Fight Against Corruption In Afghanistan Press On
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Yesterday, President Obama said that it does not serve America's interest to try to push Cuba towards collapse. In Afghanistan, the U.S. set out to do just the opposite - rebuild a country that had collapsed. John Sopko is the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. His government watchdog group has put out a list of the challenges still ahead now that U.S. combat operations have officially ended. Corruption tops that list, like the estimated half-billion dollars in customs that are skimmed off every year. When John Sopko joined us, we touched on that and how the new president, Ashraf Ghani, is addressing corruption.
JOHN SOPKO: We haven't seen any changes yet. We've heard very strong statements that they're going to have to clean up the customs rackets and the syndicates that control the borders. But we have had anecdotal evidence, provided us by DHS employees who have been there and also provided us by military employees in the past, that they see the trucks going through; they see money exchanging hands; they see the machines that we provided them being turned off. Then as soon as our inspectors show up, who we're helping to train, all of a sudden, machines got turned back on. Customs, we assume, was being collected, and we think this is also contributed to the shortage of funds that Kabul has right now. They can't pay their salaries and have actually asked for additional money because there's no money in the till.
MONTAGNE: Well, now that combat operations are officially over, how much harder will it be to exercise oversight?
SOPKO: It will be more difficult. We've been talking about that for two and a half years I've been here. It was my first meeting actually with General Allen. He raised the concern and told me it's something that everybody should be looking at is, how are you going to manage all of these contracts and all of these programs? Because the first line of oversight is the management of the contract by the contracting officers, whether they be aid officials on the ground, state department officials or DOD officials. They are going to have a hard time getting outside of the embassy or getting outside of the bases to see how the money is being spent.
MONTAGNE: You're saying USAID folks or even military people who might be sent out can't because it's more insecure now. Do you have an example of how things worked well and if only everything worked that way in terms of U.S. tax dollars then things would be much better today?
SOPKO: Yeah, we actually issued a report about a year ago about a clinic that worked perfectly. And the reason it worked perfectly is we talked to the Afghans beforehand. The local Afghan community bought into the building of the clinic, helped design the clinic. It wasn't an outrageously big clinic. It wasn't something they could not sustain. They monitored the site, and the clinic was built. It was working, and people were actually using it. So that's sort of the success story. If you plan ahead, talk to the Afghans, make certain you issue good, strict, tight contracts and then you monitor the contracts as you're building, then it's more likely than not to succeed.
MONTAGNE: It also - that one has an element of ownership, Afghan ownership.
SOPKO: Yes, yes, yes. And that is something we see a lot. You don't have buy-in. I mean, we had officials come to us and just say, we didn't even know you were building that bridge or building that school or building that garrison until you gave us the keys.
MONTAGNE: That's John Sopko, U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.