Audit: U.S. lacks anti-corruption plan for Afghan aid

Report says comprehensive proposal to battle malfeasance was left unsigned by Hillary Clinton

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The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to shore up the Afghan government in advance of the December 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of most foreign troops, but a new audit says no coherent plan exists to reduce the rampant corruption that has undermined those efforts and alienated the Afghan public.

John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, released a report Wednesday warning that absent aggressive anti-corruption measures, assistance funds could continue to help fuel one of the world’s worst kleptocracies.

Without a clear strategy for curbing the culture of “baksheesh,” or bribes, he warned, the U.S. risks leaving behind a government that has little credibility at home and scant legitimacy abroad.

“The ability of the Afghan government to deliver services to its citizens without the illicit diversion of resources is crucial to the country’s development and the government’s standing as a legitimate, sovereign authority,” Sopko wrote.

Washington has already spent $96 billion on reconstruction projects as part of its effort to bolster the Afghan government’s control of the country. An August Congressional Research Service report says the U.S. will likely continue to shell out about $10 billion annually to keep the country running through at least 2017.

But corruption remains an overwhelming challenge. A 2010 U.N. report said it is “almost impossible to obtain a public service in Afghanistan without greasing a palm: bribing authorities is part of everyday life.” Transparency International ranked Afghanistan with North Korea and Somalia in the cellar of its latest annual corruption index.

As the U.S. has increased the flow of aid in recent years, the problem has only gotten worse. A separate U.N. report released in December found that the total value of bribes paid in Afghanistan shot up between 2009 and 2012, from $2.5 billion to $3.9 billion — representing about one-fifth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Wednesday’s audit said the U.S. had drafted a comprehensive strategy for curbing Afghan corruption in 2010, but it was never signed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

According to the report, State Department officials told auditors they decided not to implement the strategy because it demanded too many resources at a time when the U.S. was preparing to withdraw.

Emails to the Clinton Foundation seeking comment from the former secretary went unanswered on Wednesday. A State Department spokesman said the agency could not immediately comment.

The special inspector general’s report warned that a clear plan — one that identifies a strategy, goals and benchmarks for performance is urgently needed to reduce “pervasive corruption.”

But it found that U.S. diplomats in Kabul lack a formal plan laying out the strategic goals and benchmarks needed “to track progress over time or identify where some embassy programs and projects are succeeding and others are failing.”

The report warned that it will only get harder to tackle the problem as aid increasingly flows directly to Afghanistan’s government rather than to private contractors and businesses.

Instead of pursuing the 2010 strategy, the U.S. embassy in Kabul told auditors that it has set up three working groups on corruption under the direction of Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan James B. Cunningham.

The first supports training and other programs designed to strengthen the Attorney General’s office and the Supreme Court’s Anti-Corruption Tribunal.

A second is trying to create a strong financial sector following the 2010 collapse of the Kabul Bank. In March, the bank’s founder and 20 others were convicted on charges they had used fictitious companies to siphon $861 million, representing 92 percent of the bank’s assets, out of the institution.

A third working group seeks to reduce corruption among officials who collect customs duties and hunt drug smugglers along the 5,000 miles of border the landlocked country shares with Pakistan, Iran, China and three Central Asian states.

Among other initiatives, the U.S. is trying to set up a nationwide system for tracking criminal cases, apparently in an effort to stop the widespread practice of bribing the police to release prisoners or make criminal charges disappear.

The U.S. is also trying to help streamline the process of issuing construction permits and improve intelligence sharing between government agencies to better combat corruption and drug smuggling.

Police and local officials account for most corruption in Afghanistan, the U.N. reported, but many central government officials, judges, prosecutors and doctors also solicit bribes.

The problems, the December U.N. report said, were triggered in part by the flood of money into the country from U.S. and other international aid programs.  

The situation has weakened local governments and strengthened the Taliban, the report said. Meanwhile, U.S. military officers sometimes rely on corrupt officials to maintain security, obtain supplies and gather intelligence, according to media reports.

When auditors asked the Kabul embassy what the three anti-corruption working groups had accomplished, Sopko wrote, officials there couldn’t provide any hard data.

He called on the current Secretary of State John Kerry to develop an anti-corruption strategy with measurable goals as well as a detailed blueprint for implementing it.

In a Sept. 5 letter formally responding to the audit, Jarrett Blanc, the State Department’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, wrote that the embassy’s three working groups “provide the targeted and flexible approach necessary to work effectively in Afghanistan’s rapidly changing environment in a way that is more responsive than a single, static strategy would be.”

Blanc said the groups are developing a set of objectives, benchmarks and plans for measuring progress, although these haven’t yet been completed. The Embassy is also establishing  what he called an “Anti-Corruption Coordination Group,” to provide “strategic direction” for the effort.