Corruption in Afghanistan Could Kill U.S. Progress

But a watchdog official said he expects U.S. and international aid to continue to flow to the country after this year.

An Afghan health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign at a refugee camp in Laghman province on June 9, 2013. Polio, once a worldwide scourge, is endemic in just three countries now — Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
March 20, 2014, 10:27 a.m.

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.”

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