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Watchdog: Afghan corruption threatens reconstruction

Afghan Border Police officers check passports and collect fingerprints and other personal information from travelers crossing the border with Pakistan at Torkham Gate in eastern Afghanistan in May 2013. The electronic equipment often sits idle for hours in the mornings and evenings because of a lack of electricity.

Even as the ongoing national elections generate optimism for Afghanistan’s future, a new U.S. government watchdog report paints a picture of an Afghan government and economy hobbled by corruption and threatened by instability as international troops depart.

In his latest quarterly report to the U.S. Congress, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko acknowledged that Afghanistan saw “a rare moment of optimism” when as many as 7 million Afghans voted in the April 5 presidential election.

But significant problems plague the Afghan government and international efforts to stabilize the country, Sopko wrote.

“Despite the prospect of a peaceful, democratic transition of power, grave dangers still remain for U.S.-funded reconstruction,” he wrote in a preface to the report.

For example, Afghanistan’s domestic revenues fell last year and may cover only a third of the 2014 budget. Nearly half of that revenue comes from customs collection at the borders, but Sopko said his investigators found that corruption and other issues threatened to undermine customs fees as a source of revenue.

In one visit to the busy Torkham Gate crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan — where as much as 80 percent of Afghanistan’s customs revenue is collected — Sopko said he was told that when U.S. advisers aren’t present, revenue collection falls.

“This was not encouraging, especially as the crossing will soon be outside the reach of U.S. personnel because the U.S. military will no longer be able to provide escort to the area,” he wrote.

The nearly 300-page SIGAR report pointed to a study released in February and commissioned by U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford — who commands both U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. In it, U.S. Department of Defense officials candidly admit that corruption could bring down the fledgling Afghan government.

“Corruption directly threatens the viability and legitimacy of the Afghan state,” the DOD study said. “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.”

That study went on to conclude that U.S. policies, including initial support of warlords, reliance on logistics contracting and the flood of military and aid spending, “created an environment that fostered corruption” and impeded later anticorruption efforts.

SIGAR is currently conducting 338 investigations of reconstruction efforts, according to the report. Sopko said his office’s efforts in the first three months of 2014 led to approximately $6.7 million in criminal fines, restitutions, forfeitures and cost savings to the U.S. government.

He also reported that SIGAR referred 16 individuals and 15 companies for suspension or debarment from receiving government contracts based on allegations of fraud and nonperformance. Still, Sopko said, the U.S. Army has refused to prevent supporters of the Taliban insurgency from receiving contracts because the evidence is considered classified — a stance he called not only “legally wrong, but contrary to sound policy and national-security goals.”

In the first quarter of 2014, SIGAR said it had issued 20 audits, inspections and other reports, including two financial audits that identified nearly $14.5 million in questionable costs at reconstruction projects.

The SIGAR report reiterated the concern that as the last of international combat troops depart at the end of this year, the ability to oversee the billions of dollars in international reconstruction aid will be further curtailed.

“Establishing and sustaining a long-term, coordinated, multi-front attack on corruption is a vital task for stewardship of America’s human and financial stake in Afghanistan, and for the future of the country and its people,” the report concluded.

smith.josh@stripes.com

Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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