When President Obama signed a formal agreement in Kabul on Tuesday to withdraw the majority of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2014, he spoke of a future Afghanistan, able to stand on its own as a respected member of the international community. “We have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” said Obama. “Yet here, in the predawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”
A more sobering view of the challenge that lies ahead came in the latest quarterly report published the previous day by the chief government watchdog over the nearly $100 billion the U.S. has spent on reconstruction efforts since 2002. U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Steven Trent warned that deep corruption persists in the country, and can easily undermine the success of U.S. development efforts there.
“Corruption remains a major threat to the reconstruction effort,” Trent wrote in his introduction to the 176-page report. He added that the problem may worsen as the United States heads for the door: “Afghan reconstruction has reached a critical turning point. The shift in strategy, decline in funding, and persistent violence and corruption underscore the need for aggressive oversight.”
Trent expressed particular concern about continuing thefts of fuel and cash, the shortcomings of local security forces, bribery of local and U.S. officials, and contractors that fail to deliver what they promised.
He focused on the new Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), which is expected to provide much of the security for U.S. and contractor sites going forward. “The transition to the APPF poses one of the most significant challenges that the U.S. government and its implementing partners have faced since the beginning of the reconstruction effort in 2002,” Trent said in March 29th testimony in front of the House Oversight Committee
As part of the transition to more local control, the Afghan government has ordered private security companies dissolved in favor of the new APPF, which operates under the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. Trent sees a number of warning signs that APPF may not be able to function at the level needed and warns of “rising costs and the possible disruption or termination of reconstruction projects if the APPF cannot provide the required security.”
A SIGAR audit of APPF found that relying on the highly understaffed Afghan force could drive security costs up by as much as 46 percent in the first year of the transition. During their evaluations, auditors identified six essential tasks and looked at 166 transition-readiness standards for APPF. At the conclusion of the audit in last December, only 46 of the transition standards could be met — and none of the essential tasks could be performed. (An updated audit is in the works but was not completed by the quarterly report.)
SIGAR said it recovered almost half a million dollars in stolen fuel during the last quarter, as well as $175,000 in stolen cash. These investigations led to the arrest of several Afghanis, the termination of a number of contractors, and in one case, possible Department of Justice prosecution for “several” servicemen.
SIGAR also conducted a pair of investigations that led to three arrests for bribery. In March, Desi Deandre Wade, DoD’s Chief of Fire and Emergency Services in Afghanistan, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for soliciting and receiving over $100,000 from a military contractor in exchange for giving the company inside information to help their bids for contracts. (The contractor was not identified.) Based on SIGAR’s investigations, two former military officers were sentenced to 51 months and 31 months in prison, respectively, on charges of bribery.
The inspector general also ordered five contracts voided, saving taxpayers a total of $131 million, he said. Among the reasons: close ties between contractors and companies that had been banned from doing business with the government and “nonperformance and nonpayment of subcontractors.”
In one case, a contractor delivered only 299 of the 456 concrete barriers they were supposed to install at a military base. Those barriers are a key part of base defenses around Afghanistan, and the failure to deliver the barriers as requested “increased the risk of injury or death for civilian and service personnel.” Because of that, SIGAR requested the unnamed contractor be banned from working for the U.S. government in the future.