Watchdog Warns Corruption in Afghanistan Could Undermine U.S. Progress

WASHINGTON – The top watchdog in Afghanistan warned Thursday that uncontrolled corruption could derail the fragile progress the United States has made in the country over the last 12 years.

John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), said that 2014 will be a pivotal year for the country as a new government is selected in the April presidential election and the Afghan National Army and police will take over security responsibilities from American troops.

“The uncertainties and risks have never been greater. The security, political and economic transition is underway,” he said.

The majority of U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, which means responsibility for preserving security will fall to the nation’s army and police forces.

Since U.S. troops arrived in the country to overthrow the Taliban in 2001, Congress has provided over $102 billion to build Afghan security forces, establish governing institutions, and foster economic development.

Although U.S. military presence after this year remains uncertain, Sopko does not expect U.S. and international aid to be cut off.

“The reconstruction mission, however, is far from over,” Sopko said. “The United States and its allies agree that Afghanistan will require significant international assistance for years and years to come.”

Sopko, who just returned from his sixth tour of Afghanistan since taking the position in 2012, spoke at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council. He said that during his time in Afghanistan he learned of hospitals low on supplies, roads that were “disintegrating faster than we can build them,” and army and police garrisons “that are not usable.”

As the U.S. government’s watchdog in Afghanistan, SIGAR investigates money wasted by the Defense and State Departments and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) due to corruption, waste, and fiscal abuse, but does not make policy. Sopko can only make recommendations to these agencies on how to spend and oversee their reconstruction dollars. His office has a staff of more than 200 auditors, inspectors, investigators and support personnel tasked with overseeing U.S. investments in Afghanistan.

Sopko said U.S. strategy of paying and arming local warlords to fight the Taliban and then to rule it under U.S. protection allowed many of these groups to “entrench and expand patronage.” In some cases, these groups have turned into criminal networks involved “in everything from extrajudicial land seizures and extortion, to narcotics trafficking and money laundering.”

He said allowing rampant corruption to continue in Afghanistan could jeopardize every gain made in the past 12 years.

He said the billions of dollars spent on lifting up the impoverished country has contributed to burgeoning corruption amid a weak and overwhelmed government.

Congress appropriated President Obama’s request for more than $16 billion to rebuild Afghanistan in 2010, not including the money spent on military operations that year. According to the World Bank, Afghanistan’s total gross domestic product in 2010 was only $15.9 billion.

“Massive military and aid spending overwhelmed the Afghan government’s ability to absorb the assistance,” Sopko said.

He said it is not that Afghans are predisposed for corruption, but rather in an environment where there is “too much money and too little oversight” people will naturally grasp at the opportunity to line their pockets, especially if they are poor.

He criticized the agencies he oversees for lacking “a unified anti-corruption strategy in Afghanistan,” which Sopko thinks has only hindered their own efforts.