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 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.”