(Adds comment from USAID)
WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Pervasive corruption deprives Afghanistan of funds sorely needed to rebuild the country after a decade of war and poses the most serious threat to the success of a massive reconstruction effort, a U.S. inspector said on Tuesday.
The problem is set to worsen as U.S. troops withdraw and security deteriorates, leaving civilians able to travel safely and check on projects in only about 20 percent of the country by December 2014, and even that may be optimistic, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told a congressional committee.
In his frank assessment of the $103.17 billion that the United States has poured into Afghanistan over the past 13 years building modern hospitals, power plants, roads, police stations, schools and more, Sopko painted a picture of ambitious investments thrown into a country on such a massive scale that it has overwhelmed its capacity to cope.
Moreover, U.S. policies bear part of the blame for the crippling levels of graft that undermine the efficacy of programmes. Citing a recent U.S. Joint Staff report, Sopko said that the initial U.S. strategy in Afghanistan fostered a climate conducive to corruption, which remains deeply embedded within the structure of its government.
The rot began by cutting deals with warlords mostly from the Northern Alliance who worked alongside the U.S. as a proxy force to drive the Taliban and al-Qaeda from power in 2001.
“These warlords often used U.S. support to operate with impunity to increase their political power and improve their economic positions,” Sopko said. “Afghan political leaders have built allegiances by cutting political deals that put powerful figures in key government positions and allowed them to behave with impunity.”
Some of these figures have used their government positions to expand their patronage networks, which in some cases have morphed into criminal networks involved in extrajudicial land seizures, extortion, drug trafficking and money laundering, he said.
LACK OF ANTI-CORRUPTION STRATEGY
Worsening the situation is that the U.S. has no clearly defined strategy for dealing with the corruption it has helped to embed within the Afghan government, he said.
“U.S. anti-corruption activities in Afghanistan are not guided by a comprehensive U.S. strategy or related guidance that defines clear goals and objectives for U.S. efforts to strengthen the Afghan government’s capability to combat corruption and increase accountability,” Sopko said in testimony prepared for the U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
Corruption directly undermines key assistance programmes run by the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. State Department, he said.
For example, U.S. government officials who are advising and mentoring border police and customs officers to develop the capacity of the government to collect customs revenues report that criminal networks, used to smuggling commodities freely, are kidnapping and intimidating Afghan employees if they cooperate with the training on how to properly collect customs duties.
Kathleen Campbell, USAID's deputy assistant on Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs, however said in in a statement that the U.S. has built a foundation for success in Afghanistan. The size of its investment, at 3 percent of the total cost of the war, and its "robust oversight have contributed to Afghanistan experiencing greater improvement in human development, a measure of health, education and standard of living than any other country in the world since 2000," she said.
But Sopko in testifying before the subcommittee questioned the sustainability of those programmes, especially given widespread corruption and a lack of performance metrics to measure programmes.
According to a World Bank assessment, Afghanistan in 2012 collected only 60.1 percent of the revenues needed to cover its costs, down from 66.5 percent a year earlier. The budget gap is expected to continue widening as more projects are handed over to the Afghan government to run, leaving it increasingly dependent on foreign aid and less able to collect revenues.
In fact, the U.S. reconstruction effort is so huge that it has “placed unmanageable financial and operational burden on the Afghan government,” Sopko said.
Each new development project increases the operational and maintenance costs and contributes to Afghanistan’s growing budgetary gap, capturing it in a cycle of failure.
“Each day, it becomes clearer that the reconstruction effort has provided too much, too fast for the Afghans to absorb,” he said.