While the United States waits patiently for the new Afghan president to sign a post-2014 troop deal, a new report shows that the war-torn nation is going to need much more than a few thousand U.S. and NATO forces to stand on its own.
The U.S. Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, just released his quarterly report and while there was “a rare moment of optimism” when elections were successfully held earlier this month, there is still much that could reverse the gains Afghanistan has made over the past 13 years.
Corruption tops that list, of course. Afghanistan is tied for last place with Somalia and North Korea among 177 countries rated for corruption by Transparency International. In 2012 alone, it’s estimated that half of Afghans paid nearly $4 billion in bribes. And despite pouring nearly $200 million into helping Afghanistan collect customs fees, a key stream of revenue, “U.S. advisors report that Afghan employees who try to properly collect customs duties have been kidnapped and intimidated,” Special Inspector John Sopko wrote in the report.
Because corruption remains so pervasive, drawing down the approximately 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to zero or, combined with NATO, maintaining a force of up to 12,000 foreign fighters isn’t going to make rebuilding any easier. Part of the problem, Sopko said, is that it’s unclear what the exact definition of corruption is. Joint Staff officials have used a definition of corruption as “abuse of public office and private gain,” but that doesn’t always translate in Afghanistan “where gifts to officials and favors for ethnic or tribal patronage networks are normal,” the report said. “ISAF eventually defined corruption as ‘the misuse of power for personal gain,’ but found applying even that loose standard challenging.”
Another major challenge in Afghanistan is its abundant poppy fields that produce opium and help fund the Taliban. The U.S. has tried numerous ways to combat opium, but after spending $7 billion and a setting a goal to reduce the cultivation of poppy by half by 2016, it’s actually grown by nearly 40 percent, the report said. Afghan forces have tried to continue eradication efforts, but with eroding support from U.S. and NATO, it’s unclear how much of a priority that will be.
Since 2002, Congress has appropriated more than $103 billion to help rebuild Afghanistan. Now those construction projects are at risk simply because, with or without international forces after this year, inspectors can’t reach many of the sites due to a lack of security. SIGAR says Afghanistan’s “oversight bubbles” — the ability of U.S. forces to protect reconstruction inspectors — are, like the U.S. military footprint, getting smaller and smaller. With Afghanistan estimated to be able to fund as little as one third of its $7.5 billion budget this year, Sopko has ‘serious concerns” that the billions of dollars that have flooded the country will go to waste.