This article was published on February 10/11, 2013, by USA TODAY
U.S. reconstruction aid has been wasted. Reforms are needed before we leave.
Dramatic changes lie ahead for Afghanistan — none of them encouraging. President Obama has confirmed that U.S. military presence in the country will wind down over the next 18 months. Responsibility for the country's governance, security and economy will rest on Afghan shoulders. The tragedy is that the government of Hamid Karzai is a cesspool of corruption, and much of the looting has been of the tens of billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers.
Yet, there was not a single question about these issues during Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings to be secretary of Defense. There should have been because our efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Pentagon, are riddled with problems.
The U.S. has spent more on reconstruction in Afghanistan than in any other foreign country, says John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Sopko says the U.S. is spending about $28 million a day on reconstruction projects, which has amounted to close to $100 billion over the past decade.
Benefits to women
Some of this money has been well spent. Education and health care projects have brought benefits to ordinary Afghans, says Ann Vaughan, senior policy adviser at Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian organization. Indeed, under U.S. pressure, the Afghan Constitution spells out the rights of women, and many efforts have been made to give women opportunities to obtain an education and find good jobs.
But much of the reconstruction effort has been wasted because of mismanagement and corruption. Recently, Sopko said that his agency's job is to protect U.S. funds from fraud, mismanagement and abuse. Then he noted a series of abuses where buildings collapsed, where contractors disappeared with funds, and where projects were funded in areas that could never be monitored for security reasons. He admitted, "We are at risk of wasting billions of dollars."
Dependence on U.S.
The Afghan economy has been dependent on U.S. security and military assistance. As the U.S. reduces its commitments, Afghanistan's economy will suffer, too. The Afghan government has failed to create an environment that encourages new investment and economic growth. In fact, the country's economy could become even more dependent on its major export crop — opium.
Top U.S. diplomats and generals have repeatedly voiced support for governance reforms, but these have been ignored by Afghan leaders. The corruption and security issues are closely related. As our top general in Afghanistan, John Allen, told a Senate committee last year: "We know that corruption still robs Afghan citizens of their faith in the government, and that poor governance itself often advances insurgent messages."
Unless the Obama administration and Karzai government can secure dramatic changes, a year or two from now Afghanistan's economy and governance will look far worse. Inevitably, some critics will blame Obama for rushing the U.S. withdrawal. Indeed, we should have been tougher on governance issues, and more vigilant in preventing mismanagement in the reconstruction programs.
But overwhelmingly, the blame should fall on those Afghans who have held positions in government of public trust, who abused that trust and robbed their fellow citizens.