Afghanistan: Top US Official Says Corruption May Ruin a Fragile ‘Reconstruction’

Uncontrolled corruption in Afghanistan could cost the United States what fragile progress it has made in the most expensive reconstruction of another country it has ever attempted, according to the most senior US official monitoring that program. As the Obama administration prepares to end the longest war of US history, it is relying on reconstruction to stabilize Afghanistan and remove it as a threat to US and international security. But the $102 billion the US has spent on Afghan reconstruction and security has bought little of either, and “rampant corruption may be the spoiler” for US hopes of a stable Afghan state, said Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko.

Speaking at the Atlantic Council, Sopko offered a blunt account of waste through unplanned and unmonitored spending. “The costs in Afghanistan – both in lives lost and money spent – have been enormous,” he said. “If we don’t . . . 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. If we get it right, we can create a model for future contingencies and help the Afghan people build a country that does not become another failed criminal state and a safe haven for terrorists.”

Afghan political problems and the weaknesses of its state structures have created much of the breeding ground for corruption, which Transparency International measures as the worst in the world. (Afghanistan tied with Somalia and North Korea as countries with the highest perceived corruption among 177 states measured by organization in 2013).  But US policies themselves also built this problem, Sopko said. The US strategy of paying and arming local warlords to seize the country from the Taliban and then to rule it under US protection let many of them create “criminal networks involved in everything from extrajudicial land seizures and extortion, to narcotics trafficking and money laundering.”

Then, “massive military and aid spending overwhelmed the Afghan government’s ability to absorb the assistance” and “coupled with weak oversight, created opportunities for corruption,” Sopko said. “We opened the spigots and let the cash flow.”

As the US military pulls out its major combat forces this year, international support and development aid will have to continue for years to allow any stabilization of Afghanistan, Sopko said. The immediate security and stability of the state hinge on three central concerns: upcoming presidential elections, the total transition of power to Afghan security forces, and the impending bilateral security agreement with the United States—all of which are threatened by overwhelming corruption unearthed by SIGAR’s investigations.

A Congressional mandate created the SIGAR office to independently and objectively investigate US spending in Afghanistan, and to recommend methods of reducing waste, abuse, and fraud.

Sopko insisted that the United States holds its contractors and government employees accountable, as well as urging for the same standards Afghanistan’s government. The upcoming presidential elections will usher in a new government and a new opportunity for the international community to jointly tackle corruption and waste occurring within Afghanistan. “The United States and its coalition allies must speak with one voice on the issue of corruption. We must set achievable conditions for our assistance,” Sopko urged.