The black hole of corruption that swallowed up the billion dollar investment of the United States in Afghanistan

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The chaos unleashed these days in Kabul has transformed a popular decision – the withdrawal of US troops – into a debacle. But it was not a surprise, nor a fatality; nor the unfathomable curse of that remote country that many call “the tomb of empires.” Afghanistan has collapsed like a house of cards despite continued warnings from diplomats, military and observers on the ground. Eleven reports from the Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (SIGAR), a figure created in 2008 by Congress, have come to confirm the failures in the Central Asian country, among them the political impatience with the long term, resolved through increasing injections of funds, and insufficient synergy between the various US agencies involved in the operation; holes through which billions of dollars have vanished. But the real black hole has been the country’s endemic corruption, which already in 2010 was swallowing 25% of the national GDP.

The relentless manna from international aid has further undermined the country’s weak foundations, according to many analysts. Not only for creating the so-called “aid fatigue”, that kind of paralyzing ceiling caused by the massive pumping of money, and that limits when efforts are not wasted; also for fattening the bank accounts opened in Dubai by Afghan provost, as denounced in 2019 by John F. Sopko, the inspector general appointed by Barack Obama in 2012. ”The US and its partners spent too much, and too fast, in an economy that was too small , with very little supervision, “he wrote then; “We turned a blind eye or did not find out at all how regularly much of the money was going in underhand payments, bribes and accounts in Dubai.” President Ashraf Ghani himself had to deny this week that he fled Afghanistan with $ 160 million in his suitcase.

Sopko presented its latest evaluation on July 31. “After 20 years and 145,000 million dollars trying to rebuild Afghanistan, the US Government has many lessons to learn (…) to save lives and avoid waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan and in future reconstruction missions in other parts of the world” highlights the report. The world has committed 2.2 trillion dollars to the Central Asian country, which today seems like a lost investment, not to mention the lives of tens of thousands of people, Afghans and foreigners. Brown University’s The Costs of War project raises the death toll in the conflict to 241,000.

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SIGAR is not the only one to put its finger on the sore. Twenty declassified documents published this Friday by the National Security Archive (ASN), an NGO linked to George Washington University, reveal how sources on the ground continually contradicted the official optimism of the Pentagon while Pakistan, offering shelter to the bearded men and the par maintaining a preferential relationship with Washington, and corruption in the Afghan leadership fueled the Taliban insurgency. For the ASN, it is not about miscalculations but about the “deceptive” performance of the White House since 2001. “The US Government misled the population for almost two decades about the progress in Afghanistan, while hiding in confidential channels the faults detected ”, underlines the ASN.

Biden himself this spring ignored the recommendations – more warnings than advice – from top military commanders, urging him to avoid a total withdrawal and to leave a troop checkpoint to avoid a power vacuum. The SIGAR report recalls the repeated assurances given by the military high command (Generals David Petraeus in 2011, John Campbell in 2015 and John Nicholson in 2017) about the “growing operational capacity” of the Afghan security forces. “More than $ 88 billion has been earmarked to support security. The question of whether that money was spent properly will be the result of the fighting, “said Sopko prophetically, just two weeks before the collapse of the country, when different provincial capitals fell like dominoes in the hands of the Taliban.

The National Security File details the problems, now evident, that have hampered the mission since its inception, with special emphasis on “endemic corruption, driven in large part by the US billions and secret intelligence payments to the lords of the war”. But neither did daily activities manage to escape the obligatory toll: favorable treatment in a hospital, transporting fuel across the country or owning a property, everything had a price.

“They were all very aware of the generalized corruption in the highest levels of power. For years the international community has tried to combat it; in fact, when Ghani became president the donors imposed 20 conditions on him, the first of them reducing corruption in the Administration by 80% ”, explains Vanda Felbab-Brown, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, who cites the existing one in the forces security and the judicial system as an example of gangrene.

Unlike the authorities supported by the international community, he indicates, “the Taliban have not been corrupt, the benefits of drugs were enough for them. [el tráfico de opio], in whose business they were not the only actors; there were also those from the Government ”, adds Felbab-Brown. “In the 1990s they earned a reputation for integrity, with very sporadic cases of money being diverted to private pockets, for the benefit of their families, but not in a systematic way like the country’s authorities. Their legitimacy is doubtful, but they cannot be accused of corrupt if we consider how bribery proliferated in the standard judicial system, and how that practice was eradicated in Islamic courts during their first term. [1996-2001]”. An argument that could partly explain popular support for the Taliban in large areas of the country.

In other cases, short of corruption, there was a blatant waste of financing goals doomed to failure. Between 2003 and 2015, the 140-page SIGAR report argues, the US allocated more than a billion dollars to institutional strengthening programs; 90% of those funds were to develop a standard court system. It was another misjudgment, as well as a futile outlay due to the impossibility of imposing formal institutions in an informal setting. “In the first year at Helmand [2010] the new judges only saw five cases, because no one was used to going to court. ‘We have never seen this and we need to see if it works,’ said the locals, “explains SIGAR, which confirms that between 80% and 90% of civil disputes were settled by traditional, community means.

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Felbab-Brown abounds in the idea: “Bribes fed the functioning of the judicial system.” SIGAR’s conclusion is clear: “The US did not understand the Afghan context and failed to save its efforts” to reality, in addition to underestimating “the amount of time needed to rebuild Afghanistan, creating unrealistic calendars and expectations that prioritized quick spending,” which increased corruption ”. Added to this is “the lack of evaluation and monitoring by the government agencies” involved. “The point that ended the failure of our efforts was not the insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption, “said Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who led the legation in Kabul in two terms, with Bush and Obama.

“A lost investment? It is difficult to say now, it can only be hoped that achievements in areas such as health – especially maternal and child health – and education, will not be ruined. The Taliban will not be able to sustain these gains if funding is cut off, if they are unable to pay salaries, and the generation of foreign-educated technocrats can only be expected to [durante la intervención extranjera] be able to carry out his work if he is allowed to do so ”, concludes the expert.

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