A new audit by the US special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction says as much as $10 million a day in US aid to Afghanistan cannot be accounted for and could be making its way into terrorist hands.
The audit renewed questions about the accountability of hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid that seem to vanish on arrival in Afghanistan. The US has spent $70 billion since 2002 to improve security and promote development in Afghanistan but tracking use of the money has been hampered by the government, the audit said.
Millions of dollars in cash payments that regularly flow through the international airport in Kabul go unmonitored by cash counting machines there, and the serial numbers on cash disbursed to Afghan contractors and recipients of US aid payments are not being recorded, according to the report. Moreover, Afghan officials continue to allow VIPs to bypass the main security and customs screenings without verifying their declared cash with the currency counting machines.
It is believed that some of these VIPs may be using their immunity from inspection at the airports to smuggle aid money out of the country, for personal benefit or the benefit of others, including insurgents.
Efforts to trace the money were made more difficult in May, the report said, when President Hamid Karzai banned US Treasury auditors from the country’s Central Bank where they had been monitoring the flow of aid dollars. The report said working conditions for the Treasury advisers at the bank had become so “hostile” that the Treasury Department would make no effort to reinstate them.
The country’s central bank has been at the focus of attention since its former director, Abdul Qadir Fitrat, abruptly resigned in June and fled to the US, where he told authorities he feared he would be targeted for death by suspects he tried to prosecute for “stealing millions of dollars” from Kabul Bank, the country’s largest private lender. The bank nearly collapsed last year after it lost close to a billion dollars due to fraud, questionable lending practices, cronyism and overall mismanagement.
The billions in US aid to Afghanistan has been in return for its role as a partner in the 10-year-old US War on Terror, declared after the deadly 2001 attack on the US by Al Qaeda terrorists believed hiding in that South Asia nation. The use of those funds for the intended military and development purposes repeatedly has been questioned.
Herbert Richardson, Acting Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, described Afghanistan as a country “plagued by corruption, insurgency, and the narcotics trade. It is essential that we use all available tools to ensure that US dollars are protected from fraud and diversion to the insurgency,” he said.
The matter of accountability for US and other foreign aid dollars to Afghanistan came up last November when the Inspector General reported that US agencies working in Afghanistan “were providing more than $1 million in monthly salary payments to 900 Afghan government employees and technical advisers in 16 ministries and government offices.” The two largest recipients of those US funds were the Afghan Ministry of Education and President Karzai’s office.
“Neither the Afghan government nor international donors can account for the total number of government employees and technical advisers or identify how much recipients are paid in large part due to a general lack of transparency over that support,” last year’s report said.
The report released Wednesday said the ban on Treasury auditors was but one example of the government’s hindrance of international efforts to cleanup Afghanistan’s corrupt financial sector. The report also cited unwillingness by of the attorney general to prosecute those suspected of financial crimes.
The US has begun pulling military troops out of Afghanistan amid souring relations and the unpopularity of the costly war effort at home. The audit’s revelations have rekindled calls for the government to pull the plug on aid to Afghanistan altogether.
In Washington, Congressman Bruce Braley of Iowa said: “This report is very troubling and it underscores the need for us to get out of Afghanistan now. We’re blindly spending billions in Afghanistan while our own economy is teetering between an anemic recovery and the brink of a default. I’ve called for a true accounting of the cost of the war in Afghanistan since I came to Congress. Now, after almost a decade in Afghanistan, thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars misspent, it’s clear that the cost is too high. We need to end this quagmire immediately.”
(Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. is a veteran national and foreign correspondent who has worked at the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)