U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan were "substantially undermined" by "systemic corruption" occurring "from the very beginning" of military operations in 2001, according to a review released Wednesday.
The report from John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, is the first in a series his office will issue on “lessons learned” from the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It said the "failure to effectively address the problem means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted by systemic corruption and, at worst, will fail.”
Sopko’s report said corruption, which was already widespread before U.S. operations began, fed existing grievances against the Afghan government, and helped channel “material support to the insurgency.”
The U.S. government made the situation worse, Sopko said, “by injecting tens of billions of dollars into the Afghan economy, using flawed oversight and contracting practices, and partnering with malign powerbrokers.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker told SIGAR investigators “the ultimate point of failure for our efforts … wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption.”
Sopko said the U.S. government was “slow to recognize the magnitude of the problem,” and in some instances, made matters worse.
The report said even when U.S. officials recognized that corruption posed a “strategic threat” to ongoing operations, anti-corruption efforts took a back seat to “security and political goals.”
When U.S. and Afghan officials united to fight corruption, they had "little success,” because there was no “sustained Afghan and U.S political commitment.”
Sopko said the U.S. focused on military operations aimed at removing both the Taliban and al-Qaida. But that focus, Sopko said, lead the U.S. to ally itself with “strongmen” who “often engaged in rampantly corrupt activities.”
"The U.S. government ... failed to recognize that billions of dollars injected into a small, underdeveloped country, with limited oversight and strong pressures to spend, contributed to the growth of corruption,” Sopko said in his report.
The report said the U.S. could have used “more aggressive tools” to pressure the Afghan government to crack down on corruption, such as revoking travel visas, adding conditions to aid programs, and prosecuting “corrupt Afghan officials with dual U.S. citizenship,” but chose not to because such efforts might have lessened Afghan cooperation in other areas.
Sopko’s report made a number of recommendations to Congress and the president, the bulk of which centered on making anti-corruption programs “a top priority.”
"The U.S. government should recognize that solutions to endemic corruption are fundamentally political,” Sopko said.
In the future, the U.S. should use "high-level, consistent political will when pressing the host government for reforms and ensuring U.S. policies and practices do not exacerbate corruption,” the report said.
Neil Gordon, an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, told AMI Newswire that Sopko’s report largely covers areas discussed in prior audits, and “doesn’t seem like it’s going to get much attention” inside the Washington Beltway.
“People have gotten used to the corruption stories coming out of Afghanistan,” Gordon said.
“Most of the money has been spent,” he said, though oversight is still needed for ongoing projects that have yet to be transferred to Afghan control.
Gordon said the report’s recommendations are important, and should serve as a guideline for future operations like Afghanistan.
Sopko, who was appointed to the special inspector general post in 2012, has some critics in the inspector general community, who have challenged both his personal style and the quality of some of his reports.
Gordon said this most recent report, while it makes some "damning statements," should be able to stand on its own merits.
"People may have a problem with Sopko, the man," Gordon said, "but they should not have a problem with the office, or its work."