Watchdog: US reconstruction fueled Afghan corruption

Watchdog: US reconstruction fueled Afghan corruption
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The United States undermined its own efforts to rebuild Afghanistan by injecting billions of dollars into a corrupt system while being too slow to realize the magnitude of the issue, according to an inspector general report released Wednesday.

“Corruption undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by fueling grievances against the Afghan government and channeling material support to the insurgency,” the report says. “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 powerbrokers.”

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The report, from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), is the first of planned series of “lessons learned” reports to help inform continuing operations in Afghanistan and potential future reconstruction efforts elsewhere.

The first report focuses on how the departments of Defense, State, Treasury and Justice and the U.S. Agency for International Development understood the risks of corruption in Afghanistan, how the U.S. response to corruption evolved and the effectiveness of that response.

Since 2001, the United States has provided more than $100 billion in aid for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The amount of aid at times exceeded Afghanistan’s gross domestic product and often far exceeded the 15 to 45 percent of GDP a developing state is typically considered able to absorb, according to the report.

“In Afghanistan, spillover from more than $100 billion in reconstruction assistance contributed to pervasive corruption, illicit activity and other adverse effects that distorted economic norms and undermined state legitimacy,” the report says.

At the same time, the United States provided too little oversight to prevent embezzlement, bribery, fraud and other forms of corruption, according to the report.

“In a conflict environment, oversight is difficult, but our systems of accountability are also poor,” an unnamed former senior U.S. official is quoted as saying in the report.

“So when you push large amounts of money through and there’s no way to pull it back, it creates an incentive for corruption. The environment in which you are operating shifts and corrupt actors create ways to bleed the system for all it is worth because they know the money will keep flowing no matter what they do, and they can make more by being corrupt than non-corrupt.”

The United State didn’t realize the magnitude of the corruption problem until 2010 when an aide to then-President Hamid Karzai was arrested and the Kabul Bank nearly collapsed, according to the report.

After that, anti-corruption efforts “had some success,” the report says, but “they were not unified by an overarching strategy and were largely tactical.”

The report provides a slew of recommendations to Congress and the executive branch to avoid such issues in the future. For example, the report says Congress should consider legislation that specifies anti-corruption is a national security priority, authorizes sanctions against individual who engage in corruption and require relevant agencies to establish a joint vetting operation to better vet contractors in war zones.

For the executive branch, the report recommends an interagency task force on corruption, senior anti-corruption officials at relevant agencies and anti-corruption offices at relevant agencies, among 11 recommendations. 

“The U.S. government should make anti-corruption efforts a top priority in contingency operations to prevent systemic corruption from undermining U.S. strategic goals,” the report says. “Corruption significantly undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by damaging the legitimacy of the Afghan government, strengthening popular support for the insurgency and channeling material resources to insurgent groups.”