The U.S. government isn't doing enough to fight corruption in Afghanistan, the top American watchdog for the country said Wednesday, raising the concern that much of the effort and the $103 billion that has been given to rebuild the war-torn nation is being lost to graft.
"Corruption is really the big issue," John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), told a gathering at the Middle East Institute, a D.C. think tank.
He added that he had heard from military commanders in the field that "corruption is more serious in Afghanistan than the insurgency."
Not only does it waste money, it prevents helpful projects from being completed, robs the Afghan people of the resources they need and makes them lose faith in their government, Mr. Sopko told his audience.
He pointed to the 2010 downfall of the Kabul Bank, Afghanistan's largest private financial institution, whose collapse drastically harmed the nation's economy. The biggest driver in the bank's collapse was $935 million skimmed and stolen, the vast majority of it — 92 percent — by just 19 people.
"It shows how the patronage system and the failure to prosecute people guilty of gross fraud and abuse is undermining the Afghan economy and putting future development efforts at risk," Mr. Sopko said.
It's a sentiment that was echoed in April by retired Gen. John Allen, who once led U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"The great challenge to Afghanistan's future isn't the Taliban, or the Pakistani safe havens or even an incipiently hostile Pakistan," Gen. Allen told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee in testimony this spring. "The existential threat to the long-term viability of modern Afghanistan is corruption."
"The ideological insurgency, the criminal patronage networks, and the drug enterprise have formed an unholy alliance, which relies for its success on the criminal capture of your government functions at all levels," he continued, quoting a letter he said he planned to send to the Afghan president.
Other federal officials have been more optimistic at the improvements happening in the country.
"I wouldn't so easily discount the extraordinary development gains made by Afghanistan over the past decade in health, education and women's empowerment. The recent election is another bright spot," said a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"Granted, all fragile nations risk losing important gains, but that is why we began building the capacity of Afghan institutions and planning for a transition in leadership over development activities to the Afghans several years ago," the spokesman said.
Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly been criticized — often by people in his own country — as letting graft and corruption run rampant.
Transparency International, an organization that tracks corruption internationally, ranked Afghanistan at the bottom of its global list last year.
Each of 177 countries was graded on a scale of 100. Afghanistan received an 8, the same score as North Korea and Somalia and lower than every other country in the world.
The United Nations estimates that the total cost of corruption in Afghanistan has reached $4 billion, and that in 2012, half of all people in the nation had to pay a bribe to a public official to receive some kind of basic service.
The Washington Times has repeatedly reported on stories of corruption in Afghanistan, including investigations revealing that $190 million given to the Ministry of Public Health may have been lost, wasted or stolen, and that the surgeon general of the Afghan National Army was steering contracts to his brother's business.
Likewise, The Times reported that the Afghan government's own anti-corruption unit was bogged down in cases while choosing not to pursue corruption charges against top government officials, the whole office suffering from an "atmosphere of paranoia," the SIGAR said.
The U.S. government also has been criticized for ignoring anti-corruption efforts to focus solely on security concerns. But Mr. Sopko said the two are not mutually exclusive. Stopping corruption and graft would help boost the economy, which in turn would help lead to a better life for the people.
"If you want to get this country going, it's got to generate income, and it's got to generate jobs," he said.
Especially now that U.S. troops are withdrawing from direct involvement in the country, the U.S. needs to make sure its reconstruction efforts will aid the Afghan people long after international forces have left.
"It is time to stop for a second and reassess," he said. "The alternatives are not acceptable."
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