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Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Kabul Grand Hotel: it sounds like the setting of a movie, the backdrop for international intrigue and failed ambitions.

But the hotel is not a Hollywood fabrication. It exists, although it isn’t open for business. It’s a shell, an abandoned, half-built 209-room monstrosity perilously close to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, making it a huge security risk.

So the mothballed structure must be heavily guarded, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.

It was supposed to be a Marriott, but the hotel giant cut ties with the project, citing security concerns. And now a U.S. government oversight agency has issued a report on the rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan accusing the project’s minders of allowing a default on $85 million in loans.

The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction functions like an auditing agency for what could be considered the Marshall Plan of Afghanistan. SIGAR provides a constant drip of reports chronicling the struggles, few successes and abject failures, such as the hotel and the luxury apartments that were supposed to be built next to it. The loans were made by the Overseas Private Investment Corp., a government financing agency that uses private funds to finance development abroad. OPIC has stated that it continues to seek a resolution on the loans.

The hotel and the apartment complex were intended to provide Afghans jobs, and to house diplomats, investors and others who would be part of strengthening Afghanistan after our troops and coalition forces pulled out.

The SIGAR report showed pictures of the properties, missing walls and windows, along with furnished model rooms, covered in dust and lacking electricity, water or other utilities. The promised August 2013 opening of the apartment building was termed “blatantly false and unrealistic.” Like so many projects SIGAR investigated, this one was plagued by waste and fraud, compounded by lack of oversight.

More than a year ago, SIGAR Special Inspector General John F. Sopko warned, “Afghanistan’s problems extend far beyond its borders, and we ignore them at our peril.”

Afghans were one-quarter of the million migrants and refugees moving across Europe in 2015, leaving because of the lack of jobs and insecurity in their homeland. That ought to remind us how important it is to get these national reconstruction projects right, and what happens when they fail.

This latest SIGAR report comes at a crucial time. As Donald Trump prepares to take over the presidency, it remains to be seen whether he will take interest in such rebuilding efforts. His isolationist campaign rhetoric suggests that he will not.

The same day the SIGAR report was released, outgoing President Barack Obama was meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.

In a news conference after the meeting, Obama explained America’s ongoing mission in places around the world like Afghanistan. The United States is “the voice that insists on rules and norms governing international affairs, the voice that helps to steer the world away from war wherever possible; that’s our voice more often than not,” Obama said. “And we’re not always successful, but if that voice is absent or divided, we will live in a meaner, harsher and more troubled world.”

There is a moral lesson that accompanies Afghanistan. And it should be heeded by those who would prefer the U.S. wash its hands of such complicated efforts, favoring an America-first or -only premise. Consider how our military landed back in Afghanistan. And that more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers died there, with an additional 20,000 wounded. The bloodshed continues, too.

For nearly 10 years in the 1980s, the U.S. backed Afghanistan as it fought the Soviet Union. But when the Soviets pulled out, the U.S. lost interest in the country and did not take as active role a role as it should have in reconstructing the war-torn country. The vacuum proved to be fertile ground for the Taliban.

We know what happened next: It sheltered the terrorists who masterminded the attacks in the U.S. that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

The role of the U.S. as a force to help stabilize nations is central to battling global terrorism. It needs to continue, in concert with other allies. A lesson of the Kabul Grand Hotel is that we don’t pay enough attention to what we’re doing in these state-building efforts. We must not give in to those who say we should just close up shop and leave Afghanistan to its own devices. Rather, we have to make all our efforts and resources count.

Mary Sanchez: 816-234-4752, msanchez@kcstar.com, @msanchezcolumn

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