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.”
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 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
For More: http://www.buzzfeed.com/azmatkhan/the-big-lie-that-helped-justify-americas-war-in-afghanistan#.yroLWKKwo