WASHINGTON — As Afghanistan prepares to hand over power to a new president and U.S. combat forces depart, the United States’ special inspector general for the war-torn country paints a bleak picture of its long-term prospects in a new report to Congress.
The report, of which McClatchy obtained an embargoed copy before its Wednesday release, said corruption is so widespread in Afghanistan that it threatens the U.S. long-term reconstruction effort.
“Corruption in Afghanistan includes everything from petty bribery for routine services, nepotism and tribal preference to contract fraud, large-scale theft of resources and subversion of the justice system,” the report concludes.
John F. Sopko, U.S. special investigator for Afghanistan reconstruction, criticized the Army for failing to do more to prevent American aid from ending up in the hands of Islamic jihadists fighting the Afghan government.
“The Army’s refusal to suspend or debar supporters of the insurgency from receiving government contracts because the information supporting these recommendations is classified is not only legally wrong, but contrary to sound policy and national security goals,” Sopko wrote Congress in a cover letter accompanying his report.
A separate internal report in February by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited by Sopko, said: “Corruption directly threatens the viability and legitimacy of the Afghan state.”
Experts inside and outside the Pentagon told McClatchy that the situation in Afghanistan is dismal, with rampant corruption fueled by a gusher of largely untracked reconstruction funds from the United States and other donor nations.
Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East Studies at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said the United States will likely have less influence in Afghanistan once a scheduled military withdrawal is completed by the end of this year, leaving in place as few as several thousand noncombat troops.
“Unfortunately, our interests are at odds with the realities of what we’re going to be able to do,” Goodson said. “And we are hamstrung by the failures that we’ve had so far, especially trying to deal with the bad governance and the corruption.”
The United States has spent $103 billion to rebuild Afghan roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure since 2002, more than in any previous overseas reconstruction effort.
Almost $64 billion of the aid has come in the last four years, creating a deluge of money that the U.S. government can’t track and which the fragile Afghan economy can’t absorb, the report said. As a result, it said, large sums of aid are unaccounted for and major projects have not been finished or were done poorly.
“U.S. implementing agencies have not always exercised sufficient oversight of their massive spending,” the report said. “(Our) audits and inspections have cataloged lack of planning, contract mismanagement, poor quality control and weak accountability. Consequently, Afghanistan has schools built so badly they are in danger of collapsing, clinics with no doctors or medical supplies, police and army barracks that are not fit to use, and roads that are disintegrating for lack of maintenance.”
In his letter to Congress, Sopko highlighted as “a rare moment of optimism” Afghan presidential elections held April 5 in which more than 7 million Afghans participated, more than one-third of them women, despite insurgents’ threats against voters.
Final results of the election are scheduled to be announced May 14 after probes of alleged fraud. The preliminary outcome showed Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the top two finishers, headed for a runoff election because neither received 50 percent of the vote in the initial tally.
Outgoing President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States has delayed President Barack Obama’s decision on how many U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan next year and beyond after final combat troops leave.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and toppled the Taliban regime, which had sheltered al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. About 33,000 U.S. troops remain, down from a 2010 peak of over 100,000 following a force surge ordered by Obama.
In addition to the $103 billion in reconstruction aid, the United States has spent $714 billion on the military effort. A total of 2,117 Americans have died in the war.
Sopko’s report said U.S. officials believe that Karzai “has a point” in blaming U.S. and other foreign governments for fueling corruption.
Army Maj. Gen. Herbert McMaster, who served as a senior commander in Afghanistan, told a university audience in the capital of Kabul three years ago: “Corruption has been exacerbated by the vast sums of international resources that have entered Afghanistan over the last 10 years, often without adequate oversight.”
Even before the huge foreign aid began arriving, it was common for poorly paid Afghan civil servants to accept bribes to supplement their low income, Sopko said in his report.
Jeremiah Pam, a former governance policy chief at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said the United States tried to protect its aid by funneling it through U.S. contractors. Pam, now a visiting scholar at Columbia University Law School, said in an interview that much of the aid was lost, however, through a multi-layered maze of Afghan subcontractors, with some money disappearing at each level.
“We started literally throwing money in,” Pam said. “It’s just money exceeding all the systems of accountability. It gets lost. I don’t think the whole story is that the Afghan government is the most corrupt government in the world. Part of the story is that we exceeded the absorptive capability of the country more than probably ever had been done. That led to bad things.”
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