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Loud warnings never stopped about Afghanistan’s ‘silent cancer’ of corruption

A root cause of the spectacular failure of nearly 20 years of nation-building in Afghanistan is endemic corruption.

That’s the assessment from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a role the U.S. Congress created in 2008 and filled by John Sopko.

His report to Congress in March this year said, “The failure to effectively address systemic corruption means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will be subverted and, at worst, will fail.”

Congress appropriated $143 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction following military action in 2001. Despite constant promises from Afghan leaders to fight corruption, Sopko found little or no progress. “The Afghan government’s anti-corruption efforts have suffered from vague strategies and insufficient actions, despite donors’ exhortations and some anti-corruption conditions attached to aid,” he said earlier this year.

Sopko testified repeatedly that “corruption substantially undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan from the very beginning.”

He told Congress last year, “Corruption particularly threatens developing a functional Afghan government and effective security forces to address the insurgency. Corruption not only erodes Afghans’ trust in their government, but also compromises the intended outcomes of development interventions, and undermines security by fueling insurgent and corrupt power structures.”

It wasn’t just Sopko sounding the alarm.

A 2020 survey of Afghan citizens by the Asia Foundation found that 85 percent of respondents reported that corruption was a major problem in their daily life and 95 percent said corruption was a major problem in Afghanistan as a whole.

Various military and civilian sources said pervasive corruption had degraded the battlefield capability of Afghan government forces. The U.S. Department of Defense said in 2019 that “corruption remains the top strategic threat to the legitimacy and success of the Afghan government.”

At the November 2020 Afghanistan Conference, with participants from 66 countries and 32 international organizations, the UN’s Deborah Lyons called corruption a “silent cancer steadily affecting all aspects of the lives of Afghan citizens.”

In public remarks for international anti-corruption day in December 2019, then-Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass said, “[T]he problem that most troubles former U.S. ambassadors, military officials, and elected officials in Afghanistan is corruption.”

Beginning in 2014, Sopko prepared for each new Congress a High-Risk List — areas that most threatened the Afghan nation-building mission. Among the items on the list are endemic corruption, illicit narcotics trade, threats to women’s right, inadequate oversight, and so on.

As the public record makes clear, the biggest risk, the one that finally proved fatal, was always the “silent cancer” of endemic corruption.

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