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Infrastructure vote: Senate advances bipartisan bill

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The Senate voted Wednesday to advance a bipartisan infrastructure plan, a critical step toward Democrats passing their sweeping economic agenda.

Senators voted 67-32 to push the bill forward; 17 Republicans and all 50 Democrats voted yes.

The vote opens the process to debate and amend the proposal, which would put $550 billion into transportation, broadband and utilities. While senators who backed the procedural motion could oppose a final package, Wednesday’s vote bodes well for its chances of passage.

The deal came together earlier in the day after Democratic and Republican negotiators resolved disputes over transit and broadband funding, among other issues. The plan was trimmed from the $579 billion in new spending senators and the White House agreed to last month — a sum many Democrats considered paltry.

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Supporters of the bill have hailed it as a needed investment that will boost the economy as the U.S. tries to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats still face a range of pitfalls as they try to get the bipartisan bill and their separate $3.5 trillion spending package to President Joe Biden‘s desk in the coming months.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks briefly to reporters after a meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will have to keep all 50 members of his caucus and at least 10 Republicans on board to ensure the infrastructure plan passes. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will need to win progressive support for the smaller-than-desired bill in a narrowly divided chamber.

A second, separate $3.5 trillion plan to invest in child care, paid leave, education and measures to curb climate change could pose more problems. Every Democrat in the Senate will need to support the package to pass it without Republican votes.

Some Democrats, such as Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have signaled they want a smaller final budget reconciliation bill. Sinema was the lead Democratic negotiator on the bipartisan bill.

U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) (L) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) arrive for a bipartisan meeting on infrastructure after original talks fell through with the White House on June 08, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images

Attempts to appease centrists could alienate liberals who worry the bipartisan infrastructure bill fails to do enough to address climate change or strengthen the social safety net.

Schumer aims to pass both the bipartisan bill and the budget resolution that sets up the reconciliation process before the Senate leaves for its recess next month. The Senate will have to rush to pass both measures on Schumer’s timeline in an institution not known for speed.

Pelosi has insisted she will not bring the infrastructure bill or budget measure to the House floor until the Senate passes both of them.

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former CIA, military, diplomatic personnel reflect

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U.S. Army soldiers from the 101st Airborne division off load during a combat mission from a Chinook 47 helicopter March 5, 2002 in Eastern Afghanistan.

Keith D. McGrew | U.S. Army | Getty Images News

Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that took 2,977 lives and changed the world forever. It permanently altered the security landscape in the United States and elsewhere, forcing governments to completely overhaul their defense strategies, policies and counterterrorism tactics. 

Twenty years on, events in the very country that harbored the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks — Afghanistan — have seen the War on Terror come something like full circle.

The collapse of Afghanistan following the U.S. troop withdrawal, and its takeover by the Taliban — the group that hosted al-Qaeda as it plotted its attacks on the West — for many represents a symbolic and devastating failure.  

In the last two decades of the war against terrorism, millions of lives have been lost and trillions of dollars spent. CNBC spoke to CIA, military and diplomatic veterans of the ongoing War on Terror, asking what they feel America has learned — and failed to learn — since Sept. 11, 2001.

What have we learned since 9/11?

Nada Bakos, former CIA analyst

“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve learned that much; I think we’re probably destined to be making some of those mistakes again. But hopefully we’re done with giant occupations of other countries. 

“I hope that we have gotten to the point now where we understand that we can’t spread our democracy and rebuild other countries in our model, in a way that we were naive enough to think would work at that time.”

Jim, former U.S. Marine and Afghanistan war veteran 

“We’ve learned that 20 years of war has made us the best in the world at small unit tactics, but continuing to fight insurgencies is none of our business.  

“I think many Americans have learned not to trust their government. ‘Leadership’ lied to the American public for 20 years, while the actual situation on the ground in Afghanistan was no mystery to the people who served there. This has gone on for two decades as senior ‘leadership’ moves from the military or government into high-paying defense contractor jobs. 

