John Sopko’s message to the Afghan people is simple: Corruption kills.
It kills soldiers and citizens alike. And if it’s not brought under control, it could kill the country’s fragile future.
“People have to understand that corruption isn’t about just money,” said Sopko, who heads corruption watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the watchdog for the $113 billion that the U.S. has given the country. “It’s about lives.”
“The main threat to the success of the war [on terrorism] is corruption. Corruption steals from the Afghan government. Corruption actually steals salaries, steals weapons, steals fuel from the Afghan government,” Sopko said.
He recalled a contract that was designed to protect Afghanistan’s hazardous roads from terrorist bombs. It went to an American company, with Afghans doing the work. The money was stolen, and the right work wasn’t done.
“As a result, soldiers died,” Sopko told VOA’s Afghan Service in an interview. “There have been many examples … where corruption has meant that the Afghan soldiers don’t have enough bullets or guns, or they don’t have enough fuel, or enough food, or enough medical equipment because it was stolen.
“The Afghan people should be as outraged as I am and U.S. taxpayers are about corruption,” he said.
In a rush to fill the vacuum created when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust the terrorists responsible for plotting the 9/11 attacks, Washington and aid agencies pumped money into the poverty-wracked nation to help install a new government and start a development plan to overcome the poverty that breeds extremism.
While there were successes, the strategy also fed corruption in a country where it already was endemic.
“The U.S. did contribute to the problem, unintentionally,” Sopko said. “The U.S. and its allies probably gave too much money too fast to too small a country, such as Afghanistan, with too little oversight.
“When that happens, corrupt Afghans, corrupt Americans and corrupt contractors will steal money and then bribe officials. The blame is two-sided; it takes two to tango. The United States could have done a better job in overseeing the billions of dollars that were sent to Afghanistan,” he said.
SIGAR was created in 2010. Sopko, a former Justice Department prosecutor who fought organized crime at home, was brought aboard two years later. He discovered that while some money was lost to sheer waste, corruption ate up a large chunk of what was left. And not all of it went to line Afghan officials’ pockets.
“We’ve arrested over 100 contractors, U.S. government employees, U.S. military employees, and they are serving time,” Sopko said. “We’ve recovered about $1 billion in fines and restitution.”
SIGAR also is working with the Afghan government to turn around a long tradition of corruption in its ministries.
“Many of the generals have paid to get their jobs, many of the police have paid to do their jobs,” Sopko said. “Many of the former ministers have put their friends and cronies in these agencies.
“This is the difficulty that the Afghan government has. They have to ferret out those corrupt elements. Collaborating together, we can fight corruption better that we can do alone or the Afghan government can do it alone. We may have helped create the problem. Now we have to help the Afghan government stop the corruption and basically take a knife and cut out the cancer that is corruption.”
While he wishes the current Afghan government would do more, he has found them a more willing partner than the previous administration.
“They have to have a willing partner. Up to now they have, and we hope that continues,” Sopko said.
Still, mistrust of the government is pervasive. SIGAR has set up a confidential hotline for citizens to report corruption.
“Many of our best cases come from brave Afghans who have contacted this hotline,” said Sopko.
Getting rid of corruption is also key to fighting Afghanistan’s drug problems. And both are critical to fighting terrorism.
“The drug trade supports the insurgents and the extremists,” Sopko said, quoting Gen. John Nicholson, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as saying insurgents get about 60 percent of their funding from the drug trade. “The corruption supports the insurgents. We have evidence of that.”
Sopko said President Ashraf Ghani warned, years before he became the country’s leader, that Afghanistan had the potential to become a narco-terrorist state.
“And it’s trending that way because no one is seriously addressing the narcotics problem,” Sopko said. “We hope the Afghan people and the new American administration will be more aggressive.”