How Corruption Defeated Afghan Reconstruction
You don’t change Afghanistan — Afghanistan changes you
by MATTHEW GAULT
Americans should study Russia and understand both how badly the United States failed to rebuild Afghanistan — and how dire the consequences may be.
“We thought that we were civilizing a backward country by exposing it to television, to modern bombers, to schools, to the latest models of tanks, to books, to long-range artillery, to newspapers, to new types of weapons,” Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik wrote of the Soviet-Afghan conflict in his book Hidden War.
“But we rarely stopped to think how Afghanistan would influence us. In Afghanistan, we bombed not only the detachments of rebels and their caravans, but our own ideals as well.”
The Soviets went to war in 1979 and spent nine years chasing ghosts in the mountains and desert. When the soldiers came home, they brought those ghosts with them. Already in trouble before the war started, the Soviet Union collapsed.
The Soviet-Afghan conflict birthed a generation of disillusioned Russian soldiers who brought home both wounded psyches and a new understanding of corruption. In the streets of Kabul and on the tushaks of the Korengal, the Soviet leaders learned a whole new way to cheat the system.
They brought it home with them and those lessons helped shape the surreal, corrupt kleptocracy that is the Russian Federation. This is how it’s always been in the graveyard of empires. Any conqueror that tries to tame Afghanistan quickly learns the land and its people are immovable.
The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for 15 years. In that time, ore than 2,000 American soldiers have died, the Taliban is still a political power and corruption has soaked the American taxpayer for billions of dollars.
Congress created the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2008 to investigate America’s reconstruction efforts, determine how they might go better and root out the corruption.
Congress bit off more than it could chew. Now, seven years into the task, SIGAR is releasing detailed, interactive reports assessing America’s mission in Afghanistan. The assessment isn’t pretty.
SIGAR released this first report, Corruption in Conflict, on Sept. 14, 2016. It opens with a quote from Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts … wasn’t an insurgency,” Crocker said. “It was the weight of endemic corruption.”
When America went to war in Afghanistan it wanted revenge. We weren’t interested in state-building. Still reeling from 9/11, we rushed headlong into a war in a country we didn’t understand. To fight the Taliban and root out Al Qaeda, America made some nasty deals with nasty men.
“The United States partnered with warlords and their militias to pursue its counterterrorism mission,” the new SIGAR report states. “When these strongmen and other elites gained positions of power in the Afghan government, they often engaged in rampantly corrupt activities.”
Then we gave them billions of dollars.
“The U.S. government also failed to recognize that billions of dollars injected into a small, underdeveloped country, with limited oversight and strong pressures to spend, contributed to the growth of corruption,” SIGAR explains.
“By 2005, U.S. agencies were alarmed by worsening corruption, yet their concerns did not translate into coherent, sustained action. Meanwhile, Afghan government efforts to fight corruption were half-hearted.”
Which makes sense. The government was now made up of the militias and strongmen the United States teamed up with the help root out the Taliban and terrorists. They were half-hearted partners in fighting corruption because they were the ones benefiting the most from the graft.
Even better, to the Afghan elites the “Taliban” was simply any enemy they wished to point their American allies at. “The dilemma was that combating corruption required the cooperation and political will of Afghan elites whose power relied on the very structures anti-corruption efforts sought to dismantle,” SIGAR explained.
The problem got worse. In 2009, America’s Afghan Threat Finance Cell, a task force dedicated to tracking terrorist funding, discovered something horrifying — corruption was fueling the insurgency. “There was … recognition that the U.S. government was contributing to corruption through its partnerships with malign powerbrokers and limited oversight of its contracts,” SIGAR explained.
The corruption problem reached a critical point a year later when officials arrested Mohammad Zia Salehi, a close aide of then-president Hamid Karzai, on corruption charges. Afghanistan’s attorney general then dropped the charges and released Salehi. Then the Kabul Bank nearly collapsed and a billion dollars in U.S taxpayer funds vanished in offshore accounts.
The Pentagon cracked down after 2010 but the damage was mostly done. America wanted out of Afghanistan and an end to the war. The Pentagon’s priorities were transitioning power to the local government and making peace with the Taliban, not pursuing corruption cases against private contractors and former allies.
SIGAR’s 164 page report dives deep into the problem and makes bold suggestions about how to fix it. The report makes 11 suggestions — three for Congress and eight for the executive branch — that broadly call for a crackdown on corruption and asks the Pentagon to make fighting corruption a priority of any future counterinsurgency campaign.
But the damage is done. The war in Afghanistan is winding down and America is looking for ways to extricate itself. But it won’t be so simple. Everything in Afghanistan has been hard, weird and complicated. Leaving will be the same.
Hundreds of American contractors and businesses went to Afghanistan to make money rebuilding the country. Many of them learned something in the embattled country— corruption pays. And when the leaders are more concerned with a military victory than fighting graft, they stand to make billions.
Afghanistan taught them how. They’ll bring that knowledge home. Read SIGAR’s new report if you want to know exactly what they’re bringing home with them.