The United States trumpets education as one of its shining successes of the war in Afghanistan. But a BuzzFeed News investigation reveals U.S. claims were often outright lies, as the government peddled numbers it knew to be false and touted schools that have never seen a single student.
ZHARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Here in the birthplace of the Taliban, children would climb up on Joe DeNenno and hang off his Army-issued rucksack as if it were a jungle gym. “Ruckriders,” he called them.
The 24-year-old first lieutenant didn’t just play with the kids. He also tutored them. He even convinced his commanding officer to spend some of the money the military had earmarked for winning hearts and minds on building the children a school.
In that summer of 2011, as he helped negotiate with local elders and the Afghan Ministry of Education, the fighting intensified. Three men in his unit fell to gunfire, and three more were blown up by roadside bombs. And Afghans who helped the Americans, he recalled, lost their lives “in just brutal torture, decapitated, terrible ways.”
Still, by early October, a dozen of DeNenno’s students — a few no taller than the shovels in their hands — smiled alongside U.S. soldiers, local security forces, and government officials, all gathered to break ground on a new school in the little village of Kandalay.
An Army press release lauded the groundbreaking as important “for the future of the children.” For DeNenno, it was an “antidote” to the bloodshed and “the rut of chasing this specter of victory.” It felt, he said, “like progress.”
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.
BuzzFeed News spot-checked more than 50 American-funded schools across seven Afghan provinces, most of which were battlefield provinces — the places that mattered most to the U.S. effort to win hearts and minds, and into which America poured immense sums of aid money.
At least a tenth of the schools BuzzFeed News visited either 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.”
At the schools that were still running, BuzzFeed News found far fewer students than were officially recorded as enrolled. Girls, whom the U.S. particularly wanted to draw into formal schooling, were overcounted in official records by about 40%.
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.
As for schools it actually constructed, USAID claimed for years that it had built or refurbished more than 680, a figure Hillary Clinton cited to Congress in 2010 when she was secretary of state. By 2014, that number had dropped to “more than 605.” After months of pressing for an exact figure, the agency told BuzzFeed News the number was 563, a drop of at least 117 schools from what it had long claimed.
The military, the other main source of U.S. funding for education, said it does not know how many schools it has funded since the war began. Last month, the Pentagon told BuzzFeed News that since 2008 the military had funded the construction or refurbishment of 786 schools. This month, a spokesperson revised that number down to 605 and said the new number encompassed “a variety of projects that included new construction, refurbishment, or simply donating supplies such as desks or textbooks.”
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.
Back in 2010, USAID told the inspector general that whatever the condition of the buildings, almost all the schools in that review were being used for “the original intended purpose” — that is, for educating students. Today, the agency echoed that point: Monitoring visits by a contractor, it said, showed that 85% of the USAID schools BuzzFeed News inspected “were operating as intended in 2013–14.”
Once schools are finished, USAID and the military hand them over to the Afghan government, which becomes responsible for maintaining them.
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 ministrypublicly 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.
At schools America funded, the education provided varies wildly, from math and science to, at one school the U.S. military claimed it built, little more than memorizing the Qur’an in a cramped mosque. Still, the U.S. effort has rectified one of its past mistakes. When Afghanistan was occupied by the Soviet Union, the U.S.-funded school curricula that were staunchly anti-Soviet — but also infested with jihadi ideology that al-Qaeda and the Taliban later used against America. Since 2002, U.S. funding has largely replaced those teaching materials by flooding the country with new textbooks.
And, to be sure, American-funded teachers, curricula, and buildings have helped provide at least some education to millions of Afghan children. Especially in Kabul and other major cities, some American-built schools are functioning well. Many of the students at these urban schools are girls.
“When USAID began working in Afghanistan, the country was devastated by decades of conflict,” the agency said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. While it acknowledged that “more work needs to be done,” it said, “millions of Afghan boys and girls are in school, and as a result of USAID and the international community’s investment, thousands more [are] attending universities and entering Afghanistan’s growing workforce.”
But in the areas where most U.S. funding was concentrated — territories that were key to winning the war — American efforts have fallen woefully short of the grand claims the government made, claims that it knew were false. In some cases, American efforts to provide education have actually backfired, embittering local people rather than winning their hearts and minds. What went wrong is a story of overhyping in Washington, of noble intentions going astray in a society America did not understand, and of the pitfalls of using humanitarian aid and “soft power” to support military and political goals.
Omar Qargha, a former USAID program manager who worked on education in Afghanistan for years, watched the military’s counterinsurgency goals steadily creep into the agency’s work. USAID officials and contractors were summoned to presentations by generals, who asked how the agency’s work fit into the military’s counterinsurgency strategy.
“The purpose was to get out a lot of good numbers, really quickly,” he said. “You needed a good story. You needed a win.”
Over the last decade, report after report has chronicled the corruption and waste that squandered taxpayer dollars across many U.S. programs in Afghanistan. But American education efforts — long seen as a shining success — have gone mostly unexamined, a truth acknowledged even by one of the U.S. officials who has investigated corruption in Afghanistan.
“No one wants to take a hard look at education,” said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “for fear it might turn out to be less than it is cracked up to be.”
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.
“He was our warlord”
Sitting on a flat, arid plain — dun-colored in winter and summer alike — Zhari’s mud houses are home to opium traffickers, warlords, and supporters of the Taliban, which formed here in 1994. The district straddles Highway 1, a strategic artery connecting Kandahar City, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, to the capital Kabul and other major urban centers.
By 2009, the Taliban resurgence had reached Zhari. The district was the gateway to Kandahar City, a devastating coup if insurgents could capture it. Over the next year, thousands of American soldiers deployed to the area to protect Kandahar. The fight was vicious, and by 2011, reinforcements were pouring in, including Fort Drum’s Third Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division — DeNenno’s unit.
When he arrived at the combat outpost, DeNenno noticed the children almost right away. Without a school to go to, about a dozen hung around the base, lured by a cash-for-work program. By March 2011, on his own time, he and a translator had started tutoring the kids in basic literacy in Pashto, the local language.
On a marker board, their small hands practiced writing the alphabet, which DeNenno had learned in college and in a Pashto class at Fort Drum. He sent photos to his schoolteacher mother, back in rural Pennsylvania, who pitched in by organizing donations of lessons, pencils, paper, and crayons.
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