Afghan IG reports rampant corruption continues
This week the Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, released a scathing new report: Corruption in Conflict: Lessons from the US Experience in Afghanistan. It examines how the US understood the risks of corruption, how that corruption evolved, and how $115 billion in taxpayer money was misspent nation building in the tribal nation.
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The IG reported, “Our report recounts how the United States collaborated with abusive and corrupt warlords, militias, and other powerbrokers. These men gained positions of authority in the Afghan government, which further enabled them to dip their hands into the streams of cash pouring into a small and fragile economy. Limited US oversight, institutional and political pressures to spend money quickly for fast results, and Afghan awareness that the inflow would not run forever, combined to create perverse incentives. For our part, the bureaucratic temptation to use money as evidence of commitment, and the urge to spend down accounts for fear of losing funds in the next round of appropriations, added to the rush of the reconstruction funding stream.”
But 15-years of war comes with a hefty price tag. Since 9/11, taxpayers have funded the ”War on Terror” efforts to the tune of $4.79 trillion, according to the Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs .
So what does this mean for America’s longest war? Is there a future for nation building in the Middle East and what are the lessons learned from uncontrolled government bureaucracies.
US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff commissioned this latest report to discover the complexity of the corruption within Afghanistan. “Corruption directly threatens the viability and legitimacy of the Afghan state … Corruption alienates key elements of the population, discredits the government and security forces, undermines international support, subverts state functions, and rule of law, robs the state of revenue, and creates barriers to economic growth. I suspect everyone here has been appalled and discouraged by accounts of massive bribes, everyday extortion, thefts of fuel and equipment, ghost soldiers and civil servants, padding of payrolls, contract fraud, shoddy construction, and other misdeeds.”
The General said it is critical for the government to identify corruption and then punish the perpetrators in order to end the misappropriation of taxpayer dollars.
According to the multi-year study, “The US government also failed to recognize that billions of dollars injected into a small, underdeveloped country, with limited oversight and strong pressures to spend, contributed to the growth of corruption.”
The report notes that in fiscal year 2012, the US military contract obligations for services in Afghanistan nearly mirrored that nation’s annual GDP. US money was spent on “transportation, construction, base support, and translation/interpretation.” Essentially, the US taxpayers gave Afghanistan $19 billion of its estimated $20.5 billion GDP.
Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker summed up the corruption crisis by saying, “The ultimate failure of our efforts … wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption.”
The Department of Defense finally noticed corruption was a big problem in 2005, but ultimately the US civilian leadership did not take it seriously. The problem of corruption was ignored despite the billions of dollars in poppy cultivation and repeated military reports of drug dealing and corruption throughout Afghanistan.
Once President Obama took office in 2009, some military personnel voiced their concern. “US civilian and military leaders became increasingly concerned that corruption was fueling the insurgency by financing insurgent groups and stoking grievances that increased popular support for these groups,” the report said. However, by the time Obama assumed the role as commander in chief, the military decided to concentrate on winning “hearts and minds” in its efforts against a resurging jihadi army.
The SIGAR report also found “systemic corruption within the Afghan government that absconded with billions in US cash. Omnipresent misconduct within Afghan security ministries and the Afghan National Security Forces created the environment to spend taxpayer money freely. Examples of the gross negligence led the investigators to former President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.”
In essence, the US military allocated funds to fight the insurgency but ended up building a drug lord’s empire in Kandahar Province. According to the report, President Karzai’s brother was supposed to control private security forces, contracting firms, and real estate. However, the report noted, “known-drug traffickers with ties to corrupt Afghan politicians ended up with a substantial amount of the US dollars.”
The report identified five key findings that included lessons and recommendations for improvement.
- Corruption undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by fueling grievances and channeling support to the insurgency.
- The U.S. contributed to the growth of corruption.
- The U.S. was slow to recognize the magnitude of the problem.
- U.S. security and political goals consistently trumped strong anticorruption actions.
- Anticorruption efforts lacked sustained political commitment and saw limited success.
SIGAR recommended the next Congress should make anticorruption a national-security priority for all contingency operations. Second, they suggested that Congress approve sanctions against corrupt foreign officials that will provide a deterrent effect. Third, SIGAR recommends requiring joint vendor vetting by DOD, Department of State, and USAID, in an effort to institutionalize lessons learned in Afghanistan.
“Our recommendations for the Executive Branch include having the National Security Council establish an interagency task force to formulate policy and lead anticorruption strategy in contingency operations; using the intelligence community to regularly assess links between corrupt officials, criminals, traffickers, and terrorist organizations; and establishing dedicated positions and offices for anticorruption work in contingencies. We also recommend expanding Treasury’s list of transnational criminal organizations to include individuals and entities who have transferred the proceeds of corruption abroad, as an important tool to bring pressure to bear on host governments,” Sopko said.
While the US has made some improvements to correct the rampant corruption, Sopko says enormous strides are required or the systemic corruption will ultimately undermine US strategic goals overseas.
He stated that America must develop a “shared understanding of the nature and scope of corruption in a host country through a political economy and network analyses. Take into account the amount of assistance a host country can absorb, and agencies should improve their ability to effectively monitor this assistance.”
He also urged the US government to refrain from alliances with dark-side powerbrokers and “aim to balance any short-term gains from such relationships against the risk that empowering these actors will lead to systemic corruption. US strategies and plans should incorporate anticorruption objectives into security and stability goals, rather than viewing anticorruption as imposing tradeoffs on those goals.”
It’s not a secret corruption is a centuries old practice.
“In 70 BC, a young Roman lawyer named Marcus Cicero made a name for himself by prosecuting a corrupt governor, Caius Verres. Speaking at the trial before the Roman Senate, Cicero attacked Verres as ‘the embezzler of the public funds,’ ‘robber,’ and ‘the disgrace and ruin of the province of Sicily,’” Sopko said.
So far, in Afghanistan, anticorruption efforts have lacked a sustained political commitment by either country and will only offer limited success. With the defense industry feeding at the government trough, a strong fix will require a firm executive hand to set the standards for future conflicts.
What is known today is that corruption remains an enormous threat to Afghanistan’s efforts to become a peaceful, modern nation and its state condoned corruption of US tax dollars remains a major obstacle to its effort to succeed in a post-terrorist region.
Full SIGAR report here