The One World Trade Center is reflected on a nearby building ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 10, 2021.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

“Here’s the scary thing though: I don’t think the general public has learned anything. They haven’t been invested in the GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] on a large scale. If they had been, they would be demanding accountability for the entire thing, with the debacle in Kabul as the catalyst.” 

Jim requested his last name be withheld due to professional restrictions on speaking to the press. 

William Patey, former U.K. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq

“We certainly learned the limitations on the use of force in dealing with a problem such as global terrorism — we’ve learned it’s more complicated, and that liberal democracies are not very good at devoting the necessary time and resources to doing the work. They are impatient, and their political horizons are very short.

“What we’ve also learned since 9/11 is that the radical Islamist threat remains as potent as ever, it hasn’t gone away. And importantly, we’ve learned that radical Islamist ideology is not Islam. It’s different.

“We continue to have things like war on terrorism, war on drugs. These are wars that fail. These are ongoing societal and ideological questions that need complex, difficult policies that are not easily dealt with by something as simple as war.”

Sayed Jalal Karim, Afghan diplomat and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia

“I think the intention that the U.S. had was a good intention, because the 9/11 attack was a horror to all. I believe that the overall war against terrorism is a justified cause.  

“But merging terrorism with religion was the biggest mistake I think that was made. We created enemies which were not there.”  

Cole T. Lyle, former U.S. marine and Afghanistan war veteran and former military advisor to Senator Richard Burr

“In the past twenty years, we’ve re-learned that the U.S. military cannot be defeated at the tactical or, with rare exceptions, the operational level of warfare. But the United States can be defeated at the strategic one.

“Foreign and defense policymakers in DC need to start thinking longer-term about America’s strategic interests globally instead of choosing what is in their best interests short-term. The American people need to demand that their elected representatives have a firm grasp on strategic end-states in any major conflict going forward.”

Is the world a safer place?

Tracy Walder, former officer of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center 

“9/11 forced us to deal with a war of ideas rather than war of people or conquering territory and land. I think we are safer in that we have a better understanding of that. 

“However, we have created some instability in countries because of things that we have done there since September 11. Fragile or failed states are hotbeds for terrorism, and I do think that we have created new hotbeds as a result of that.”

Bakos

“I think we’ve ebbed and flowed as far as safety. The U.S. government has caught people planning attacks and stopped them before they’re able to take action, since 9/11. 

“I do think in some ways we are safer, I think in other ways our actions have created obviously a lot more chaos and harm and — ISIS. I mean, let’s be realistic, we would not have ISIS had we not invaded Iraq. We wouldn’t have al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

Karim

“I do not believe that we are more unsafe now, but we could have been in a much better position, if we had balanced the fight against terrorism from all different aspects — education, economy, mentality, instead of only military — and not merged terrorism with religion.”

Patey  

“It manifestly has been safer for the United States where they have not had a serious terrorist attack in the mainland United States for 20 years.

“But Europe and the Middle East have seen more terrorist attacks … The threat has now dispersed across the world.

“We’ve got better intelligence defenses; it’s much more difficult for terrorists to mount complex attacks of the sort that 9/11 was … but this ideology is still able to produce homegrown people willing to do unspeakable things. And indeed, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will probably have encouraged these people.

“The nature of the threat has changed – it’s less concentrated and more dispersed all over the world. The (radical Islamist) franchise is alive and well.”

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How U.S. money helped break Afghanistan

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A person shows US dollars outside an exchange office, remained close since August 15th, following their reopening after Taliban takeover on September 04, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Bilal Guler | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – $290 million every day for 7,300 days. That’s how much money America spent on 20 years of war and nation-building in Afghanistan, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project. 

Yet it took just nine days for the Taliban to seize every provincial capital, dissolve the army and overthrow the U.S.-backed government last month.

When Taliban fighters seized Kabul without firing a single shot, President Joe Biden blamed Afghans for failing to defend their country.

“Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said on Aug.16. “The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight.” 

U.S. President Joe Biden reacts during a moment of silence for the dead as he delivers remarks about Afghanistan, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, August 26, 2021.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Absent from Biden’s rhetoric was any mention of America’s culpability in a war that began when U.S. soldiers invaded Afghanistan seeking revenge against Al Qaeda for the terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

Today, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is closed and the American soldiers are gone. 

But the hundreds of billions of dollars that the United States spent waging its war on Afghan soil can still be seen across Afghanistan, for better and worse.

Abandoned air bases, half-finished construction projects and tens of thousands of untraceable guns litter the countryside, all purchased with American money.

U.S. dollars also created the “9/11 millionaires,” a tiny class of young, ultra-wealthy Afghans who made their fortunes working as contractors for the foreign armies.

A few of these millionaires became role models for a new generation of Afghan entrepreneurs and philanthropists. 

But many more exploited their family ties to government officials or provincial warlords in order to secure lucrative contracts.

Over time, U.S. government contracts became the fuel for a system of mass corruption that engulfed the country and, eventually, doomed its fragile democracy. 

“The ultimate point of failure for our efforts, you know, wasn’t an insurgency,” said Ryan Crocker, a two-time U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in 2016. “It was the weight of endemic corruption.”

Money exchangers engage in intense negotiations in the Sarai Shahzadah, Kabul’s currency exchange market, which is reopening for the first time since the Taliban took over, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Marcus Yam | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

The United States, in Crocker’s view, bears responsibility for much of the corruption in Afghanistan because it flooded the country with billions of dollars more than its economy could absorb.

“You just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption,” said Crocker. “You just can’t.”

Crocker was one of the more than 500 officials interviewed by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction for an internal project called “Lessons Learned.” 

SIGAR never meant for the public to read the full, candid interviews. But in 2019, a judge ordered their release, and they were compiled and published by The Washington Post.

Read today, Crocker’s insight into the perils that huge U.S. government contracts posed to Afghanistan seems prescient.

But it was not always the prevailing view.

The 9/11 millionaires

In the early years of the war in Afghanistan, when American soldiers were still hunting Al Qaeda terrorists and battling Taliban fighters, the idea of using local Afghan contractors to supply U.S. military bases seemed like a good one.

By contrast, in Iraq most of the supply and logistics work for U.S. troops was performed by non-Iraqis, typically through contracts with huge multinational firms. 

But in Afghanistan, awarding government contracts to Afghan nationals was seen as a key part of the overall U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. 

It was even codified into an official Pentagon procurement policy known as “Afghan First,” which was approved by Congress in 2008.  

“Employing local nationals injects money into the local economy, provides job training, builds support among local nationals, and can give the U.S. a more sophisticated understanding of the local landscape,” wrote the authors of a 2011 congressional report on military contracting.

Members of the 82nd Airborne Division carry thousands of dollars in Afghani money found hidden away during an early-morning raid October 1, 2002 in an undisclosed location, in southeastern Afghanistan.

Chris Hondros | Getty Images

Several of the Afghans who became millionaires working as U.S. contractors started out as interpreters for American soldiers, accompanying service members on dangerous missions during some of the deadliest years of the war. 

The loyalty they earned as interpreters would later serve them well in the rough and tumble business of defense contracting. 

One of them was Fahim Hashimy, who was working as an English teacher in Kabul on Sept. 11, 2001. When American troops arrived in the country, Hashimy was hired as an interpreter. He later started a small company supplying military bases with goods and fuel. 

Today, that company, the Hashimy Group, is a large conglomerate with a TV station, manufacturing facilities, real estate investments, trucking and a fledgling airline, all based in Afghanistan.

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Hashimy is a multimillionaire, and he has been one of the few wealthy Afghans willing to speak publicly about the corruption that pervades his country. 

