The Cable

Watchdog Warns Corruption in Afghanistan Is Lasting Challenge to Stability

Even as the American combat mission in Afghanistan comes to a close, mismanagement of reconstruction projects poses a serious threat to taxpayer dollars.

A US soldier from 1st Regiment 320 Field
A US soldier from 1st Regiment 320 Field Artillary 101st Airbourne (L) talks to Afghan children during the opening ceremony for a newly completed mosque in the village of Tarok Kolache in southern Kandahar province on April 1, 2011 where the US military is funding its rebuilding. In October 2010 Tarok Kolache was completely destroyed by US forces after the Taliban had ousted the villagers and mined the village and surrounding areas. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

The combat mission in Afghanistan is officially over. But the massive reconstruction effort there — larger in size than the Marshall Plan — isn’t, nor is the era of U.S.-funded waste, fraud, and abuse, warned John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction. The United States still has $14 billion to spend on rebuilding the corrupt, war-torn country.

“American taxpayer dollars and our strategic and humanitarian interests in Afghanistan are being placed at unnecessarily high levels of risk by widespread failure to track results, anticipate problems, and implement prudent countermeasures,” Sopko said Wednesday in a speech tied to the release of a list of high-risk issues facing Afghanistan.

Corruption and rule of law together topped the list, followed by sustainability, capacity and capabilities of Afghan national security forces, budgeted assistance initiatives, counternarcotics programs, contract management, and strategy and planning.

Just last week, at a London conference on Afghanistan, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged continued assistance to Afghanistan. Congress may have something to say about that, however, Sopko suggested. After reading report after report about corruption, waste, and fraud in reconstruction efforts, lawmakers may withhold disbursement of the already appropriated $14 billion until the U.S. and Afghan governments can improve project management.

“Such measures could make substantial gains against the threats SIGAR has laid out on the high-risk list,” Sopko said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, using the acronym for his agency.

Issues related to corruption will weigh heavily on Afghanistan’s future, Sopko said. Record-levels of Afghan troop casualties and desertions are mounting as Afghan forces take the leading role in the fight against the Taliban. The Afghan government’s failure to supply its soldiers with protective gear or pay, despite heavy funding from the U.S. to do just that, is largely to blame, Sopko said.

The list of key challenges in Afghanistan is the latest in a long series of whistleblowing reports authored by Sopko’s office on wasteful spending and lack of oversight and accountability in America’s efforts to rebuild the country since invading 13 years ago. Trying to rebuild in a war zone obviously is challenging, but systemic problems in Afghan institutions, a lack of skills and experience among the Afghan population, widespread corruption, and a lack of accountability among the wealthy or well-connected compound the difficulties significantly.

But in many cases, Sopko added, the potential for fraud is directly attributable to mismanagement by U.S. agencies overseeing the reconstruction process. These problems include poor record keeping, bad project planning, lack of personnel oversight, and frequent turnover, causing an inevitable loss of institutional memory.

Even when Afghan corruption leads to abuse, American hands are not entirely clean, Sopko said. According to his reports, America’s nonexistent anti-corruption strategy exacerbates Afghan corruption.

In other cases, American reconstruction efforts have been woefully ignorant of actual Afghan needs, with Sopko calling several initiatives absurd. In one instance, a senior American official in Afghanistan pitched Sopko a multi-million dollar solar power project to light Kabul bus stops. Sopko responded by asking the official to name the last time he’d seen a bus or even a paved street in Afghanistan’s capital.

“I’m running into USAID people, State people, DoD people, who think they’re in Kansas or Bethesda, Md.,” Sopko said. “I don’t even have that in Bethesda. Let’s talk to Afghans and ask them what they want and what they need.”

In the past three months alone, Sopko’s office repeatedly documented the folly of the American reconstruction effort. According to SIGAR, the United States spent  $7.6 billion on counternarcotics programs in a country with record levels of opium production. Another $3.6 million was wasted on unused satellite TV vans. At least $8.4 million was lost to a botched prison construction project that corrupt U.S. contracting officers grossly mismanaged. In some instances, U.S. officials have even offered illegal loans to locals. A recent SIGAR audit found American officials may have lost track of $236 million given to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and they don’t know how the agency is using it.

To this day, no one in the federal government even knows the number or total value of contracts the United States has in Afghanistan.

Peter Parks/AFP

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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