This article was co-published with Slate.com
American officials received persistent, stark warnings that Afghanistan’s entrenched culture of official corruption would undermine their efforts to rebuild that country after the West’s military invasion fifteen years ago, according to recently declassified diplomatic cables and internal government reports.
The diversion of Afghan resources and Western aid for private gain would drain vitally-needed funds from the country’s reconstruction and alienate its citizenry, the public and private reports all said. That would in turn fuel renewed public support for the West’s enemy — the Taliban, whose social brutality notoriously included draconian punishments for official corruption.
But the U.S. officials in charge of rebuilding the country largely failed to heed these alarms, according to their own assessments. Afghanistan's corruption, said Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador from 2011 to 2012, in a newly-released interview with a team of official auditors, was “the ultimate point of failure for our efforts.”
Washington has paid a steep price for its mistakes — it has invested more than $800 billion in Afghanistan, including about $100 billion in direct payments, and lost more than 2,300 American lives over the past fifteen years (the anniversary of the U.S. invasion was last Friday). At least a tenth of the country’s population is still under the Taliban’s control, with another 25 percent now being contested, and these numbers have lately been rising, not falling. Nearly 40 percent of the population subsists on less than $1.35 a day.
In fact, Washington has so little to show for its efforts that a group of ten former U.S. ambassadors and military commanders in Afghanistan declared in a joint statement published by The National Interest magazine on Sept. 14 that stabilizing the country and ending its continued incubation of terrorism will require at least another generation of U.S. effort. Meanwhile, the U.S. costs alone are now running roughly $1 billion a year for reconstruction, plus another $4 billion a year in direct payments meant to continue to prop up Afghanistan’s persistently weak (and partly imaginary) security forces.
Efforts to uncover what went wrong may yet take a while (the Pentagon Papers analyzing American mistakes in Vietnam were leaked to the public two years after they were completed in 1969 and 21 years after America undertook its disastrous military meddling there). But the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded in a 2014 report that military and civilian leaders alike grievously underestimated the gravity and impact of Afghanistan’s corruption. More “Lessons Learned” analyses are now emerging from within the government, and the most recent one points some sharp fingers of blame at the Obama administration — including the State Department while Hillary Clinton was at the helm, and at the CIA, during the entire period of the Bush and Obama administrations.
While trying to stabilize the country, these organizations undertook two actions that made its problems worse, the latest study says: The CIA partnered over a long period with politically-connected warlords that engaged in “rampantly corrupt activities,” largely out of political expediency; meanwhile, U.S. aid organizations helped stoke the country’s historic corruption by pouring in more funds than the country could responsibly absorb, all the while measuring their achievements by how much, rather than how well, it was spent. With short military deployment stints and high turnover in civilian oversight roles, no one in Washington or in Afghanistan took effective responsibility for fixing these problems.
These are the unvarnished critiques in a Lessons Learned report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, who has been studying the Afghan effort for four years and whose team interviewed 80 participants and solicited comments from five of the key agencies or departments in charge. “We must recognize the danger,” Sopko said at the Carnegie Endowment’s Washington offices while presenting the report on Sept. 14, “of dealing with [foreign] characters or networks of unsavory repute, tolerating contracting abuses, accepting shoddy performance, and delivering unsustainable projects.”
But we didn’t, his study shows, and so the desultory results of the U.S. intervention shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Afghanistan was at the bottom of annual corruption rankings by the World Bank at the outset of the U.S-led occupation, and beginning in 2005, near the bottom of an annual corruption list published by Transparency International (they were rated the most corrupt or nearly the most). A cable sent to Washington by the U.S. embassy, entitled “Confronting Afghanistan’s Corruption Crisis” and newly declassified for Sopko’s study, warned that corruption was “the hallmark of daily life” in Afghanistan and “a major threat to its future.” Conquering it, the cable said, “is fundamental to the success of U.S. policy.” The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), which dispensed most of Washington’s nation-building funds, also remarked in an internal strategic plan that year that government institutions at all levels are “tainted by high levels of corruption.”
An internal Pentagon review in 2006 bluntly warned that “enormous popular discontent is building against corrupt and ineffective governance.” That was the year that then-president Hamid Karzai appointed as the head of his chief anticorruption agency a man who had been convicted in the United States on drug charges, Sopko’s report points out. It was also when Karzai accepted the appointments of 14 senior police officials “who have links to criminal networks,” according to a secret memo (since declassified) written by a senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense.
A study by an Afghan integrity group in 2007 warned that “a strong and interwoven spider web of illicit networks” controlled power at all levels. Two years later, at the outset of the Obama administration, the U.S. embassy in Kabul warned in another cable, also recently declassified, that official corruption — including Afghan officials’ protection for the narcotics trafficking that produced around a half of the country’s GDP – was “as likely as is the insurgency to undo our efforts in Afghanistan.” British diplomats were no less aware of the risks: Their chief foreign aid agency warned in a 2009 report that corruption was then “a major reason for supporting the Taliban.” In 2010, at a meeting with U.S. diplomats, Afghanistan’s national security advisor acknowledged that “corruption…is the system of governance.”