John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said this week that while the picture is not entirely bleak, Afghanistan is running out of time when it comes to tackling corruption.
Addressing students at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and international Affairs during the week, he said surveys show that Afghan optimism about the future and confidence in the government are at the lowest point in a decade.
“After insecurity and unemployment, corruption was the most important reason that Afghans felt their country was moving in the wrong direction,” he said.
He said: “It is true that the governing coalition in Afghanistan remains fragile. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently testified, in 2016, the Afghan government faces the risk of a political breakdown. But we at SIGAR are convinced that the dangers of letting corruption run rampant are greater than the risk of disrupting the entrenched practices of Afghan officials.”
In his address to students, he said President Barak Obama appointed him as Special Inspector General in 2012. “As a former state and federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section and a longtime congressional investigator, I thought I knew all about corruption, but I can tell you that what I have seen and heard in the last four years in Afghanistan puts to shame what we call corruption here. And this pervasive corruption poses a deadly threat to the entire U.S effort to rebuild Afghanistan,” he said.
“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. SIGAR has created an office on Lessons Learned from Afghanistan and is preparing a report on how the U.S government understood corruption there and sought to combat it. It will show that the U.S government initially had little understanding that corruption could threaten its entire security and state-building mission.”
He went on to say: “Indeed, during the U.S invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and for some years to follow, the United States partnered with abusive warlords and their militias to pursue al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and supported the installation of these warlords and their militias at high levels of the Afghan government. The United States also failed to recognize that vast sums of money injected into the Afghan economy, with limited oversight and pressures to spend, created conditions for corruption.”
“Not until 2009 – eight years into the reconstruction effort – did the U.S government begin to understand the connections among a vast, interdependent web of corrupt Afghan officials, criminals, drug traffickers, and insurgents. At that time, a consensus emerged that corruption threatened our core goals: Corruption undermined the legitimacy and viability of the Afghan state, fueled grievances that strengthened the growing insurgency, and sapped resources from the reconstruction effort,” he said.
He said that while Ghani has declared a “national jihad” on corruption, corruption is embedded in the state and it is difficult to root it out without destroying the state in the process.
He said there are numerous reports of the Afghan government paying for non-existent ghost teachers, ghost schools, and ghost police.
He said: “According to a leaked copy of a recent Afghan presidential task force report, hundreds of ghost schools and thousands of ghost teachers have been uncovered. The task force also reportedly found millions of dollars have been embezzled, unfinished projects have been reported complete, and records of student education, registration, and attendance are riddled with discrepancies.”
He said corruption on this scale is a costly drain on the Afghan economy that Afghans can ill afford.
“Although the United States 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. Several of the anticorruption organizations lack enforcement tools. Instead, they are concerned with maintaining focus and raising awareness of the corruption issue. However, raising the issue without being able to do anything about the issue is a recipe for frustration, he said.
There are, however, some positive developments, he said adding that the fuel contract scandal, Kabul Bank case among others were being tackled.
“These are positive steps, but there is more to be done. I believe donors can help by laying down smart donor conditions for assistance. Smart donor conditions can enable Afghan reformers the political “top cover” to implement changes they might not otherwise have been able to implement due to push-back by corrupt political elites,” he said.