Afghan Corruption Haunts U.S. Efforts to Cede Leadership

The U.S. is renewing efforts to staunch corruption in Afghanistan by reducing the corrosive effects of the money it’s pouring into the country, a State Department official said.

The U.S. shut down one project that was using Afghan officials to review corruption cases because they were exploiting it to pick up tips on how to cheat, according to the official, who briefed reporters at the Pentagon yesterday on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Corruption was among the “long-term and acute challenges” cited this week in the Defense Department’s semi-annual report to Congress on the war in Afghanistan. The report struck a dissonant note as President Barack Obama spoke of “the light of a new day” in Afghanistan today. He signed a strategic partnership agreement with President Hamid Karzai as a prelude to the planned withdrawal of U.S. military disengagement from the decade-long war there by the end of 2014.

“Every day seems to widen the gap between the goals the United States is seeking to achieve in Afghanistan and its ability to achieve them,” Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research group in Washington, said in a note yesterday.

The solutions for giving Afghans a measure of security and stability in the future “are not pleasant or anywhere near as reassuring as the statements coming out of the” U.S. or the coalition fighting in Afghanistan, he wrote.

Steering the Money

In the attempt to thwart corruption, the U.S. steers funding to Afghan ministries deemed to be effective and away from those that fail to meet certain standards, according to the State Department official.

Effective Afghan ministries include those in charge of mining, finance, foreign affairs, commerce, counter-narcotics and rural and local government, the official said in a brief interview. The Ministry of Transportation remains troubled, so the U.S. works with other offices on projects such as rail system improvements that aid commerce, the official said.

Karzai’s government faces a deadline in the case of illegal insider loans revealed two years ago at Kabul Bank, the nation’s biggest commercial bank, the official said. The government must take action toward prosecutions and recovering assets before a donor conference scheduled for Tokyo in July, the official said. Depositors lost more than $800 million in that case.

‘Setbacks in Governance’

While the Pentagon’s report described the Obama administration’s strategy in Afghanistan as “sound,” many of its findings contradict accounts of progress that officials say will let them withdraw most of the coalition’s 128,000 remaining personnel by the end of 2014.

“Setbacks in governance and development continue to slow the reinforcement of security gains,” the Defense Department concluded in its report. Such failures “threaten the legitimacy and long-term viability of the Afghan government,” the report’s authors said.

U.S. and Afghan officials have said for years that American aid to Afghanistan is an impetus for corruption. The U.S. plans to spend $90 billion on military operations in Afghanistan this year, along with $16 billion on aid, including training and equipment.

“Corruption remains a major threat to the reconstruction effort,” Steven Trent, the acting special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, wrote in an April 30 quarterly report to Congress.

About 30 percent of his office’s investigations involve public corruption and bribery, Trent said. During the quarter, his office worked with other U.S. and Afghan law enforcement offices to recover $446,000 in stolen fuel and $175,000 in cash in cases involving Afghan attempts to bribe U.S. officials.

The U.S. can’t properly track cash aid to Afghanistan used to develop the country’s financial sector, in part because Karzai and other officials don’t fully cooperate, Trent’s predecessor said in a statement in July.

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.