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Fight Against Afghan Corruption Pits Few People Against Big Foe

Posted by Douglas Wissing on

Anti-corruption programs established to combat graft and fiscal malfeasance in Afghanistan are struggling with a daunting mission. Sparsely resourced, US military and civilian groups battle malign networks that connect distracted American officials, for-profit corporations, predatory Afghan insiders and the Taliban in a toxic system so pervasive that American taxpayers are funding both sides of the war.

News exposés in 2009 and 2010 that documented high-level corruption in the Afghan government prompted US officials to establish a number of units to campaign against abysmal contract oversight and organized graft. After complaining, “the media is driving the issues,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of US forces in Afghanistan, established CJIATF-Shafafiyat as a key anti-corruption task force.

“The task force began in work in October 2010 — nineteen, twenty months ago, and it has been picking up steam since,” says CJIATF-Shafafiyat (Transparency) commander Brigadier General Rick L. Waddell. “We have 10 nations, nine agencies, and all the services involved.” The team continues to face major obstacles. “Here it has to be built from scratch,” Waddell says about honest governance in Afghanistan. “We still have some distance to go.”

The Shafafiyat strategy was to first study corruption, develop a common nomenclature, and target the appropriate level of corruption. Waddell says, “What should a military headquarters focus on? What fatally threatens the ISAF mission or the survival of the Afghan state?” When the initial intellectual work was completed in 2011, the task force began to operationalize by coordinating ISAF anti-corruption activities and attempting to influence Afghan government officials-both the corrupt and the honest. Waddell says, “We’re trying to connect what we call ‘the islands of integrity.'”

With international aid forming the bulwark of the Afghan economy, integrity is an important word. “It’s important because Afghanistan will continue to be a ward of the international community,” Waddell says. The donors have to have confidence the money is being used for the proper purposes. “That’s a fatal threat,” he says. “The government of Afghanistan can’t survive without the support of the international community for some time to come.”

For such a critical mission, CJIATF-Shafafiyat operates with a bare-bones staff: a little better than 50 people, mostly military. “We get a lot done with a few people,” Waddell says.

Task Force 2010 was another unit established in the wake of the high-level corruption scandals. Beginning in July 2010, the task force focused on abuses that were financing the insurgents, such as the infamous Host Nation Trucking contractors who paid the Taliban protection money to allow safe passage of US military logistics convoys. TF 2010 estimated that $450 million of US aid and logistics funds ended up the pockets of crooked Afghan insiders and the insurgents. TF 2010 commander Major Gen. Rich Longo says, “When I was leaving to take this command, my sister said, ‘This is obviously a great mission. But why are we just starting this?’ I didn’t have an answer to that question, but I’m glad we’re doing it now.”

TF 2010 likewise operates with few resources. Staffing is under 50 military and civilians. “We don’t spend much money,” Longo says. “We save the US taxpayers more each month than it costs to run the task force for a year.” Targeting high-risk contracting sectors that include transportation, fuel, security, and construction, the task force has aggressively pursued contract overcharges, as well as instituted new procedures to prevent fraud and abuse.

TF 2010 also championed changes to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) so Department of Defense officials could at last terminate vendor contracts when investigators determine contractors are associated with the enemy. “It’s unbelievable to me that the Federal Acquisition Regulation didn’t allow us to rescind vendors’ contracts for funding the enemy,” Longo says. “We can make damned sure he doesn’t do business with US forces again.”

But with corruption defining an economy bloated with international conflict-zone money, Major Gen. Longo takes pride in both immediate victories and the long-term impact of the freshly minted counter-corruption policies. “I know sometimes we feel like we’ve got several fingers and toes in the dike, but we’ve got a football in the office that we spike every time we have a victory over the enemy. But beyond the immediate work, Task Force 2010 is changing the military doctrine, so we won’t wait 10 years to set something up like this in the future.”

In mid-2009, the National Security Council mandated the establishment of the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC) to identify and disrupt sources of insurgent funding. A multi-agency team comprised of members from the Drug Enforcement Agency, the US Treasury, military, law enforcement and intelligence communities, the ATFC investigates Criminal Patronage Networks (CPNs) that skim US contract funds. ATFC director Timothy Jones says, “Our focus is looking at the insurgency, such as the buying of IED components, or how the money moves through the hawalas to fund the fighters.” The ATFC investigations of the hawalas, the informal (and overwhelmingly legitimate) Islamic banking system that is also used by insurgents and opium lords to move massive amounts of cash, has resulted in convictions of jihadist-connected hawala bankers.

The ATFC had as many as 67 members, but now numbers about 53, with most of the personnel lost to the military drawdown. As with the other anti-corruption and threat-funding units, the ATFC runs on a pittance: $400,000 annually plus the members’ salaries. The team works closely with Afghan partners, such as the Ministry of Interior, provincial police chiefs, and FINTRACA, the Afghan government’s financial intelligence agency. “We’ve made some progress with our Afghan partners,” Jones says. “We’re moving beyond mentoring into a partnership.”

Jones noted the importance of the ATFC mission: “When you take insurgents off the battlefield or deny them funding so they can’t buy weapons or pay the fighters, that makes a difference.” But he also stressed the challenges: “You’ve got to adapt and overcome here.”

The long-standing failure to develop a robust US anti-corruption strategy has facilitated a kleptocratic Afghan government that has alienated both its people and the international donor community. When US officials finally did attempt to address the problem of systemic corruption, it was just too little, far too late. With the US now spending over $2 billion a week in Afghanistan, the counter-corruption and threat-funding units remain woefully under-resourced.

Despite the work done by CJIATF-Shafafiyat, Task Force 2010 and the Afghan Threat Funding Cell, Afghanistan continues to rank among the world’s most corrupt countries. As international support and troops dwindle, so do the odds that US-Afghan corruption and extortion can be arrested, endangering the survival of the Afghanistan government and the success of the United States mission. “I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist,” says CJIATF-Shafafiyat’s Brigadier General Rick Waddell. “A lot of work has to be done.”

Douglas Wissing is an independent journalist who has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, FoxNews.com, BBC, VOA News, and NPR networks. His latest book is Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban.

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