Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Stresses Corruption as an Existential Threat to U.S. Efforts

By Nicholas Caskey

On March, 31, John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), recently addressed students, faculty and guests on US's efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan, on March.  During his lecture entitled “Corruption as an Existential Threat to U.S. Efforts in Afghanistan,” Spoko discussed how Congress had created SIGAR to oversee and prevent "waste, fraud and abuse" of American tax dollars. According to Spoko, the U.S. government has appropriated more than $113 billion in the region since 2008. "I thought I knew all about corruption, but I can tell you that what I have seen and heard in the last four years in Afghanistan puts to shame what we call corruption here," said Sopko, "And this pervasive corruption poses a deadly threat to the entire U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan."

In his talk, Mr. Sopko detailed the challenges of tackling corruption in Afghanistan, which he defined as the abuse of public trust for private gain.  According to Spoko, corruption by definition is personal and hidden in nature, which makes it difficult to measure.  Exacerbating this fact, corruption in Afghanistan can be for personal or for a tribal benefit, adding another dimension to an already complicated situation.  The SIGAR has had some success in ferreting out corruption in Afghanistan and putting measurable terms to it.  For example, they have uncovered hundreds of “ghost schools” that exist only on paper, complete with ghost teachers and ghost students.  The SIGAR has also discovered that nearly 40% of Afghan security forces in Helmand Province do not exist. This corruption undermines the security and stability of the entire United States operation explained Spoko.  Mr. Sopko blamed the combination of large budgets, pressure to spend rather than succeed, and limited oversight caused the exceptionally high levels of corruption which has resulted in $2 to $4 billion dollars in bribes annually.

Mr. Sopko explained to combat corruption, it would require the cooperation of political elites with established networks that have been deemed corrupt.  In 2010, when Mr. Sopko began his work, he felt that this commitment was missing.  When a key aid to then Afghan President Hamid Karzai was arrested for money laundering, President Karzai ordered his release within a few hours.  When the Kabul Bank collapsed in September 2010 due to a Ponzi scheme, most of the politically connected suspects never faced any charges, including relatives of Mr. Karzai.

To emphasize just how dangerous corruption is to the United States’ efforts in Afghanistan, Mr. Sopko pointed out an interesting point of view from General Allen, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).  To General Allen, the Taliban were a nuisance compared to corruption.

Looking back to his early days combatting organized crime in the U.S., Mr. Sopko outlined the requirements to effectively combat corruption.  Those requirements include political will, incorruptible institutions, and power structures that are out of the reach of corrupt officials.  In Mr. Sopko’s assessment, current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been a breath of fresh air in the effort to combat corruption in Afghanistan.  Having already fired ministers in his government for corruption, President Ghani represents the political will necessary to implement real changes.

On the institutional level, international requirements for aid funding are very weak.  Foreign donors are afraid to roll back their support of Afghanistan and this is a real problem.  He proposed using smart conditionality, tying aid funding to steps necessary to combat corruption.  Requiring government officials to declare their assets in order to receive aid funding for their projects and using electronic money transfers that can be scrutinized in detail are a few good examples of smart conditionality.

Smart conditionality, in Mr. Sopko’s assessment could be an efficient and meaningful way to tie further funding for programs to real change, in terms of the way business is done in Afghanistan.  He pointed out that smart conditionality does not necessarily mean withholding funds from necessary programs.  Instead, he suggested looking for “shiny objects” such as building upgrades, vehicle replacements, and new computer systems as the first lines of funding to undergo smart conditionality.  This way smart conditionality does not hold hostage requirements such as medical supplies.

Corruption is an existential threat to security, especially in Afghanistan.  Afghan popular support for the New Unity Government under President Ashraf Ghani is at the lowest ever, with the public calling for the removal of more corrupt officials and the looming possibility of snap elections.  If corruption remains unchecked in Afghanistan, Mr. Sopko argued, the United States risks all of its investments made in that country – 15 years, more than 2200 service members killed, and over $1 trillion dollars when warfighting activity is included.  In order to get corruption in Afghanistan in check, smart conditionality provides an avenue to tie easily abused foreign donor funding to real change. 

In addition to discussing lessons from Afghanistan, Mr. Sopko gave advice for GSPIA students wishing to pursue careers in international affairs. He argued that people wishing to work in the public sector need to adopt private sector mindsets and approaches.  He urged students to take more classes in business and management in order to bring private sector practices into the public sector.  He pointed out that business and management expertise are woefully lacking in the professional policy world, as well as the halls of government.  When discussing programs with other officials and US military leaders, he expressed his dismay when he learned that most programs do not go through any cost benefit analysis before implementation.

Mr. Sopko appreciated the invitation to return to Pittsburgh.  He reminisced about his previous visits to the city. As a young prosecutor, Mr. Sopko cut his teeth in law enforcement in the first successful federal RICO prosecution of the leadership structure of the La Cosa Nostra crime family here in Pittsburgh. 

The Inspector General’s visit to University to Pittsburgh was coordinated by Professor Jennifer Murtazashvili,  with assistance from the Ford Institute for Human Security and Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, two research centers of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA).  Co-sponsors were the University Center for International Studies (UCIS) and School of Law Center for International Legal Education (CILE).

Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies
3930 Wesley W. Posvar Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260