Even the U.S. Military Admits It Was No Match for Afghanistan’s Corruption

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May 6 2014 12:05 PM

The U.S. Military Was No Match for Afghanistan’s Corruption

The Pentagon wasn’t just defeated by the country’s graft—the Pentagon made it worse.

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An array of anti-corruption groups were established that year and in 2010, including four run by the military, two by international partners, one by the Treasury Department, and one by the Afghan government. But they rarely worked together, disagreed on the definition of corruption, and were staffed by officers and experts on rotations so short that Gen. Allen said it felt like “12 one-year wars” instead of a sustained campaign.

“The problem was at the highest level. There never was any direction … to unify efforts—actually the opposite,” a deputy to the U.S. ambassador for the rule of law told Joint Staff interviewers. “It was, in a word, a mess,” the head of one of the anti-corruption groups said, with no single Western authority assuming overarching responsibility for the problem.

As Obama administration officials flirted with taking a more aggressive stance, Afghan President Hamid Karzai became less and less “receptive,” the report said. His government undertook “illusory” reform and slow-rolled Western proposals, the report said. Karzai’s attorney general’s office regarded prosecutions as a way to “[extort] a bribe,” a U.S. Agency for International Development official said.

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Senior Afghans not only resisted implementing reforms, they took countermeasures, a top counternarcotics adviser told the Joint Staff interviewers. By 2011, “what became clear to a lot of the Afghans, especially the bigwigs, was ‘I need to start moving whatever resources I can out of Afghanistan,’ ” the adviser said.

Cash payments by U.S. intelligence agencies to Karzai’s office, meant to bolster his cooperation with the West and counter influence from Iran, meanwhile “gave substance to charges of American hypocrisy,” the Joint Staff report said. And as security conditions worsened, military contracts with local transport firms began to look increasingly like a U.S.-fueled protection racket.

In the end, Western forces faced with preserving security or tamping corruption repeatedly chose the former, even though many security victories were short-lived. An effort by Central Command to stop relying on Kam Air, a privately held airline based in Kabul, due to its alleged involvement in opium smuggling was quickly reversed, according to the report. Western forces helped push out a police chief in Helmand province who was linked to narcotics and killings, then welcomed him back when “the security situation deteriorated,” the report said.

Washington repeatedly refused to condition its aid on strict adherence to anti-corruption targets and deadlines, opting instead—according to Sopko—to disburse funds as quickly as it could.

“We never really understood the problem. … We were naïve,” Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the Western forces’ deputy commander and incoming British Army Chief of Staff, told the interviewers. “We had a role in contributing to corruption, and that was because of the way we spent our money, because of the way we contracted, and because of our logistics system.”

The obvious question is whether the U.S. military—as well as the rest of the government—will heed these lessons, and undertake the systemic reforms the report urges. These include passing legislation linking U.S. aid more directly to foreign anti-corruption efforts, improving training for military service and contracting personnel, and embracing a radical concept at the Pentagon of using “money as a weapon system” in forcing better behavior by aid recipients.

But it’s not yet clear if the Joint Staff’s conclusions will affect only the dwindling U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, or have a larger consequence for the way that Washington functions. Asked for comment on the overall recommendations, the Joint Staff initially asked only a CENTCOM spokesman to reply.

“All recommendations for ISAF-related matters … are currently being staffed for integration into current and future plans and operations. In the meantime … it would be premature to comment on any specific recommendation until ISAF is further along with their analysis,” said Col. Patrick Ryder at CENTCOM.

Eventually, however, Air Force Col. Edward W. Thomas Jr., a spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded more broadly that “we are … looking at ways to ensure those recommendations are incorporated across the entire joint force development cycle.”

“We have done multiple studies of our operations in Afghanistan,” Thomas wrote in an email. “We have an obligation to ensure those lessons, both good and bad, are correctly learned for the future, and we take that charge very seriously.”

This story was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington.

R. Jeffrey Smith is the managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity.

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