When I told Nora Kravis that her cashmere goats had become the symbol of the Pentagon’s waste in Afghanistan, at first she didn’t believe it. “My nine goats are worth $18,000, not $6 million. It’s appalling,” she said, then recalled: “I have seen many unnecessary expenses.”
Late last month, a U.S. regulatory commission released a damning report on America’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. John Sopko, head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, testified before the Senate that a Defense Department organization known as the Task Force for Business Stability Operations was responsible for widespread abuse, waste and fraud during the five years it was supposed to be restoring the Afghan economy and fomenting foreign investment.
Until its closure in March 2015, TFBSO spent $759 million. But Sopko says the effort was scattershot. “The Task Force invested in everything from importing rare blond Italian goats to bolster the cashmere industry in Herat, to landmine removal, to biofuel research, to funding large-scale projects to support the development of extractives industries.”
The nine goats were purchased from Kravis, an American goat farmer and longtime resident of Italy. When the goat program became a sensation in the American press, we managed to track down the herder herself and reconstruct the whole story. It begins in the Chianti wine region of Tuscany, passes through Colorado to Herat, in western Afghanistan, and ends in the U.S. Senate.
Kravis is a New Yorker who has been living in Italy since 1972. She founded La Penisola, a farm where she breeds cashmere goats. From here, in the countryside between Florence and Siena, she operates “the only genetic selection and breeding center of Italian cashmere goats.”
“In 2012, I was contacted by Pentagon men, and then by Colorado State University,” Kravis says. Their goal was “to boost the economy of Afghan cashmere production by coupling the local goats with select Chianti males.” By 2013, she had sent nine breeding goats to Herat.
Afghanistan is the third-largest cashmere producer in the world, after China and Mongolia, which control 90 percent of the market. In the country, there are 7 million goats, 95 percent of which produce cashmere wool. But there are two problems: Only one-third are used, and they’re not of high quality because of their dark color. International markets seek light cashmere, with long and strong fibers, which can be dyed.
“The problems of Afghan cashmere are the lack of expertise in genetic selection, harvesting, processing and transformation of fibers,” Kravis explains. “Therefore, in addition to adding new goats with light wool for genetic improvement, things on which I was involved in the project included the creation of structures to make a finished or semi-finished product.”
Kravis’s contract, signed in December 2012, included two years of work, in collaboration with the Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences, led by Professor Ajay Jha, director of Cashmere Enterprise. The project aimed at the creation of a breeding center and a laboratory for the certification of fibers in Herat. According to some sources, Colorado State was poised to receive a Defense Department contract worth $1.5 million. Kravis’s remuneration was $62,000, she says: $20,000 for the 10 goats (which later became nine and excluded medical expenses for vaccinations and other miscellany), and the rest for her advisory role.
“I’ve been there four times,” she says of Herat. “The first time to deliver my goats, then three more times. I lectured, worked in the stables with veterinarians and local breeders. I transferred the know-how. The idea was to make sure that the Afghans were able to fend for themselves, from start to finish.” The barn and livestock, she says, “were good. The last time I was in Herat, they were building the lab for analysis and certification of fiber.”
Machines were shipped from Italy, from Raffa di Puegnago, near Brescia, to the storage sites of the firm Mesdan Lab. “We sold a set of equipment for the creation of a small laboratory near Herat,” Claudio Bertolotti, commercial manager of the company, confirmed to il manifesto. “This equipment serves to evaluate and certify the quality of the fibers, as well as length, strength and endurance.” Their value was approximately $100,000, he said, but could not say whether the laboratory and the stable are still operational or not. “We have not heard anything for the last year.”
Worth it in the long-term
“The establishment runs around the clock, six days a week,” explains David Lee, director of Cashmere Fibres International Limited, a British company that provided additional machinery. “It’s true, we have provided a dehairing facility.” Dehairing machines separate the fiber from the goat hair, he explained by email from Herat.
“The plant has been operating for almost two years, and we are working to double production.” The site has recently been passed into the hands of the Afghan agriculture company Noor.
Cashmere Fibres International is also a shareholder and supplier of the social enterprise Qaria, which teaches Afghan women to spin cashmere by hand for the international market. Lee said the plant in Herat “provides direct employment to about 40 Afghans, while indirectly it supports thousands of poor farmers and herders, providing them an outlet for their raw cashmere.”
Lee says it’s an ambitious, difficult project to develop in Afghanistan a cashmere manufacturing and processing industry, but worth it in the long-term.
Incompetence and casual expenses
Sopko, the watchdog, thinks differently.
On Jan. 20, he turned senators’ attention to the gap between the production cost — $6 million — and the results produced so far. “The project itself was not bad,” Kravis says. “But it was mismanaged from the start. The horizon was a few years, and in this field we need many more.”
The reason? Incompetence, casual expenses — “and even some swindling,” adds Kravis.
The leaders of the Task Force, especially Benjamin Kolendar and Lee Sanderson, project manager and program manager of the team, respectively, received heavy international criticism for shopping sprees, unnecessary trips, expensive consultants and extremely high accounts for operating expenses, logistics and security. Ten individuals managed to spend $150 million on spacious villas, security guards, plasma televisions and queen-sized beds.
Kravis decided to quit the project when she couldn’t deal with the waste and incompetence any longer. “The contract was due to expire in September 2014. I left in February,” she says. “I did not like what I saw. I reported what I saw to the Department of Defense in Washington.” For this, she received only half of her expected compensation. “For the goats, $10,000. Quite far from $6 million,” she says sarcastically before returning to tend to her cashmere goats in the Tuscan countryside.
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