U.S. Watchdog in Afghanistan Issues Stark Warning as Combat Operations End

Ignoring the rampant corruption within the Afghan government could unravel any gains made in the country and create a safe haven for terrorists as U.S.-led combat operations come to a close, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction warned Wednesday.

John Sopko, who has served for more than two years as the top watchdog for U.S. spending in Afghanistan, said dirty dealings at the highest levels of the Afghan government, a lack of transparency in how international money is being spent, and Afghanistan’s own flailing economy have led to increased support for militant and extremist groups in the region.

Sopko spoke to reporters and analysts in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as his agency released a new report asking U.S. lawmakers to institute stricter controls on money lent to the Afghan government for reconstruction.

“International assistance should not be seen as a blank check. There must be strings attached to ensure it meets donor objectives and conditions,” Sopko said.

ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 14: Members of the U.S. Army honor guard lower the casket of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene during a full honors funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery, August 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. Greene was shot and killed as he visited Afghanistan's national military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is the highest ranking Army officer killed in combat since the Vietnam War. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Members of the U.S. Army honor guard lower the casket of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene at Arlington National Cemetery, August 14, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Greene was shot and killed as he visited Afghanistan’s national military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The report said $104 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars have been invested in Afghanistan’s security forces, reconstruction and economic development.

“That is more money, adjusted for inflation, than we spent on the entire Marshall Plan that helped rebuild western Europe after World War II,” Sopko said. “Meanwhile, more than 2,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel have died in Afghanistan, while tens of thousands more have suffered physical or psychological wounds.”

A former senior U.S. military official told TheBlaze the failure “not only lies with the Afghan government, but U.S. officials, the White House and State Department who ignored the symptoms of corruption for years and continued to funnel money into projects that were unsustainable, while at the same time cutting deals with well-known corrupt Afghan officials and never holding them accountable.”

Sopko’s report is a “warning but failure to heed that warning is exactly, what I believe is going to happen,” the former official said.

Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. Four Taliban militants targeting a compound housing foreign workers in the Afghan capital were killed Wednesday night in a failed assault there, police said, the latest violence targeting foreigners in the country. (Image source: AP/Rahmat Gul)
Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 19, 2014. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

The inspector general released a list of “high-risk areas” within the U.S. reconstruction of Afghanistan seen as “especially vulnerable to significant waste, fraud and abuse.” The issues include corruption, Afghan military capability, oversight access and Afghanistan’s illegal narcotics trade.

The report noted that the U.S. has committed the bulk of its reconstruction funds — nearly $62 billion as of September 2014 — “to build up the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which consists of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP)” to keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

But, the report said, “under current and future plans, the ANSF is not fiscally sustainable.”

It cited a number of problems with the plan to sustain the security forces in Afghanistan. First, even if it reduced its size to NATO recommendations of 228,500 members in 2017, the cost to the Afghan government would still be $4.1 billion annually. Beginning in 2015, Afghanistan will be required to spend at least $500 million annually to sustain its forces, with the rest of the cost falling on the U.S. and NATO partners.

“However, Afghan officials told SIGAR that they see the Afghan government contributing 3 percent of GDP annually to security, growing their contribution as the economy grows,” the study warned. “Under even the most optimistic GDP growth scenarios, this contribution would not result in the Afghan government fully funding the ANSF by 2024.”

The SIGAR report also referenced the federally funded Center for Naval Analyses investigation, which predicted that the insurgency in Afghanistan “will be a greater threat in 2015–2018 than it is now, due to the reduction in U.S. and NATO forces and the continued presence of insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan.”

The analyses “forecasts that the Taliban will keep pressure on the ANSF, expand its influence in areas vacated by coalition forces, encircle key cities, and conduct high-profile attacks in Kabul and other cities.” It also said that the Taliban will conserve resources in the short term as it recovers from years of coalition operations before launching “a larger and more intense military effort.”

Follow Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC) on Twitter