National Security

U.S. Inspector: Billions in failed programs wasted in Afghanistan

U.S. Marines and Navy corpsmen evacuate a simulated casualty in March 2014 during a training drill at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan.
U.S. Marines and Navy corpsmen evacuate a simulated casualty in March 2014 during a training drill at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. U.S. Marines

The top U.S. official for monitoring aid to Afghanistan painted a grim portrait of the country’s future Friday, saying it is riddled with corruption and graft.

With most Americans’ attention riveted on Iraq and Syria, John F. Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan, said the United States’ unprecedented $120 billion reconstruction investment there is at risk.

“The country remains under assault by insurgents and is short of domestic revenue, plagued by corruption, afflicted by criminal elements involved in opium and smuggling, and struggling to execute the basic functions of government,” Sopko said in a speech at Georgetown University.

President Barack Obama’s vow that only 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan by year’s end, Sopko said, has left many Americans unaware the the United States will spend up to $8 billion a year on reconstruction projects for years to come.

“If corruption is allowed to continue unabated, it will likely jeopardize every gain we’ve made so far in Afghanistan,” Sopko said.

The United States continues to pump billions of dollars into the South Asia country that its government can’t control.

“It appears we’ve created a government that the Afghans simply can’t afford,” Sopko said. “Accordingly, when we build things the Afghans can’t use and when we don’t take their resources into account, we’re not just wasting money. We’re jeopardizing our mission of creating a self-sustaining Afghanistan that can keep insurgents down and terrorists out.”

Among several wasteful U.S. programs cited by Sopko, he said that billions spent to fight Afghanistan’s flourishing opium trade have gone down the drain.

“The U.S. has already spent nearly $7.6 billion to combat the opium industry,” Sopko said. “Yet by every conceivable metric, we’ve failed. Production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, financial support to the insurgency is up, and addiction and abuse are at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan.”

Some Afghan soldiers and police are getting paid off by poppy growers to allow them to cultivate the illicit plant, Sopko said.

“The narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and fuels a growing illicit economy,” he said. “This, in turn, undermines the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, nourishing criminal networks and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups.”

Sopko warned that Afghanistan “could well become a narco-criminal state in the near future.”

Despite the widespread graft, the United States has no plan for countering corruption, Sopko said, and some U.S. agencies exaggerate progress in Afghanistan in order to justify the huge American investment there.

“The United States lacks a unified anti-corruption strategy in Afghanistan,” he said. “This is astonishing, given that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.”

The United States has spent more money in Afghanistan than it ever has spent in any other country, and more than it provided to rebuild Europe under the Marshall Plan after World War II, even with inflation taken into account.

Congress created the post of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan in 2008 in order to track the gusher of U.S. aid, and Sopko was appointed two years ago.

He said Friday that the United States and other countries are funding more than 60 percent of the Afghan government, with domestic revenues of $2 billion last year dwarfed by $7.6 billion in expenses.

“The sheer size of the U.S. government’s reconstruction effort has placed both a financial and operational burden on the Afghan economy and its government that it simply cannot manage by itself,” Sopko said.

As more U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, he said, 80 percent of its territory will be “effectively off limits to U.S. civilian oversight,” making it even more difficult to monitor how American aid is being used.

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