‘Honesty Is Key’: Afghanistan Pitfalls Could Be Replayed In Ukraine, Watchdog Finds

Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via Getty Images

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • U.S. agencies will deal with many of the same problems encountered in Afghanistan when aiding Ukraine and contributing to post-war reconstruction, a government watchdog told Congress recently.
  • Lack of vision, infighting between U.S. agencies, local corruption and a focus on simply spending money rather than achieving outcomes could worsen if not addressed, the watchdog said.
  • “Honesty is key — even in the face of pressure to make rapid progress,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) told lawmakers.

The same obstacles the U.S. encountered in attempting to rebuild Afghanistan will emerge if and when the U.S. embarks on a reconstruction effort for Ukraine, but at a much larger scale, a government watchdog warned in a letter to Congress posted Thursday.

Four U.S. senators, including Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Independent Kirsten Sinema of Arizona, had asked the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a government body set up to ensure accountability for the billions of dollars invested in Afghanistan, to identify lessons that could apply to “the current situation in Ukraine” and future recovery efforts. SIGAR came back with seven lessons spanning the gamut from endemic corruption, lack of effective coordination among U.S. agencies, insufficient resources and failure to track weapons donations, cautioning the situation could be worse in Ukraine if handled improperly.

“While Afghanistan and Ukraine are very different countries with a history of facing very different threats, many of the challenges U.S. agencies faced in Afghanistan — coordinating efforts, dealing with corruption, and effectively monitoring and evaluating projects and programs — will be the same as the ones they will face in Ukraine,” SIGAR wrote in the response letter dated July 7. (RELATED: New State Department Report Says Biden Didn’t Know Who Was In Charge Of Afghanistan Debacle)

To date, the U.S. has set aside more than $113 billion in aid to Ukraine, of which roughly half is for security assistance and half humanitarian.

Lesson one: the U.S. government failed to develop and stick to a coherent strategy for achieving goals in Ukraine, SIGAR found. At the same time, it rushed implementation leading to “wasteful and counterproductive” programs.

Agencies lacked coordination, SIGAR added. The Department of Defense stiff-armed the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department when agencies did not agree on how to go about reconstruction or where to devote resources. And the U.S. spent too much money, too quickly.

The response compared a tentative Ukraine rebuilding project to the post-WWII Marshall Plan that required decades of continued U.S. financial assistance and engagement. SIGAR warned volume of donations and number of donors exacerbates the potential for waste.

“Ukraine’s need for assistance is likely to increase,” the watchdog said.

In addition, the U.S. often ignored rampant corruption among Afghanistan’s government and security forces instead of seeking reform, SIGAR found. And, while Ukraine has made massive strides in countering corruption in the past decade, it remains the most corrupt country in Europe excluding Russia.

“Corruption in Ukraine is likely to be a significant obstacle to the country’s recovery,” SIGAR wrote to the senators. “For countries receiving U.S. assistance, entrenched patronage networks that involve senior officials can inhibit reconstruction and international aid by wasting assistance and damaging the government’s ability to deliver services.”

“Combating corruption is difficult because it requires the cooperation and political will of those elites who benefit the most from it. Few cooperate willingly,” SIGAR continued.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (R) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speak with reporters after returning from their trip to Kyiv, Ukraine, and meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on April 25, 2022, in Poland near the Ukraine border. - Blinken and Austin traveled to Kyiv on April 25, 2022, the first visit by high-level American representatives to Ukraine since Russia invaded, US officials said. They announced during the trip the gradual return of US diplomats to Ukraine starting "this week", a senior state department official said, plus more than $700 million in additional direct and indirect military aid.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (R) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speak with reporters after returning from their trip to Kyiv, Ukraine, and meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on April 25, 2022, in Poland near the Ukraine border. (Photo by ALEX BRANDON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Just as the U.S. struggled to negotiate among warlords in Afghanistan, whose personal interests often prevailed over the good of the country, it will have to deal with Ukraine’s oligarchs, SIGAR warned.

It’s likely that Ukraine’s police forces are still rife with corruption and infighting and desperately need reform, while war and a surge of resources provide additional opportunities for graft and theft, the report added.

The U.S. did not properly track $18.6 billion in aid to Afghanistan, partly because it employed software systems that were either incompatible or incapable of handling the volume of data received. Although the U.S. has now given $37 billion and counting worth of weapons to Ukraine, “most equipment monitoring protocols were not designed to operate in a conflict environment,” SIGAR said.

“Officials from DOD and State have expressed confidence in their ability to ensure proper oversight over weapons and equipment. But some official statements have delivered mixed messages,” the letter stated.

Similar issues in validating and monitoring aid preside on the humanitarian front, where much aid flows through international bodies, such as the World Bank, before reaching the recipient government, SIGAR found.

SIGAR cautioned against repeating mistakes in Afghanistan where the U.S. government prioritized money spent and the pace of reconstruction over actual program effectiveness.

“Honesty is key — even in the face of pressure to make rapid progress,” SIGAR said.

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