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Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
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Richard L. Cassin
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Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Shruti J. Shah
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
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Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Is Afghanistan (remember that one?) America’s worst investment ever?

Special Inspector General John SopkoThe Taliban may not be in control of Afghanistan, but that’s only because nobody is really in control. After 15 years of U.S. and coalition fighting, the country — more accurately the failed state — is in terrible shape.

Afghanistan currently ranks 169 on the Corruption Perceptions Index. That’s important. A few years ago we wrote about the link between corruption and active wars. Most of the most corrupt countries, we found, were at war.

Today only Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, North Korea, South Sudan, and  Somalia rank lower on the CPI than Afghanistan. All of those countries are at war except North Korea, and it apparently wants to be.

Three years ago we said,

If graft causes war, does it ever make sense to invest in corrupt regimes? Crooked leaders assure that war will follow war. So when peace is the objective, the CPI should guide decisions about going to war or regime change.

How much has the United States invested in Afghanistan? More than 150,000 lives have been lost in the Afghanistan war since 2001, including 26,000 civilians. About 3,500 coalition troops have been killed, including 2,400 Americans and 455 Britons.

U.S. troop levels peaked there in 2011 at more than 100,000. There are still about 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan but we might send more. The war has cost the United States at least $3.5 trillion.

This week John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, filed his quarterly report to Congress (pdf). NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, he said, is now the largest and longest operation in the alliance’s history.

But we’re losing. The numbers of Afghan government forces are decreasing while their casualties are increasing, Sopko said.

Also increasing are the number of districts under insurgent control or influence. U.S. Forces Afghanistan reported that 57.2 percent of the country’s 407 districts were under Afghan government control or influence as of November 15, 2016, a 6.2 percent decrease from the prior quarter and a decrease of nearly 15 percent since November 2015.

There were 8,397 conflict-related civilian casualties between January 1 and September 30, 2016. Nearly a quarter of those (23 percent) were attributed to pro-government forces.

According to the UN, 583,000 people in Afghanistan fled their homes due to conflict in 2016 — the highest number of displacements since record keeping started in 2008.

In a country of about 30 million people, only six million students are actually attending classes.

An Asia Foundation survey found that in 2016, less than a third of Afghans surveyed (29.3 percent) believed their country was moving in the right direction, down from 36.7 percent in 2015. It was the highest rate of pessimism since the survey began in 2004.

Why is everything going wrong in Afghanistan? The answer is still corruption.

Procurement accounts for nearly 50 percent of the Afghan national budget, Sopko said. That’s bad news because the Afghan govenrment doesn’t handle procurement well.

“From the standpoint of U.S. objectives, aid flowing through poor procurement processes risks inadequately funding security forces, strengthening corrupt networks, enriching insurgent sympathizers, and alienating U.S. public support for foreign-policy objectives,” according to the Special Inspector General’s report.

A joint U.S./UK pilot study found that in Badakhshan Province, 69 percent of the top 100 government positions had been filled by patronage and not by merit or competence.

Afghan opium production rose 43 percent over 2015 levels, to an estimated 4,800 tons. Poppy eradication results in 2016 were the lowest this decade.

Some U.S. troops have joined in the local graft. Over the past five years, investigators for the Special Inspector General uncovered “a widespread, intricate pattern of criminal activity that pervaded the Humanitarian Assistance Yard at Bagram Airfield.”

There have been eight arrests tied to the Humanitarian Assistance Yard at Brgram, and seven guilty pleas, five by members of the U.S. military. The defendants were involved in “bribery, fraud, kickbacks, and money laundering for years,” the report said.


Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog.

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