AJ Vicens is the Interactives/Data Fellow fellow at Mother Jones. His past work includes time in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, and his stories have appeared in the Washington Post, ESPN.com, and 5280 Magazine.
An Afghan policeman stands guard at a border checkpoint.
The United States and Afghanistan are close to finalizing a deal that would set guidelines for the two countries' relationship after 2014, when the bulk of American forces are supposed to leave the country—more than a dozen years and hundreds of billions of dollars later.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had reached tentative agreement on one of the last remaining holdups preventing a long-term deal: whether American forces could continue to raid Afghan homes during security operations. The new agreement would prevent American-led raids except under "extraordinary circumstances," but it's not yet clear that the deal will pass the Loya Jirga, a body of Afghan elders. The raids, among other issues, have created deep mistrust between American forces and the Afghan people.
If a deal is reached, US forces could remain in the country at least another 10 years in some fashion, committing taxpayers to spending millions more on security and nation-building projects. So far, many of those projects have been undermined by corruption and dysfunction. Here are a few examples of US investments in Afghanistan that have already either fallen apart or show little signs of lasting success:
At least 19 of the hospitals built by the international community—including two US-funded facilities that cost nearly $20 million—may be too expensive for the Afghan government to run.
The Pentagon has invested $770 million for nearly 50 planes to patrol the countryside for opium poppy and hashish fields. But the Afghan government can't afford the $100 million annual overhead—nor does it have enough qualified pilots to fly the aircraft.
With two-thirds of Afghans lacking regular access to electricity, the United States has spent more than a billion dollars beefing up the country's power grid. But according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the state-run power company may not be able to pay its bills after 2014, when US funding expires. Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development recently gave the utility control of the construction of a hydroelectric dam in a restive section of Helmand province—a project 29 Marines died to make possible. As the Los Angeles Times reported, there are doubts about the "utility's competence and experience, as well as the government's commitment to a project that insurgents have violently opposed."
The United States spent $1.7 billion on road and bridge building from 2002 to 2007, but some of the projects have already started to fall apart, "mainly because of the poor quality of initial construction, poor maintenance, and overloading," according to SIGAR.
More Afghan children are being educated than ever before, thanks to international development efforts. But the Afghan government won't be able to operate all the new schools, especially as international personnel and aid trickle out of the country. "Of course we built too much," one British official told the Guardian. "We didn't think about how the Afghans would pay for it…We wanted to show them what we could do for them, but without regard for sustainability."
All in all, military operations in Afghanistan have cost nearly $700 billion. That's still less than the United States spent fighting in Vietnam, but it's still a major chunk of the more than $1.6 trillion spent on the Afghan and Iraq conflicts since September 11.
The Pebble Mine would be the largest of its kind in North America. Former Mother Jones staff writer Kate Sheppard put it into perspective in May: "[The mine] would be as much as two miles long, a mile and a half wide, and 1,700 feet deep ... [sitting] at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, which feed into the Bristol Bay, producing as much as 11 billion tons of toxic mine waste over a span of decades."
"Despite our belief that Pebble is a deposit of rare magnitude and quality, we have taken the decision to withdraw," said Mark Cutifani, Anglo's CEO. "Our focus has been to prioritise (sic) capital to projects with the highest value and lowest risks within our portfolio, and reduce the capital required to sustain such projects."
In other words, Anglo would rather focus on projects that might actually move forward. After sinking $541 million into the project, the company likely took a cold look at the significant regulatory hurdles and political opposition. Joel Reynolds, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Marine Mammal Protection and Southern California Ecosystem projects, made the case in May 2012 that the Pebble Mine would have a hard time overcoming its negative baggage and was ultimately a bad investment in every way. "The Pebble Mine makes no sense environmentally, economically, culturally, or legally, and it ought to be abandoned," he wrote.
The mine's only remaining funder is Northern Dynasty, an organization created in 2001 to conceptualize and develop the massive project. Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen said that the company has the "expertise and resources necessary to advance" the project, but that advancement likely would only carry it to finding another deep-pocketed partner.
Recent news reports exposed how the National Security Agency has been collecting millions of Americans' phone data and online communications. Here's how we got from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to the massive domestic spying operations of today:
September 11: Nearly 3,000 people are killed when terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and crash another in Pennsylvania. Soon afterward, the NSA begins a "special collection program" to track the communications of Al Qaeda leaders and suspected terrorists.
George W. Bush speaks at the NSA in 2002. NSA
October: Six weeks after 9/11, President Bush signs the USA Patriot Act, which lowers protections against government collection of Americans' communications and personal records.
TIA logo WikiMedia Commons
February: The New York Timesreveals that the Pentagon is "developing technologies to give federal officials instant access to vast new surveillance and information analysis systems" under a new agency called the Information Awareness Office, which later gave way to the Total Information Awareness program.
March: White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card visit Attorney General John Ashcroft in the hospital seeking to persuade him to reauthorize the NSA's domestic warrantless wiretapping program. The program will be revealed to the public a year and a half later by the New York Times.
May: USA Today reports the NSA has been tracking millions of Americans' phone calls with the help of major telecom companies. A few weeks later a former AT&T technician reveals that the company let the NSA tap into its fiber-optic lines in 2002, enabling it to monitor a majority of internet and phone traffic in the United States.
September: Microsoft becomes the first major internet firm to cooperate with the NSA's PRISM program, giving the NSA the ability to collect data on search history, email, file transfers and live chats. Over the next few years, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and other companies become part of the program, which won't be revealed to the public until 2013.
July: Bush signs the FISA Amendments Act, which retroactively codifies the warrantless wiretapping program and compels telecoms and internet firms to give the government access to private communications if one party is "reasonably believed" to be outside the United States. It also gives telecoms retroactive immunity for handing over customers' private data without a warrant.
