- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2014

The Pentagon this month will terminate a critical task force responsible for combating corruption in Afghanistan as it tries to reach President Obama’s target force of 9,800 U.S. troops in the country — adding to concerns about oversight and accountability in a government rife with waste, fraud and abuse.

Shuttering the Combined Inter-Agency Task Force-Afghanistan, originally founded in 2010 to ensure U.S. spending was not aiding America’s enemies in the war-torn nation, is likely to have dark consequences, according to a growing number of analysts wary that Washington lacks a comprehensive strategy to control rampant corruption in Kabul.

The move is indicative of President Obama’s “blind rush to cut down on troops,” says David Sedney, who served from 2009 to 2013 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. Mr. Sedney said the development is injecting instability into the international community’s anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan just as the country’s new leaders are showing a promising willingness to combat fraud and mismanagement.

“Those capabilities are being taken away just when they could be more useful,” Mr. Sedney said.

“There are people who have worked on that task force who were waiting two, three, four years to have a chance to be put into action and go after the corrupt actors that they collected so much information on,” he said. “They weren’t able to do it when President Karzai was there, because he wasn’t going to go after corruption. And now that they have a president there that is willing to go after corruption, this is being disbanded.”

Pentagon officials disclosed the plan to disassemble the task force by Oct. 31 in a letter last month to Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko, who was seeking information on plans to combat corruption past the U.S. troop departure.

Mr. Sopko said he warned the Defense Department in July that maintaining initiatives to stem corruption would grow increasingly complex during the U.S. military drawdown, and the answers he got from the Pentagon have only sparked additional concerns.

“I appreciate the Command’s detailed response, but it’s still not clear to me what priority anti-corruption programs will be given in the future,” Mr. Sopko said. “Corruption is a poison which threatens all the gains and investments we’ve made in Afghanistan, and it’s critical that robust and continuing anti-corruption measures be at the forefront of our efforts.”

The response to Mr. Sopko’s inquiry, penned by task force commander Maj. Gen. Bert K. Mizusawa, said the unit would have to be sacrificed in order to accommodate the “9,800 cap for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.” And it contained a sobering portrayal of U.S. efforts to establish accountability controls within the Afghan government.

Adviser reports show that Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense is only “in the early stages of developing their internal control program,” Gen. Mizusawa said. Those reports also show that the Ministry of Interior Affairs “significantly lags” behind the Ministry of Defense “due to a lack of leadership commitment and involvement in high-level corruption,” Gen. Mizusawa said.

He said the success of the Combined Inter-Agency Task Force-Afghanistan has been hindered by a “lack of unity of effort” and “lack of political will” on the part of the government of Afghanistan that has “rendered almost all countercorruption efforts moot.”

Nevertheless, the decision to dissolve the task force is “not expected to be reversed unless there is relief from the 9,800 ‘boots on the ground’ cap,” Gen. Mizusawa said.

Corruption remains pervasive in Afghanistan, where patronage and bribery are “an acceptable part of day-to-day life,” enabling public officials — and even teachers — to profit off of citizens, according to a 2012 report compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

In 2012, half of Afghanistan’s population paid a bribe while requesting a public service, the report states. The bribes paid to public officials that year amounted to $3.9 billion, according to the report. Statistics shows that the average cost of a bribe has increased from $158 to $214 between 2009 and 2012.

The Washington Times reported in April on confidential assessments conducted by USAID and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that suggested U.S. spending has yet to create a sustainable civilian government in Afghanistan and, in some cases, has been diverted to corrupt politicians or extremists looking to destabilize the country.

Since the U.S. troop presence began in 2002, the United States has spent more than $96 billion for reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan, according to a 2013 report penned by Mr. Sopko. Part of that funding has gone toward designating numerous programs or activities to directly or indirectly “help strengthen the ability of Afghan government institutions to combat corruption,” according to the report.

Officials say the responsibilities of the task force will be divided into two parts that will be overseen by commanders leading Operation Resolute Support, the NATO-run mission set to begin in 2015 after the U.S. troop pullout.

The Defense Department was tight-lipped about its plans for fighting corruption after the drawdown, noting only that the State Department would lead the effort.

A State Department official said the reorganization was “part of the transition from a large U.S. military presence to an increasingly civilian-led mission, as laid out by the president.”

“State is committed to anticorruption efforts in Afghanistan as part of a broad interagency effort,” the official said.

The realignment comes as Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s new president, has publicly promised to fight corruption and seek financial reform.

Mr. Ghani has said his administration will focus on the underlying causes that lead to corruption in Afghanistan and not solely the symptoms of corrupt activity.

“Certain parts can be cleaned up fairly rapidly,” Mr. Ghani said during an October 2013 interview with Al-Jazeera. “Then there are those sectors where corruption is extremely entrenched. Cleaning up this type of corruption is a 10- to 15-year process. But the momentum moving forward has to be very real.”

Mr. Sedney said the new president’s commitment to fighting corruption is likely to be tested early by the Obama administration decision to disband the task force.

“Instead of getting a positive response from the United States and President Obama, he’s getting the back of the United States’ hand,” he said. “The corruption task force is a very important tool.”

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