October 7, this year, marked 15 years of US invasion of Afghanistan and its - still ongoing - war on terror post 9/11 attacks. With little, or no, progress over the years, the situation on ground in Afghanistan remains bleak in terms of security and economy. And with the international media losing its interest in the country and its situation, Afghanistan has fallen into an abyss of insecurity, uncertainty and above all chronic corruption.
SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction), in its recently published report on Corruption in Conflict: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan, draws important lessons from the US expenditure and its failures in Afghanistan since 2001. According to this report, unlike common perception, corruption is not only confined to Afghan ruling elite and institutions, but is widespread among the US and European contractors as well.
It was further revealed by SIGAR that the corruption was primarily fuelled by influx of billions of US dollars whose oversight was not only faulty, but also dubious. Even after acknowledging - year in year out – that corruption was the biggest problem haunting Afghanistan, political and security goals set by the White House and US military always took the front, with corruption put on the back burner.
Since 2001, Afghanistan has constantly remained between 165th to 180th ranks on global index of corruption. The report further notes that “there is a general consensus that Afghan corruption has swelled to unprecedented levels since Zahir Shah’s overthrow in 1973—and especially after the Taliban regime’s rollback in 2001.”
It is a letdown that with such widespread corruption, directly affecting progress in Afghanistan, the US administration opted to ignore the grave nature of the nature of the situation. As one senior US official notes: “In a conflict environment, oversight is difficult, but our systems of accountability are also poor. So when you push large amounts of money through and there’s no way to pull it back, it creates an incentive for corruption”.
The US claims of reconstruction in Afghanistan also look more of a window-dressing as financial aid coming from US equalled, and sometimes exceeded, the overall GDP of Afghanistan. The US government has so far injected more than $110 billion into the Afghan economy, yet the socio-economic situation has worsened over the years. Progress of reconstruction projects, such as schools and hospitals, have also remained highly prone to corruption resulting in sluggish progress.
The SIGAR report also presents some recommendations to curb the corruption endemic in Afghanistan. Yet, what makes the situation worse is that similar recommendations, and policies, have not only been presented in the past but also acted upon without any fruition. Afghanistan has merely become a source of profits for the civilian and foreign military contractors working in the country.
A clampdown on corruption, or its financial roots, would badly hurt the future prospects of such contractors, who seem to enjoy cordial ties both with Washington and Kabul. Afghanistan’s progress, thus, banks on Washington’s willingness to take bold steps against not only these contractors, but also joining hands with Kabul to act against corrupt individuals and institutions in Afghanistan.
In terms of security infrastructure reconstruction, a Reuters report recently quoted a hefty figure of $60 billion invested on the Afghan National Army (ANA), for training and recruitment of Afghan military personnel. Yet, over the years, not only have dozens of soldiers gone AWOL (absent without leave), but the military capabilities of the ANA still remain in question. In one case of military absenteeism, an Afghan national, sent for training to the US, was detained at the Canadians border in an alleged attempt of fleeing to Canada.
The ANA’s lack of progress has also helped Taliban gain control of more territory than it had in 2001, with the government in Kabul only exercising its power over “accessible” parts of the country. The same holds true for most of 10,000 US troops and 13,000 NATO led Resolute Support Mission holed in either Kabul or other smaller urban pockets of Kandahar, Mazar Sharif and Herat. There seems to be no plan, whatsoever, in tackling the current rise of Taliban and IS in the country, as the foreign troops are supposedly stationed for “support, training and consultation” purposes. Even with this much foreign troops’ presence, the first six months of 2016 were the deadliest in seven years, where more than 5,000 Afghans lost their lives.
The current situation of corruption, conflict and insecurity in Afghanistan calls for a renewed focus on the country. This focus needs to attract all regional and international stakeholders, especially Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia, who not only share borders (with exception of Russia), but also mutual interest with Kabul. Also, USA also needs to get out of its “on-the-fence” policy dilemmas for Afghanistan, and plan a withdrawal with immediate effect. As a New York Times writer once famously wrote, “our increased presence makes Pashtuns more likely to see us as alien occupiers”, a narrative-cum-perception, which is still be a major hindrance in establishing peace in the country.