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Afghan reconstruction enters critical phase – US watchdog

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 8 May 2013 15:49 GMT
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An Afghan National Army soldier runs near the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) as smoke rises from the site of an attack in Jalalabad province April 15, 2012. REUTERS/ Parwiz
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WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The United States and its allies must be ready to withhold funding from Afghanistan unless its government makes major improvements in handling the billions of dollars in reconstruction aid, the top U.S. watchdog said on Wednesday.

The Afghan army and police face numerous problems in providing security, corruption is rampant in a country that remains exceptionally poor, the government collects enough revenue to cover only 20 percent of its budget, and there are troubling signs that Afghanistan is unready for a fair presidential election in 2014,  the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, John Sopko, said in a speech.

“The United States and its allies are entering the most critical phase of the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan,” Sopko told the New America Foundation.

More progress must be made in improving the security, economic and political transitions ahead of U.S. troop withdrawal in December 2014, and Afghanistan needs to show it can better manage development assistance that is starting to be placed directly onto its budget, he said.

“We need to have the courage to withhold funding, if progress is not made by the Afghan government,” Sopko said.

The United States has allocated $100 billion to the reconstruction of Afghanistan since  2002.  At a July 2012 conference in Tokyo, the Afghan government agreed to step up its efforts to combat corruption, and in return the international donors agreed to transfer 50 percent of future development assistance directly onto the government’s budget.

 But the latest quarterly report to the U.S. Congress from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan’s (SIGAR) office showed that despite reassuring words from the U.S. officials, some major challenges remain in ensuring that taxpayer dollars do not simply line the pockets of corrupt officials.

On the security front, Sopko said in his speech that the Afghan Ministry of Defense may be incapable of buying fuel for the Afghan army once U.S. troops leave; the U.S. government could not account for the fuel it provided the army; the U.S. paid for repairs on police vehicles it had not seen for over a year; police buildings sit empty and a number of ghost employees and desertions mean that the total number of Afghan troops is unclear.

“It is hard to know if the Afghan army and police are ready if we don’t know how many troops are available to fight insurgent forces,” Sopko said.

“Every Afghanistan expert I have met agrees – we need to ensure security or else everything we are trying to do will fall apart.”

As for the economic transition, Sopko said that SIGAR’s auditors and analysts found that Afghan customs and duties officials are struggling with corruption, which is stealing as much as 70 percent of potential government revenue.  Cash counters installed at Kabul International Airport to prevent money laundering sit unused, and high-ranking officials can bypass currency controls altogether. They even have a special VIP lounge set aside for them, he said.

“Ultimately, unless the Afghan government raises more revenue, the U.S. mission will be at risk,” Sopko said in his prepared remarks.

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