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Watchdog Chief: Corruption Is An ‘Existential’ Threat to U.S. Efforts in Afghanistan

The watchdog for the Afghan war warns graft there could undermine the entire U.S. effort.

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The United States has spent 15 years fighting in Afghanistan; more than 2,000 American lives have been lost there since the war began, and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in an attempt to rebuild it.  A watchdog who oversees U.S. spending there warned it could all be for naught.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko, speaking Wednesday at the University of Pittsburgh, said government corruption in Afghanistan is an “existential” threat both to the future of the country and American efforts to stabilize it.

“I thought I knew all about corruption, but I can tell you that what I have seen and heard in the last four years in Afghanistan puts to shame what we call corruption here,” Sopko, who has been head of SIGAR since 2012, said in prepared remarks. “And this pervasive corruption poses a deadly threat to the entire U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan.”

Sopko, who has issued similar warnings in the past, said graft in Afghanistan has yet to receive the attention it deserves, despite the threat it poses. His office is preparing a report on how the U.S. government failed to understand corruption and how to combat it. Sopko said Washington has little idea of how fraud could threaten the entire U.S. security and state-building mission.

“During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and for some years to follow, the United States partnered with abusive warlords and their militias to pursue al Qaeda and the Taliban, and supported the installation of these warlords and their militias at high levels of the Afghan government,” he said. “The United States also failed to recognize that vast sums of money injected into the Afghan economy, with limited oversight and pressures to spend, created conditions for corruption.”

An existential threat is something that could upend an entire country. For instance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its very existence. As recently as last week, President Barack Obama said the Islamic State is not an existential threat to the United States. Whether graft could cause Afghanistan to collapse is unclear.

Sopko has been sounding the bell on wrongdoing in Afghanistan for years. Since SIGAR was created in 2008, it has issued 210 audits, alert letters, and inspections that contained 630 recommendations. He also said SIGAR investigations led to 103 arrests, 139 criminal charges, 103 convictions or guilty pleas, and 86 sentencings. But even he acknowledged that this has not been enough to change U.S. or Afghan practices; he noted Afghanistan ranked 166 out of 168 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Index.

He then outlined the vast extent of fraud within Afghanistan. He said firms there pay a 35 percent bribe for government services or licenses, a practice commonly known throughout the Mideast and South Asia as baksheesh. More than one-third of private firms operating in Afghanistan are expected to pay out bribes during tax inspections, and 60 percent to get construction permits, Sopko said. According to Integrity Watch Afghanistan, close to $2 billion in bribes were paid from 2012 to 2015.

“In 2016, the Afghan government faces the risk of a political breakdown,” Sopko concluded. “But we at SIGAR are convinced that the dangers of letting corruption run rampant are greater than the risk of disrupting the entrenched practices of Afghan officials.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

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