America's 'Ultimate Failure' in Afghanistan: Corruption by the Billions

Report details how some U.S. taxpayer money made Afghanistan worse.

ByABC News
September 14, 2016, 12:06 PM

— -- A blistering new report blasts the U.S. government's pouring of billions of dollars into projects in Afghanistan with inadequate oversight that in many cases fueled corruption on unprecedented levels and ultimately undermined America's mission there.

The 164-page report, published online today by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), is the first in the agency's "Lessons Learned" series, which takes a broader look at the U.S. government's shortcomings in the 15 years since the 2001 invasion. SIGAR previously released report after report about the waste of millions of dollars in failed individual projects.

This report, titled "Corruption in Conflict," says that at early on, the U.S. government did not "fully appreciate the potential for corruption to threaten the security and state-building mission in Afghanistan," where some form of regular corruption has existed for centuries.

"The U.S. government also 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," the report says.

In its dogged pursuit of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the U.S. threw its lot in with local "warlords" and their militias — men who later rose to prominence in the Afghan government and used their positions engage in "rampant corruption activities," the report says.

In 2005 the U.S. began to realize the extent of corruption but did relatively little about it, the report says. The Afghan government made "halfhearted" attempts to respond.

By 2009, "U.S. civilian and military leaders became increasingly concerned that corruption was fueling the insurgency by financing insurgent groups and stoking grievances that increased popular support for these groups," the report says. The U.S. shifted its focus to fighting corruption, but by then there were "entrenched criminal patronage networks" to contend with — and an incredible amount of money. The report notes that in fiscal year 2012, the U.S. military contract obligations for services in Afghanistan, "including transportation, construction, base support, translation/interpretation," was approximately $19 billion. That year Afghanistan's entire gross domestic product was estimated to be $20.5 billion.

The U.S. launched projects and organized joint teams to combat corruption in Afghanistan but not as aggressively as SIGAR believes it should have. "What we do know is, the Taliban continue to pose a security threat, corruption remains a source of profound frustration among the population, and the national unity government has struggled to make headway against corruption," SIGAR says.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker is quoted in the report as saying, "The ultimate failure of our efforts ... wasn't an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption."

The head of SIGAR, John Sopko, said today that the report is not meant to be a "critique or criticism of the many brave men and women who worked in Afghanistan over the last 15 years" but a "learning experience, drawing together evidence and analysis into findings that underpin key lessons." The major lesson, according to him, is that corruption cannot and should not be ignored or deprioritized, because it could undermine everything else the U.S. has worked for.

"Corruption, in other words, is a corrosive acid — partly of our making — that eats away the base of every pillar of Afghan reconstruction, including security and political stability," Sopko said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, according to prepared remarks.

Afghanistan's Ambassador to the U.S., Hamdullah Mohib, told ABC News that while his government is not taking a position on the SIGAR report itself, like SIGAR the Afghan government "has an unapologetic zero-tolerance policy towards corruption, in all its forms."

"In the two years since the National Unity Government came into office, it has taken unprecedented steps to introduce transparency and accountability across government as a way to eliminate opportunities for corruption, and several hundred public employees found guilty of corruption have been fired and/or prosecuted," Mohib said, adding that the anti-corruption efforts have increased national revenue some 22 percent.

Mohib also noted that Global Witness, an international anti-corruption organization, recently praised the Afghan government for taking concrete steps towards ending corruption. Mohib pointed to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's comments on domestic corruption this time last year, when he called it a "cancerous lesion" that "threatens the very being of a nation" and declared a "national jihad" against it.

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