Watchdog Finds Weaknesses in Program to Combat Corruption in Afghanistan

Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

A key program intended to curb official corruption in Afghanistan suffered from a lack of independence and enforcement powers, a watchdog found, the result being that many local power brokers failed to declare all of their financial assets.

The Afghan government’s High Office of Oversight, set up in 2008 by then-President Hamid Karzai to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development and other entities to clamp down on a centuries-old tradition of self-dealing by officials, “suffers from a lack of independence and authority to fulfill its mandate, lacks enforcement power, and, in some instances, has failed to register and verify asset declarations,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction wrote in a report released on Thursday.

Interviews with 27 officials and past advisers to the organization showed that the Karzai administration “never provided the HOO with the political support or independence necessary to register and verify the personal assets of the top officials in his government.” The officials who did submit asset declarations “that were verified by the HOO contained errors and omissions that would have hindered robust verification efforts,” auditors wrote, adding that those omissions “raise questions regarding the efficacy of the process.”

Specifically, the office failed to verify the asset declaration forms of Karzai, his First Vice President Mohammad Fahim, his Second Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili, or eight other top officials, the report said. Of the 47 Afghan officials who left office from 2008-2014, only eight complied with the Afghan constitutional mandate to submit an asset declaration form, auditors found. The Afghan Attorney General's Office was unwilling to investigate and prosecute corruption cases referred to it by the HOO, cases that involved ministers conducting embezzlement, bribery, and forgery schemes worth anywhere from $1,000 to $100 million.

Karzai himself declared two German bank accounts, but failed to provide the account numbers. Similarly, he declared jewelry as personal possessions but listed no ownership or proof of purchase. Even President Ghani's declaration contained several omissions deemed likely hinder the HOO's verification efforts.

The predecessor to SIGAR John Sopko found similar verification problems in 2009. One ex-adviser in March 2016 that “the HOO was never anything more than window dressing designed to keep the international community happy while the government bought more time.” One key problem: the HOO’s first director general was also a political adviser to the president.

Thursday’s report, addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and USAID Director Gayle Smith, comes as SIGAR is producing series of “lessons learned” from the United States’ 15-year presence in war-torn Afghanistan.

SIGAR recommended that USAID establish “clear, established procedures for verifying asset declarations and for holding individuals accountable for the accuracy of such declarations.”

USAID concurred, but stands by its initial decision to support the HOO, “which at the time was a newly established and untested institution and appeared to be a promising vehicle for combatting Afghanistan’s rampant corruption,” wrote Mission Director Herbert Smith. “Over time, USAID shifted the focus of its anti-corruption to other partner institutions, where it felt its assistance would have more impact.”

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