Sunday, February 2, 2014

The cost of corruption

This past week, a US government oversight agency issued a quarterly report on the handling of US aid to Afghanistan that underscores the abject failure of America's longest and perhaps most tragic war.

The report was produced by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, SIGAR, and its report can be found on-line:

Among the reports key findings are:

--USAID contractors assessed 16 Afghan ministries and found they are unable to manage and account for funds; they identified 696 recommendations for corrective action -- 41 percent of them rated "critical" or "high risk."

--USAID's own risk reviews of seven Afghan ministries concluded each ministry is unable to manage U.S. direct assistance funds.  The reviews identified 107 major risks -- 99 of them rated critical or high.

--USAID said it would not award direct assistance dollars to these Afghan ministries "under normal circumstances." USAID waived its own requirements for providing direct assistance funds.

--USAID has not required the Afghan ministries to fix most of the risks identified prior to receiving U.S. money.

--USAID’s assessments revealed a high risk of corruption at the Afghan ministries.

--USAID failed to fully disclose to Congress that none of the ministries it assessed are capable of managing direct assistance funds.

--USAID insisted that SIGAR withhold key information from Congress and the public, even though USAID shared it with the Afghan government.

If one looks beyond the bureaucratic language, it is clear that those in the Afghan government are stealing US funds with wild abandon. USAID knows  it, yet by its own admission, the agency continues to dispense the funds, even against its better judgement and in violation of its own rules!

This might be an argument for an immediate cutoff of funds and a speedy withdrawal. But not so fast.

War time corruption is nothing new. Iraq was rife with corruption and it drove the cost of the war both in Iraq and and Afghanistan to dizzying heights. Corruption in the Afghan government also is not new. In fact, it has been going on for much of 13 years of this war, everyone knows it.

As I wrote in Above the Din of War, the corruption has been so pervasive that the vast majority of Afghans divorced themselves from the government long ago. And along with that estrangement, most Afghans pulled back their support for the US efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Their thinking was quite clear and straight forward. After the initial excitement of a country having been liberated from the oppressive and fundamentalist Taliban regime, the vast majority of Afghans felt their country was on the verge of prosperity and new found freedoms.

Instead of building on that all of this goodwill, the US inexplicably diverted its military and civilian resources to Iraq. This was undoubtedly the worst possible move the US could have made. The decision's dreadful economic impact was such that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal must someday be held accountable.

While the Iraq war was waged, Afghanistan was put on the back burner. Afghanistan's puppet leader, President Hamid Karzai, was left to run the show. He took advantage of the situation by surrounding himself with family and friends who helped themselves to largess of America and the international donors.

America simply looked the other way. But the Afghans did not. They saw the billions of dollars that they had thought would help them and their fellow Afghans recover from decades of war being stolen each and every day by the people the US had put into power.

They were not only Karzai and his pals, but the dozen or so warlords that still control Afghanistan. These former warlords were handed various and sundry ministries much like spoils of war.

The Taliban took advantage of the growing discontent and rampant corruption. They rightly asked their fellow Afghans to once again join them to help root out those who have been corrupted by the westerners and their money and their armies.

Slowly but surely, the Taliban was resurrected and now controls and estimated 80 percent of Afghanistan.

With Karzai refusing to sign a bilateral agreement that would let the US stay in Afghanistan for another decade, the Taliban is salivating. In the coming months, the Taliban knows, it will be able to quickly pounce and again claim Afghanistan, having driven the corrupted westerners from their land.

But the US cannot and should not let that happen. As I wrote in earlier columns, there is too much at stake to be lost, not only in Afghanistan and the region, but at home and around the world.              

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