“The bottom line is corruption is the biggest problem we have,” Hashimy told National Public Radio in 2013. “I think the corruption’s not only causing negative impacts on the businesses, but it also has a direct link with the insecurity,” he said.

Part of the reason he likes owning a TV station, Hashimy said, is because it allowed him the freedom to call out corruption where he saw it.

But under Taliban rule, networks like Hashimy’s 1TV face an uncertain future. In July, Hashimy told The Wall Street Journal he was looking for ways to broadcast from outside of Afghanistan.

The most recent broadcast posted to 1TV’s YouTube channel is dated Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban took the capital. 

Hashimy’s current whereabouts are unclear. CNBC reached out to his company and requested an interview, but no one replied. 

Another 9/11 millionaire who has drawn attention outside of Afghanistan is Hikmatullah Shadman. Like Hashimy, Shadman was one of the first Afghan interpreters hired by American troops at the start of the war.

In 2007, after five years of interpreting for soldiers in and around Kandahar, Shadman rented a truck and began delivering fuel and supplies to the American base. He quickly built a network of truckers and subcontractors who were known for their reliability, according to a New Yorker profile of Shadman

As troop levels increased, so did Shadman’s revenue. In 2009, Shadman’s company billed the Department of Defense for $45 million. All told, between 2007 and 2012, Shadman’s trucking company collected $167 million from U.S. government contracts, according to bank statements.

But Shadman’s success was tainted. In 2012, the Department of Justice accused Shadman of fraud. 

The government alleged that he had paid kickbacks to U.S. soldiers and Afghan government officials in exchange for his contracts, and that he grossly inflated his costs and billed the Defense Department for work that was never done. 

There were also allegations that he transferred funds to a known Taliban “money man.” 

Shadman denied all the allegations against him, and several of the U.S. soldiers who worked with Shadman in Kandahar publicly came to his defense. 

A protracted legal battle ensued, and when the case was finally settled in 2019 the United States recovered $25 million in assets. 

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (C, with shawl) speaks to the media at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021.

Wakil Kohsar | AFP | Getty Images

Attempts to locate Shadman were unsuccessful. 

But it wasn’t just Afghans who abused the American contracting juggernaut in Afghanistan. 

One of the top suppliers of fresh food to U.S. forces in Afghanistan was Netherlands based Supreme Group BV, founded by American Stephen Orenstein. The company’s revenue increased 50-fold in a decade, according to Bloomberg, which placed Orenstein on its Billionaire’s Index in 2013.

In 2009, Supreme Group hired the outgoing director of the federal agency that awarded its contracts, the Defense Logistics Agency, to be the company’s chief executive officer. 

A year later, Supreme Group was handed a multibillion-dollar, no-bid contract extension by the Defense Logistics Agency. 

In 2014, Supreme Group pleaded guilty to fraud charges that included creating a fake subcontractor and billing the government for the subcontractor’s fees. The company agreed to pay $389 million in fines and damages, one of the largest penalties ever imposed on a defense contractor at the time.  

In the overall context of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, however, the federal cases brought against Orenstein and Shadman were the exception, not the rule.

The vast majority of the contracting fraud and corruption in Afghanistan went unreported and unpunished. 

The real cost of corruption 

According to a Pentagon analysis, 40% of the $108 billion that the Defense Department paid to contractors in Afghanistan between 2010-12 ended up in the hands of either the Taliban, the violent Islamist Haqqani terror network, organized crime rings, transnational drug traffickers or corrupt Afghan officials.

But veterans of the conflict say statistics like these can obscure what was in reality a more complicated and ethically murky situation.

In a country where roads are often controlled by tribal warlords, transporting necessary and lifesaving supplies overland to American soldiers often requires paying fees for safe passage to whichever group controls the roads. In areas of the country controlled by the Taliban, this means paying the Taliban. 

Refusing to pay the warlords who controlled the roads would have almost certainly been grave harm for soldiers and contractors.

