Today, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released the first in a series of reports imparting lessons from the 15-year, $115 billion Afghanistan reconstruction effort.
The report, Corruption in Conflict: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan, is a review of how effectively the US government—primarily the Departments of Defense (DoD), State, Treasury, and Justice, and the US Agency for International Development—responded to corruption in Afghanistan reconstruction spending. SIGAR identifies six key lessons that will hopefully inform future contingency operations, and makes recommendations for executive and legislative action. The core lesson is obvious: the US government must establish a comprehensive anticorruption strategy before plunging into nation-rebuilding.
The report defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted authority for private gain,” as exemplified by such acts as bribery, embezzlement, extortion, fraud, and nepotism. It asserts that, while certain forms of corruption have been a part of Afghan culture for centuries, the problem grew to epic proportions after 2001. SIGAR faults the US-led reconstruction effort in three respects: by rapidly injecting billions of dollars into the Afghan economy without adequate oversight, by failing to recognize the scope and severity of corruption, and by subordinating anticorruption efforts to short-term security and political goals.
The recommendation that seems most sensible (to provide the most bang for the buck, if you will) is for the agencies to establish a “joint vendor vetting unit” to more carefully screen contingency operation contractors and grantees. For reconstruction missions to succeed, international aid money must be kept out of the hands of what SIGAR calls “malign powerbrokers”—those who thrive off corruption, such as local warlords, crooked government officials, and insurgents. Robust screening of recipients will also help ensure reconstruction funds aren’t lost to fraud, waste, and abuse.
The United States will remain engaged in Afghanistan for several more years, and it will likely embark on relief efforts in other war-torn countries as well. It is therefore critical that the government heed the lessons collected over the years by its watchdogs: the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which ceased operations in September 2011, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, which closed its doors in October 2013, and SIGAR, which will carry on until appropriated funding for the reconstruction drops below $250 million.