A total of $935 million was stolen from the Kabul Bank, Afghanistan's largest private bank, before it collapsed — with almost all of the money going to 19 people or corporations.
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said Thursday that the bank "exemplifies" a key problem facing not only the Afghan government but U.S. aid efforts: corruption.
"Allowing corruption to continue unabated will likely jeopardize every gain we have made over the last 12 years," Sopko said.
As the head of the government watchdog, Sopko and his SIGAR staff are tasked with finding potential waste, fraud, and fiscal abuse within the roughly $102 billion in relief and reconstruction funding allocated by the United States since fiscal 2002.
And though corruption continues and the U.S. military presence in the country after this year remains uncertain, Sopko said he expects U.S. and international aid won't be cut off.
"It is clear from recent conversations that I've had with senior officials in our embassy as well as ISAF headquarters, that the United States and the international coalition do not plan to abandon the Afghan people," Sopko said, while acknowledging that it isn't his job to "pontificate on policy."
And he did criticize the agencies he audits — including the Pentagon, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development — for lacking "a unified anti-corruption strategy in Afghanistan."
A handful of reports — including, as Sopko noted, one commissioned by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan — have pointed to the increasing challenges the country faces at the hands of persistent corruption.
And Sopko pointed to an initial U.S. lack of understanding of the scale of corruption in Afghanistan, the inability of the Afghanistan government to absorb financial assistance coupled with weak U.S. oversight, and the lack of a coordinated anticorruption strategy as ways the United States has potentially hindered its own efforts.
Sopko has, at times, been a controversial figure, with military officials accusing SIGAR of missing the mark and State and USAID officials accusing the media — writing stories largely based off SIGAR's findings — of painting a negative, though accurate, picture of progress in Afghanistan.
And though Sopko said that he's the "ultimate optimist" about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, he defended SIGAR's many reports, saying: "It's not my job to be a cheerleader."¦ My job is to ferret out, identify, and report on problems."