June: A federal judge upholds immunity for telecoms that handed over private information. The same day, Facebook starts participating in the NSA's PRISM program.
March 10: A federal judge rules that the NSA warrantless wiretapping program started during the Bush administration is illegal. The ruling, based on a 2006 lawsuit, will be overturned on a technicality in 2012.
April 15: Federal authorities charge Thomas Drake, an NSA employee who passed information about the agency's activities to reporters, under the Espionage Act. He accepts a plea deal on a lesser charge in 2011.
January: The NSA begins construction of a massive, 1 million square foot, $2 billion data center in Utah. "Just as we defend our lands, America also needs to also defend our cyberspace," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) says at the groundbreaking ceremony. It is scheduled to be completed in September 2013.
May: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee has access to classified materials, warns: "When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry."
April-May 2012: As part of a leak investigation, the Department of Justice secretly obtained two months worth of phone records from multiple offices and individual reporters at the Associated Press. It's top executive calls the DOJ's actions a "massive and unprecedented intrusion into the newsgathering process."
June: The inspector general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence says it "would itself violate the privacy of US persons" to reveal how many people the NSA had tracked inside the country.
July: In a letter to Wyden, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) acknowledges that some NSA activities have "circumvented the spirit of the law" and that on one occasion a FISA judge found that some of NSA's activities violated the Fourth Amendment.
December: Obama signs a five-year extension of the FISA Act. Amendments to provide more oversight of mass surveillance are defeated in the Senate.
PRISM documents NSA/The Guardian
March: Wyden asks DNI chief James Clapper in a congressional hearing if the NSA collects information on millions of Americans.
June: "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program's about," Obama says at a speech in Silicon Valley. "But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism." He adds, ""You can't have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."
August 15: Based on more Snowden documents, the Postreports that the NSA had "broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year" since 2008. Sens. Wyden and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) say the reported violations represent "just the tip of a larger iceberg."
September 5: The New York Times,Guardian, and ProPublica report that the NSA has engineered ways to foil virtually all encryption protecting the average person's "everyday communications in the Internet age."
September 9: Der Spiegel reports that the NSA has the capability to bypass security features of iPhones, Android devices, and BlackBerrys, allowing it to access contacts, location data, photos and perhaps credit card numbers and passwords.
November 14: The New York Times reports that the CIA is covertly collecting bulk records of international financial transactions under the same laws that allow for the NSA's bulk data collection, suggesting that the full scope of the US government's bulk data collection efforts are unkown.
Earlier this summer, when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, there were marches across the country. But the protests largely faded out, folding in on themselves before they had a chance to create any lasting change. One place that isn't true is Florida, where a group calling itself the Dream Defenders took over the state capitol building, and called upon GOP Gov. Rick Scott to support the Trayvon Martin Act. The bill was an attempt to address racial profiling, the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law, and zero-tolerance policies in schools that funnel kids into the criminal-justice system.
The Dream Defenders were able to gather a lot of national and high-profile support. Among the bigger names who turned out to support their cause was the Brooklyn-based rapper Talib Kweli, among the most enduring and successful "conscious" hip-hop artists of his generation. I caught up with Kweli last week for a chat that ranged from his new album (Prisoner of Conscious), to stop-and-frisk, feminism, and homosexuality in the hip-hop community.
Mother Jones:What made you want to go to Florida to support the Dream Defenders?
Talib Kweli: Harry Belafonte hit me to the Dream Defenders and I liked what they were about. When I asked them how I could help their movement, they said, "You can help by coming down here; you can tweet." But I was like, "That's easy, what else can I do?" What I like about Dream Defenders is they're taking all the fly shit from activism—they're taking the right energy from civil rights, from black power, from Occupy Wall Street, all these movements, the Arab Spring. They're not protesting, they're not demonstrating; they're just coming with a plan for action and they're not going anywhere until the governor addresses their plan.
Kobach's support of another immigration-related voter registration law could land him in court. The ACLU said Tuesday that Kobach and the state of Kansas are violating the National Voter Registration Act by preventing people from registering to vote who haven't proved to the state's satisfaction that they're US citizens. About 14,000 people -- about a third of the people who've submittted registration forms in 2013 -- are in "suspense," meaning state elections officials can't verify that the person is actually eligible to vote. In many cases this has to do with fact that proof-of-citizenship documents aren't being transferred to Kansas election officials from Kansas DMVs—despite a $40 million system designed to streamline the process. The ACLU also says Kansas is failing to make its election forms widely available and is generally failing to uphold its responsibilities under federal election law.
The ACLU has threatened to sue the state of Kansas if it doesn't address its concerns.
ACLU's main beef is with Kansas' requirement that first-time voters in the state provide proof of citizenship. Arizona enacted a similar requirement in 2004, but the US Supreme Court struck it down earlier this summer. The federal form requires registrants to check a box affirming their lawful right to vote under penalty of perjury. The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision written by arch liberal Justice Antonin Scalia, said that states had to accept the federal registration form unless it could convince the Election Assistance Commission (a federal body charged with making voting easier in the wake of the 2000 Florida elections debacle) to change the requirements.
Kobach, through his media office, wouldn't answer questions about the ACLU's allegations. But he did issue a statement:
"We are reviewing the letter submitted by the ACLU. However, the ACLU and other organizations on the Left have made clear from the start that they oppose proof-of-citizenship requirements for voting and that they will attempt to prevent the State of Kansas from ensuring that only citizens are registered to vote. This letter therefore comes as no surprise."
Kobach added that the ACLU is misinterpreting the Supreme Court's decision, and that the state of Kansas "takes the citizenship qualification seriously and will enforce it."