April 30 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. government “created an environment that fostered corruption” in Afghanistan by supporting warlords, relying on private trucking contracts and providing billions of dollars in aid, according to a previously undisclosed Pentagon report.
“Corruption directly threatens the viability and legitimacy of the Afghan state” after a “large-scale culture of impunity” took hold, analysts for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a 65-page assessment obtained by Bloomberg News. American forces dependent on Afghanistan-based trucking companies found themselves “trapped in a warlord protection racket,” according to the report dated Feb. 28.
The Afghan war has cost 2,314 Americans their lives and wounded 19,701 as of April 21, and the report threatens to undercut any remaining support for the dwindling mission from lawmakers, as well as taxpayers and U.S. allies who’ve spent billions to support the Afghan government. The war has cost the U.S. more than $710 billion since 2001, according to the National Priorities Project, which studies federal spending.
As the Obama administration withdraws the last U.S. combat forces by the end of this year, allies may use the report as a benchmark for assessing Afghanistan officials’ promises to crack down, or whether fighting corruption is a lost cause.
‘Slow to Understand’
“The necessary preconditions for combating corruption did not exist due to delayed understanding of Afghan corruption, decreasing levels of physical security, lack of political will on the part of both the international community” and the Afghan government and a lack of popular pressure, the Pentagon analysts found. The U.S.-led coalition “was slow to understand the integrated and pervasive threat corruption posed” to their mission.
Pentagon officials previously have acknowledged the effects of corruption in Afghanistan at all levels of its government and military. The issue has been cited in the Pentagon’s biannual “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.”
The newly disclosed assessment by the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis division of the Joint Staff provides a more candid assessment of the underlying causes, including the role of U.S. strategy. It was commissioned last year by Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, referred to the report in a March 20 speech, praising Dunford for requesting an assessment that “pulls no punches.”
The assessment is based on a review of more than 500 documents, including many from Sopko’s office, and interviews with 66 people, including 11 senior military officers.
Sopko highlighted the review in his quarterly report released today, saying it displayed “a critical awareness and candor often missing from official documents.”
The assessment found that the initial U.S. focus in late 2001 on defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda “created mutually dependent relationships” that “empowered” warlords, “expanded their opportunities for financial gain and impeded later” efforts to counter corruption.
“Once ensconced within ministries and other government posts,” Northern Alliance warlords that the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military special forces teams came to depend on often “used their positions to divert” government resources, sometimes “transforming them into what came to be known as ‘criminal patronage networks.’”
The networks became entrenched in Afghan business and government as President Hamid Karzai “remained politically dependent” on them, the assessment found.
Karzai, who’s due to step down after a runoff election for his successor, resisted U.S. and allied “pressure to prosecute corrupt” network members, according to the report.
The widespread use of Afghan trucking companies, which employed security contractors, became a primary engine of corruption, according to the report.
“Many of the private security companies” were “of a dubious nature” and were paid protection money, the analysts said. In 2010 alone, the U.S. awarded $2.16 billion to eight Afghan trucking companies that “exercised weak oversight.”
By the time U.S. commanders “realized the deleterious effect of this arrangement and attempted to take corrective action against highway warlords and trucking companies, they were so well entrenched that any imposed sanctions would have significantly impeded U.S. logistics,” the analysts said.
“The deluge of military and aid money into Afghanistan” contributed to a “culture of impunity” that overwhelmed the government’s capacity to adsorb the cash. “Coupled with weak oversight” by the coalition, it “created ample opportunities for corruption,” the assessment found.
The U.S. Congress since 2002 has appropriated $103 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction, including $64 billion since 2010, according to figures compiled by Sopko’s office.
“The sheer number of contracting dollars overwhelmed the Afghan economy” as U.S. forces “often lacked the ability to account for their spending” in part due to the “large numbers of accounting systems and the inability to integrate them,” the analysts said.
Those weaknesses were compounded by contracting regulations that didn’t fit what commanders faced in Afghanistan, they said.
The U.S. federal acquisition system is “more suitable to Peoria than Kabul,” according to a military officer quoted in the assessment who wasn’t identified.
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