“[A]llowing corruption to continue unabated will likely jeopardize every gain we have made over the last 12 years.” —John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (20 March 2014)
Established by the US Congress in 2008, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has drawn attention over the past couple of years for its aggressive pursuit of development project mismanagement by US and Afghan organizations. John Sopko, who became the SIGAR in 2012, struck the drum again this past month. Speaking at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, Sopko reminded his audience that Afghan corruption could undo all that has been accomplished in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban unless the US implemented a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy. The prognosis from his office remains a compelling indictment of what has not been accomplished in that country over the past twelve years.
An auditor’s approach to assessing progress at the policy-level perpetuates the fallacy that foreign powers can dictate the path and pace of Afghanistan’s political-social evolution without resorting to imperial occupation.
The material validity of SIGAR’s reporting notwithstanding, an auditor’s approach to assessing progress at the policy-level perpetuates the fallacy that foreign powers can dictate the path and pace of Afghanistan’s political-social evolution without resorting to imperial occupation. Good intentions aside, nothing in the past twelve years of counterinsurgency and nation-building in Afghanistan proves that today’s great powers are better at managing the development of other societies than their imperial predecessors. Yet, the tacit logic of SIGAR’s reporting suggests otherwise. By directly linking metrics to policy direction, audits in policy deliberations impede the formulation of coherent strategy for Afghanistan rather than informing it.
SIGAR’s focus on the issue of corruption is not the problem. The diversion and misappropriation of international funds is a matter of great concern to Afghans who hope for a better future as well as to the citizens of donor nations. The US alone has committed over $100 billion to Afghan reconstruction through 2014 and much of it will likely never reach the intended recipients because of inefficiencies and graft. SIGAR is also in step with the direction set by the signatories to the 2012 Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework which set benchmarks or “indicators” for Kabul to meet in order to qualify for the $16 billion promised by the international donors through 2015 and comparable funding through 2017. However, in establishing requirements for transparency and efficiency as aid stipulations, the international community imposed arbitrary limits upon their commitment to Afghan stability which no strategy can overcome. From a strategic planning perspective, the problem is that using the accounting ledger as a determinant of policy chains the pursuit of national interests to the realization of discrete outcomes that are often unnecessary and collectively insufficient for protecting those interests.
Strategic plans are of no value if the commitments are defined by arbitrary points in time because, in such instances, the ends specified are never so important that ways and means are allowed to contend with the enemy and all of the complex conditions that defy prediction. SIGAR’s audits have not been contrived to determine policy, but they lack a necessary subordination to the dictates of political purpose and available opportunities (i.e. ends-ways-means). In other words, SIGAR’s success in serving its mandate has obscured the political objectives for which the US and its allies have committed themselves. The question of whether the ends are worthwhile and attainable becomes lost amidst questions of managerial competence, efficiency, and effectiveness.
American policymakers and strategists should be cognizant of the hazards created by focusing on efficiency and effectiveness in an enterprise so utterly dependent upon external factors. Corruption in Afghanistan is, in all of its licit and illicit guises, an outcome of contingent factors over which Afghans and their partners in the international community have few means to directly affect without risking other critical equities such as state stability. The most effective method for dealing with the corruption thus far has not been an anti-corruption campaign per se but pressuring the government of Afghanistan to exercise its governance functions, however imperfectly, and thereby encouraging the tension between patronage and bureaucratic efficiency to resolve itself over time.
As an isolated process, the act of accounting presumes an ability to control outcomes in Afghanistan that is unrealistic at the strategic-level.
The system of patronage which dominates the Afghan political system cannot be remade through incentives or punitive measures. Afghan elites must want a system and culture of governance that requires transparency for lasting change to occur and for such change to have a chance at success without risking disintegration of the state. As an isolated process, the act of accounting presumes an ability to control outcomes in Afghanistan that is unrealistic at the strategic level.
Corruption is not so much a matter for us to solve as it is an issue for Afghans to overcome. Nation- and state-building are complex endeavors that involve relationships between a multitude of actors that collectively establish and institutionalize a set of new political and social norms. Returning Afghanistan to the international system has imposed a high cost on the US that makes a high level of accountability desirable for American policymakers, but the kind of accountability that Americans and their international partners require will only be brought about through the generational evolution of Afghan society, not through audits and anti-corruption campaigns. The Taliban bypassed the gradual approach to establishing a culture of accountability by imposing discipline on society through dogma and force. The democratic alternative sought by the US and many Afghans requires time and forbearance.[iv]
Wherever fixed dates and quantitative standards determine necessary action, strategy does not define decision-making. If strategic leaders invest themselves in this kind of decision-making, there are natural and deleterious consequences for the preservation of national interests. These leaders would then have abandoned the deliberate pursuit of necessary and enduring objectives (i.e., strategy) and embraced a perpetual mode of reaction. It is the abandonment of strategy that is the logical consequence of overvaluing accountability in a campaign such as has been waged in Afghanistan.
Responsible operations in Afghanistan begin with the articulation of a strategy which links vital national interests to the means being committed. The ends do not necessarily justify the means, but patronage and the informal and illicit transactions it supports are integral to the functioning of Afghan society for the near-term. Putting anti-corruption ahead of a consolidation of the ruling elite in Afghanistan ignores that reality and thus jeopardizes the ends which the US and its international partners seek. It is a matter for policymakers and strategists to decide whether aiding Afghanistan despite the corruption is worth the inherent cost. Ignoring the context, however, will not obviate the need to address that fundamental decision. If the US cannot abide the inefficiencies of Afghan governance, it may be time to reevaluate the ends for which US forces have fought and find appropriate goals which preserve vital interests at an acceptable cost.
Robert Mihara is a U.S. Army strategist currently serving in Afghanistan. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Construction of a dam that the Soviets are building for the Naglu Power Project, Afghanistan. (James Burke/LIFE)
 Josh Hicks, “John Sopko, head of oversight for US work in Afghanistan, says major challenges remain,” Washington Post (31 March 2014): http://www.washingtonpost.com [accessed 31 March 2014]; Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Quarterly Report to the US Congress [hereafter Quarterly Report] (Arlington, Va.: SIGAR, 30 January 2014): ii-v.
 UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “Tokyo Conference Declaration,” 8 July 2012, http://www.unodc.org [accessed 2 April 2014]; SIGAR Quarterly Report (Apr. 2013), iv, 20-22.
 Robert Lamb and Brooke Shawn, Political Governance and Strategy in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: CSIS, April 2012), xi, 3-7, 40-44; Barnett Rubin, Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), Kindle edition, location 647-53.
 Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013), 101-2; F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom: text and documents, ed. Bruce Caldwell (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), 159.