“Too much money, too fast,” U.S. watchdog says of struggling efforts to aid Afghanistan

“Too much money, too fast,” U.S. watchdog says of struggling efforts to aid Afghanistan
For six years, John Sopko has served as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction with a broad mandate to assess how U.S. cash for Afghan reconstruction is spent.

His quarterly reports and special “lessons learned” investigations focussing on work to rebuild Afghan security forces, develop the economy, stabilization programs and a counternarcotics strategy underscore how international efforts have struggled to improve the economic and security situation in Afghanistan — often with little to show.

“We spent too much money, too fast, too small a country with too little oversight. And we totally, totally overwhelmed the Afghan economy,” Sopko told the Star in an interview.

“To a great extent it was wasted. Like spaghetti on a wall, some of it will stick. But a lot of it fell off and became money that was turned into bank accounts in Dubai and houses in Dubai, houses in Vancouver and houses in northern Virginia,” said Sopko, who was in Ottawa to speak with officials at Global Affairs and speak at the University of Ottawa.

He bluntly notes that 17 years after Western nations deployed to Afghanistan to root out the networks that spawned the 9/11 terror attacks, problems remain endemic. The capabilities of Afghan’s security forces remain a question mark, corruption is “endemic” and “rampant” narcotics production helps fuel the insurgency, he said.

“These are problems we still have to face. Some of them we contributed to. On corruption, we threw gasoline on the fire,” he said.

Canada has been involved in Afghanistan from the early days with military deployments to Kandahar and Kabul that cost the lives of 158 military personnel. Between 2001 and 2016, the federal government earmarked for $2.8 billion for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, of which close to $2.2 billion has been disbursed for development assistance.

In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed a further $270 million for development and $195 million for security through to 2020.

Sopko stressed that his role has no jurisdiction to probe how Canadian development dollars have been spent. But he’s certain that the problems catalogued by his office are not unique to the Americans.

And he notes that funds channelled through international organizations, such as the World Bank and its Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, have also run into trouble. In an April report , his office said that the trust fund — used by Canada to dispense more than $700 million of Afghan aid — had problems with transparency, implementation and monitoring.

“The problems that we find are the problems that the Canadians should find,” he said.

Canada has no similar oversight office. In a statement to the Star, Global Affairs Canada said its programs in Afghanistan are subject to a third-party review every five years as well monitoring by Canadian officials in Afghanistan and reporting by partner agencies.

“This is enhanced by contracted third-party monitoring of projects at the ground level. On a case-by-case basis, Canada elects to commission project evaluations to better understand the results and to gain lessons learned,” department spokesperson Amy Mills said in an email.

Mills noted that the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund publishes third party reviews of its operations — most recently done in 2017 — and scorecards on its programs and initiatives.

Sopko says it’s vital that Western nations learn the lessons from the Afghan experience for the next time.

“We’re going to do this again … .There will be a place where we have to come in and try and rebuild the economy, try and build a military or police force, try to fight the drugs,” he said.
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