US Special Investigator: Corruption Is The Greatest Threat To Afghanistan Rebuilding Effort

REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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It is not the resurgence of the Taliban, al-Qaeda or Islamic State elements popping up that are hampering U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, it is corruption, said Special Investigator for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) Wednesday.

John Sopko serves as the head of SIGAR, and has arguably one of the hardest jobs in the country: rooting out corruption in the reconstruction effort of a country that essentially runs on dishonesty. For Sopko, corruption, mostly in the form of bribery of Afghan officials, is a massive threat.

“I would submit to you that nothing is a greater threat to the United States’ efforts to rebuild Afghanistan and other countries like it,” said Sopko in a speech to graduate students at University of the Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

He claimed that “vast sums of money injected into the Afghan economy” have gone missing and have failed to be accounted for by the U.S. To make matters worse, bribery of Afghan officials has become more than commonplace. Sopko noted that the U.S. was very late to the game when confronting the issue.

“Corruption was not always at the top of the U.S. agenda in Afghanistan.  In fact, some would argue that it still is not given the importance it deserves,” said Sopko.

SIGAR was created by Congress in 2008, eight yeras after the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan started. The agency is charged with overseeing the approximately $113 billion of tax payer money spent to rebuild the war-torn country. The small agency of around 200 — 29 of whom are located in Afghanistan — has a monumental responsibility.

Sopko explained to his audience that Afghans “regularly” pay bribes to public officials who work in the police, courts, health department and schools. He cited statistics showing that “over half” of Afghans reported paying bribes to police, 63 percent said they paid bribes to courts, and more than half reported paying bribes to health officials. Sopko believes as much as $4 billion was paid out in bribes in 2014 alone.

There exist what Sopko calls “ghost teachers, ghost schools, and ghost police.” All of these non-existent entities collect funding that goes unaccounted. Such activities have caused Afghanistan to be considered the third most corrupt country in 2015, just behind Somalia and North Korea, according to Transparency International.

“The distinction between ‘private’ gain versus ‘personal’ gain is important in a kinship-based society like Afghanistan, where an individual is likely to engage in corruption not merely for personal profit, but to benefit a larger family or tribal network,” explained Sopko. The familial issue in conjunction with the “hidden” nature of corruption makes SIGAR’s job that much more difficult.

“Although the U.S. is more outspoken today about corruption in Afghanistan, the performance of many of the anticorruption bodies established with U.S. support over the past decade has been disappointing,” said Sopko. He believes the solution to the rampant problem requires both the “politicial will to reform” in Afghanistan and the creation of incorruptible entities to combat the dishonesty. He believes that Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah both have that political will.

“President Ghani has also requested SIGAR’s help with his government’s efforts to repatriate the funds stolen from the Kabul Bank by way of fraudulent loans, especially funds that have been moved to the United States,” said Sopko. “He told me at our most recent meeting that SIGAR would have full access to the relevant banking and financial records.”

Sopko pointed to some successes in his speech, but noted that surveys have shown that Afghans have a bleak view of the future –confidence in the government has even hit a ten-year low.

“While the picture is not entirely bleak, Afghanistan is running out of time when it comes to tackling corruption,” warned Sopko.

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