DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

Lack of Strategy, Accountability Feeds Rampant Corruption in Afghanistan

11/17/2014
By Yasmin Tadjdeh

A lack of strategy and accountability by the United States Agency for International Development, the State Department and the Defense Department is fueling the rampant corruption plaguing Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, said John Sopko, inspector general for reconstruction in the country.

“It takes two to tango, and we helped the corruption situation by pouring so much money so quickly in such a poor country without any real thought on how it could affect the local economy and lead to corruption,” he said Nov. 18 during a meeting with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. government has funneled billions of dollars into humanitarian projects in Afghanistan, making it the costliest reconstruction effort in U.S. history, Sopko said.

In anOctober report to Congress, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found that since 2002, nearly $104.1 billion in relief and reconstruction funds had been appropriated. An additional $5.8 billion will be added if the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget is approved, the report said.

Despite the tremendous amount of money going into programs, much has been squandered, Sopko noted.

Whether it was dishonest contractors, Afghans stealing money or U.S. military captains taking kickbacks, hundreds of millions of dollars have been stolen. The biggest problem is the lack of an overarching, anti-corruption strategy, Sopko said.

“We’ve been here for 13, 14 years. It’s 2014 and we don’t have a counter anti-corruption strategy for Afghanistan. So you understand why things are the way they are, because you need that strategy,” he said. “The strategy … should be driving all of your programs. But if you have no strategy, your programs are just going all over the place.”

Stolen or misused money could have been spent to make a greater difference in the lives of Afghans, Sopko said. In one example, he lamented the controversial purchase of three mobile television production trucks in 2011 by the State Department that were to be donated to Afghan television stations at a cost of $3.6 million. That money could have been used to buy prosthetic limbs for children instead, he said.

“I think the kids would have loved to have legs rather than having balloons and kites and TV trucks that are still sitting under wraps in some bone yard in Afghanistan,” he said. “We could have spent it better and maybe had a better difference and bigger impact.”

As the United States begins paring back troops in Afghanistan, corruption is getting “significantly” worse, Sopko said.

“You figure that U.S. troops are leaving … so you have a chance to steal money. You pay $10,000 to get a job [and] you don’t know if you’re going to have that job, so you’re going to steal as much as you can before the end happens,” he said.

And with troops leaving the country, the task forces and oversight organizations the Pentagon set up in recent years to counter corruption have left, he said.

“A lot of these organizations and task forces we worked with are all gone now. We’re the only ones there,” Sopko said. “We’re the largest law enforcement and oversight presence in Afghanistan and I’ve only got 40 some people.”

In addition to a firm strategy, accountability is also critical, Sopko noted.

“We have not found people really held accountable for screws up. … It’s almost like a toddler’s sports game — everybody’s a winner. Everybody’s succeeded in Afghanistan, everybody got a promotion, everybody got a better job. I have not found anybody who’s lost a job for screwing up, and there have been a lot of screw ups in Afghanistan,” Sopko said. 

“The classic example is the economy. Who is in charge of trying to help the economy and has that person been held accountable for what has been an abysmal failure?” he asked.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy

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