“You could be hardcore about stuff and say, ‘We’re not going to pay nobody,’ but, I’m telling you, you were going to get hit on the road,” Rodney Castleman, an American employee of an Afghan trucking company, told The New Yorker

Security trumped everything else, and the contractors who delivered goods intact and on time could charge the government whatever they wanted. 

To some American officials, paying off a local strongman to guarantee safe passage seemed more reasonable than paying an American defense contractor to bomb their way across the country.

Richard Boucher, who served as assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia during President George W. Bush’s administration, which launched the war in October 2001, described two different levels of corruption.

“There is corruption that spreads the wealth and takes care of everybody, that gets to the widows and orphans,” Boucher said in a 2015 interview with SIGAR. “And there is the corruption that goes to my house in the Riviera.” 

Afghanistan, he said, had a lot more of the former than the latter. Spending American money on Afghan contractors ensured that those dollars would “disappear in Afghanistan, rather than in the Beltway.”

“Probably in the end it is going to make sure that more of the money gets to some villager, maybe through five layers of corrupt officials, but still gets to some villager,” Boucher told the SIGAR team.

But what Boucher failed to factor in was the long-term toll that decades of official corruption, fueled by all the American money, would take on ordinary Afghans’ already shaky faith in democratic government.

By 2006, just five years into the U.S. war, the elected government in Kabul had “self-organized into a kleptocracy,” said retired Army Col. Chris Kolenda in a 2016 SIGAR interview.

“The kleptocracy got stronger over time, to the point that the priority of the Afghan government became not good governance but sustaining this kleptocracy,” Kolenda said.

It wasn’t just Americans who saw this happening. High-ranking Afghan government officials did, too. 

Kabul, AFGHANISTAN: Afghan President Hamid Karzai (R) receives a large key, representing the keys for military vehicles donated to the Afghan National Army, from commander of the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan Major General Robert E. Durbin (L) during a weapons hand over ceremony in Kabul, 01 February 2007.

Shah Marai | AFP | Getty Images

In 2010, Dr. Rangin Spanta, then-President Hamid Karzai’s national security advisor, told U.S. officials, “Corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan. It is the system of governance.”

Years later, a resurgent Taliban would capitalize on this erosion of public trust by offering Afghans what looked to many like a better alternative to the kleptocracy.

Despite all the pathways along which American money traveled through Afghanistan, there was one place it never reached: The pockets of the country’s poorest citizens. 

After two decades of nation-building and $2.1 trillion, the economic status of ordinary Afghans has barely changed at all. According to the World Bank, Afghanistan was the sixth poorest nation on earth in 2020 — a ranking essentially unchanged since 2002. Income per capita was just $500.

For Crocker, the ugly truth behind America’s grand reconstruction project in Afghanistan has long been evident.

“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” he told SIGAR in 2016.

Five years later, history proved him right.

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U.S. pauses inbound flights with Afghan evacuees after 4 cases of measles detected

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Evacuees board an Atlas aircraft bringing them from Afghanistan to the United States from the Ramstein Air Base on August 26, 2021 in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany.

Andreas Rentz | Getty Images

U.S.-bound flights carrying evacuees from Afghanistan are on hold after four cases of measles were diagnosed among Afghans who had already arrived in the country, the White House said Friday.

The flights have been temporarily paused “out of an abundance of caution” at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

The Afghans diagnosed with the measles are in quarantine in accordance with public health guidelines, and the CDC has begun contact-tracing steps, Psaki said.

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The CDC did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on Psaki’s remarks.

Psaki noted that all those arriving as part of “Operation Allies Welcome,” the Biden administration’s ongoing effort to resettle Afghan allies following the U.S. full withdrawal from Afghanistan, are required to be vaccinated for the measles as a condition for entry.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that can be spread through coughing or sneezing, the CDC says. People can become infected with measles if they breathe contaminated air, or if they touch a contaminated surface and then touch their eyes, noses or mouths, according to the CDC.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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