibility: Africa and the Greater Middle East. Last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted that while West Africa “has long been a transit zone for cocaine and heroin trafficking, it has now turned into a production zone for illicit substances such as amphetamines and precursors” and that drug use “is also a growing issue at the local level.” Meanwhile, heroin trafficking has been on the rise in East Africa, along with personal use of the drug.

Even the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies is sounding an alarm. “Drug trafficking is a major transnational threat in Africa that converges with other illicit activities ranging from money laundering to human trafficking and terrorism,” it warned last November. “According to the 2017 U.N. World Drug Report, two-thirds of the cocaine smuggled between South America and Europe passes through West Africa, specifically Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo. Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania are among the countries that have seen the highest traffic in opiates passing from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Western destinations.” As badly as this may reflect on AFRICOM’s efforts to bolster the counter-drug-trafficking prowess of key allies like Kenya, Mali, and Nigeria, it reflects even more dismally on CENTCOM, which oversees Washington’s long-running war in Afghanistan and its seemingly ceaseless counternarcotics mission there.

In the spring of 2001, American experts concluded that a ban on opium-poppy cultivation by Afghanistan’s Taliban government had wiped out the world’s largest heroin-producing crop. Later that year, the US military invaded and, since 2002, America has pumped $8.7 billion in counternarcotics funding into that country. A report issued late last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction detailed the results of anti-drug efforts during CENTCOM’s 16-year-old war: “Afghanistan’s total area under opium cultivation and opium production reached an all-time high in 2017,” it reads in part. “Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer and exporter, producing an estimated 80% of the world’s opium.”

In many ways, these outcomes mirror those of the larger counterterror efforts of which these anti-drug campaigns are just a part. In 2001, for example, US forces were fighting just two enemy forces in Afghanistan: al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, according to a recent Pentagon report, they’re battling more than 10 times that number. In Africa, an official count of five prime terror groups in 2012 has expanded, depending on the Pentagon source, to more than 20 or even closer to 50.

Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but given the outcomes of significant counternarcotics assistance from Africa Command and Central Command — including some $500 million over just three recent years — there’s little evidence to suggest that better record-keeping can solve the problems plaguing the military’s anti-drug efforts in the greater Middle East or Africa. While AFRICOM and, to a lesser extent, CENTCOM have made changes in how they track counternarcotics aid, both seemingly remain hooked on pouring money into efforts that have produced few successes. More effective use of spreadsheets won’t solve the underlying problems of America’s wars.

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