Afghanistan's corruption corrodes efforts by US, watchdog says


By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: September 14, 2016

Fifteen years and more than 2,200 combat deaths after the American invasion of Afghanistan, its government and economy suffer from endemic corruption that foils progress, according to the U.S. watchdog who monitors spending there.

"Corruption undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by fueling grievances against the Afghan government and channeling material support to the insurgency," John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, wrote in his office's first "lesson learned" report, released Wednesday. "The United States contributed to the growth of corruption by injecting tens of billions of dollars into the Afghan economy, using flawed oversight and contracting practices, and partnering with malign power brokers."

Sopko's report provides a reality check for the next president and defense secretary as they assess policy choices for Afghanistan and the chances for long-term success. The White House announced in July that 8,400 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan into next year rather than cutting the force to 5,500 by Dec. 31.

President Barack Obama said in July that the Taliban remained a threat and the country's security forces weren't as strong as they need to be. Obama said his decision would give his successor a "solid foundation" to ensure stability in the region.

In a statement, Sopko said his report "shines a light on the corrosive impact corruption has had on our ability to meet strategic goals in Afghanistan, putting our 15-year, $114 billion investment at risk."

In the future, he said, "anticorruption efforts need to be at the center of planning and executing U.S. contingency operations. Policymakers, agency officials, and implementers on the ground will all have an important role to play in that," he said.

He recommended that Congress enact legislation making clear that fighting corruption is "a national security priority" in such military interventions and that lawmakers consider requiring agencies to "establish a joint vendor vetting unit" at the start of an operation. At the same time, intelligence agencies "should analyze links between host government officials, corruption, criminality, trafficking and terrorism" and then update their assessment regularly, he said.

In Afghanistan, Sopko wrote, U.S. officials placed less emphasis on rooting out corruption than keeping the peace with Afghan officials for the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

There was concern among U.S. officials from 2010 to 2014 that "pushing too hard on corruption might alienate" then-President Hamid Karzai "and jeopardize his cooperation on security issues."

The U.S. was "forced to choose between maintaining a hard line against corruption or retreating in the face of the realization that fighting corruption would either require even more political capital than anticipated or be largely futile in the absence of Afghan political will," he wrote. "The U.S. government chose to do the latter."

Sopko quoted current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has said, "The Afghan public is sick and tired of corruption; we are not going to revive the economy without tackling corruption root, stock and branch."

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