Corruption Undermines 12 Years of U.S. Sacrifices In Afghanistan

By Dan Parsons

Once the majority of U.S. troops leave Afghanistan at the end of the year, responsibility for preserving security will fall to the nation’s army and police forces.

Afghan soldiers, policemen and government officials will also take on oversight of the billions of dollars of reconstruction funds that will continue to pour in after the war is over. U.S. aid agencies have spent more than $100 billion over the past 12 years and another $20 billion is coursing down the pipeline to rebuilding projects.

After elections next month, a new government and the Afghan National Army and police will take over security responsibilities from American troops.

The combined security transition command-Afghanistan needs to design a system that holds the Afghan security forces accountable for how U.S. money is spent and for how effectively donated military equipment is used, said John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, or SIGAR.

Sopko, who just returned from his sixth fact-finding tour of Afghanistan since taking the position in 2012, spoke March 20 at a forum hosted by The Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Sopko has extensive authority to investigate aid spending, oversight activity and contractor compliance, but does not make policy. He can only make recommendations to the military and other government and non-governmental aid agencies on how to spend and oversee their reconstruction dollars.

SIGAR comes in after “the money is gone, is stolen and the buildings are falling down," he said. The military must now put in place an enduring system of accountability to safeguard aid funding past the U.S. withdrawal, he added.

“By the time we show up, the body is dead and cold,” Sopko said. Military commanders need to put in the safeguards first, "before they start giving the money,” he added. The U.S. military is also leaving the Afghan National Army and police force with billions of dollars worth of military equipment such as ground vehicles, weapons and aircraft. The disposition of that arsenal will also pass to Afghan commanders and remain largely out of U.S. military commanders’ hands after the transition takes hold, Sopko said.

The United States and its international partners plan to continue supporting the Afghan government and security forces for “years and years” beyond the December 2014 drawdown, he said.

The reconstruction mission, he said, is far from over. Without foreign investment, Afghanistan will remain a "welfare state to the international community.”

Overseeing how future aid money is spent and whether it goes to good use will become more difficult after the U.S. military withdraws, Sopko said.  “The gold standard is to have an American auditor go out there and kick the tires,” he said.

“We all know this is a pivotal year in Afghanistan. The uncertainties and risks have never been greater,” he said. “Will the Afghan security forces stand firm against a resilient and persistent insurgency without U.S. troop support?”

The Afghan National Security Force will almost certainly be unable to support its government and ensure fair elections if institutionalized corruption survives after President Hamid Karzai leaves office, Sopko said.

“Allowing corruption to continue unabated will likely jeopardize every gain we have made over the last 12 years,” he said. “In other words, rampant corruption may be the spoiler.”

Sopko’s office has made numerous recommendations to Congress and the Defense Department. The United States still does not have a strategy to fight corruption in Afghanistan, he said.

Meanwhile, not counting military spending, U.S. aid agencies continue to spend $10 million per hour on reconstruction projects throughout Afghanistan. At the same time, Transparency International lists that country among the most corrupt in the world, alongside Somalia and North Korea.

“The initial U.S. strategy in Afghanistan not only failed to recognize the significance of corruption, but may even have fostered a political climate conducive to corruption,” Sopko said. “The costs in Afghanistan — both in lives lost and money spent — have been enormous. If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity and get serious about corruption right now, we are putting all of the fragile gains that we have achieved in this — our longest war — at risk of failure.”

Contributing to the problem was the inability of Afghanistan’s weak economy to absorb a flood of poorly supervised cash. In 2010, for instance, Congress approved $16 billion in reconstruction funding for Afghanistan, not including tens of billions of dollars spent on military operations that year. The Afghan gross domestic product, the total economic earnings of the country, in 2010 was $15.9 billion — $100 million less than was poured into the economy by outside agencies. The United States has since spent another $63 billion for reconstruction, Sopko said.

“Massive military and aid spending overwhelmed the Afghan government’s ability to absorb the assistance,” he said. Sopko said the Afghans were not culturally predisposed to theft and corruption. Rather, he said it was a “natural” human reaction to grasp at dollars when they are floating around and unaccounted for.

Sopko said banks were swindled of hundreds of millions of dollars by high-level Afghan officials, schools so poorly built their roofs and walls are collapsing and entire bases were paid for and partially built or not built at all.

Still, he is optimistic that corruption and waste can be curtailed in Afghanistan. The country will hold presidential and provincial elections in April. If they go as planned, the polls could deliver a more transparent and cooperative leader than current President Hamid Karzai, Sopko said. Many of the candidates running for various offices have experienced the harm caused by institutional corruption and are eager to rid the government of such negative influences, he said.

“I believe we have a window of opportunity to tackle corruption. If the elections go well, Afghanistan will have a new government,” he said. “The new government will be dealing with an international community that has far less patience for corruption.”

“I come away from every trip with concerns, but I also come away with hope. It’s not too late” to save Afghanistan, he said. “We need to recognize that too much money, spent with too few safeguards is a recipe for reconstruction disaster.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy

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