Busted Extortion Ring Highlights Afghanistan's Worst Issue

Corruption remains endemic in the country, despite a recent glimmer of hope.

An Afghan man prepares local currency for exchange with his customers on May 20, 2012, in Kabul.

Corruption may plague Afghanistan long after American combat forces leave.

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In October 2001, airborne shock troops from the 75th Ranger Regiment conducted a textbook assault on a remote airstrip in Kandahar province. They successfully wrested control of the airfield from the Taliban, dealing a significant blow to the group's well-established stronghold in the region and beginning one of history’s most massive military incursions, now known as the War in Afghanistan.

[OPINION: The Afghan National Security Forces Remain a Work in Progress]

Fast-forward to January 2014, the same year the U.S. plans to recall all combat forces in favor of a yet-undefined military presence. A special agent working for a U.S. government watchdog visited Kandahar International Airport – 100 miles away from the remote airstrip and now a major hub for allied air forces – and stumbled upon a shakedown scheme organized by a Canadian contractor specializing in passenger and cargo transportation for allied countries. A manager for the company was extorting Sri Lankan employees for $600 each, saying it was a mandatory payment for airfare to Afghanistan.

At least five men were victims of the scheme before the special agent got wise and it was shut down, leading to the contracting company promising to fire that manager and agreeing to reimburse those affected. The manager was among 16 individuals and 15 companies operating in Afghanistan referred to the U.S. military for suspension or debarment.

Corruption of this and many other flavors continues to plague Afghanistan after more than 13 years of war: Half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe while asking for a public service in 2012, according to U.N. figures. The problem also has eaten away at the Afghan government's income, contributing to the country's potential inability to fund as much as two-thirds of its $7.5 billion budget in 2014. 

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, runs the organization that oversaw the trafficking bust, which was included along with other corruption and oversight issues in the office's latest report to Congress, released Wednesday. Since President Barack Obama appointed him to the position in 2012, Sopko has been “banging the drum” to anyone who will listen within the top echelons of government, pleading for U.S. leadership and the country's allies to develop a comprehensive approach to fighting corruption. And he isn’t the only one.

“The most significant threats to transition remain government ineffectiveness and endemic corruption,” a November 2013 Pentagon report to Congress said, mirroring almost the same text from a report earlier that year. “The Afghan government's counter-corruption efforts have shown no substantial progress, apart from the public acknowledgment that large-scale corruption exists.”

Still, in the fight against corruption so far, there's been very little luck. Does that seem surprising?

“No, it doesn’t,” Sopko tells U.S. News. “It’s a really tough issue.”

U.S. soldiers at the Kandahar airfield with other NATO soldiers on July 31, 2010, in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Corruption could deter foreign investment in Afghanistan now and after the U.S. leaves.

The fight against corruption is important, but no one wants to take it on because it's "a loser," Sopko says. 

"That could spoil everything. It could defeat our [counter-insurgency] strategy. It can drive people into the arms of the bad guys. It saps the economic strength of the government. It is corrupting the moral fiber of the youth and they see this type of activity.”

Perhaps most importantly, Sopko says, corruption has effectively torpedoed Afghanistan’s chances of attracting foreign investment, developing itself beyond its current status as a de facto welfare state, and surviving economically after the allied countries pull out their forces. 

Sopko's office, known as SIGAR, was formed by Congress in 2008 to account for the billions being poured into rebuilding Afghanistan. He cites a particular frustration, outlined in the latest report, with Afghan customs and border control. Tariffs and customs duties should account for as much as half of the country’s total domestic revenue, and yet – when unsupervised by American trainers – officials have been severely ineffective in collecting the money the country needs to survive, losing as much as tens of millions of dollars. 

[READ: Afghanistan on the Brink of Blacklisting, U.S. Watchdog Says]

Much of this is due to the ongoing drug trade. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, as well as private analysts, say opium farmers in Kandahar and Helmand provinces are going to reap a bumper crop this year, much larger than in 2013. Department of Homeland Security officials say the Afghans’ ability to police opium exports all but falls apart when U.S. agents aren’t there to offer direct supervision. 

The time the U.S. has to effectively combat the widespread corruption in Afghanistan is shrinking. Perhaps most challenging, as the SIGAR report points out, is accurately and clearly defining what corruption in Afghanistan means. And if the country does not stem the subsequent money laundering and terrorist financing that plagues the country's governance by June 2014, it faces a possible economic “blacklisting,” virtually ending its chances of attracting foreign trade.

“There’s going to be more drugs, less U.S. presence at the border, and therefore more money diverted that should be going to the central government to help divert all those programs,” Sopko says. “That’s why we’re concerned.”

But all is not yet lost in Afghanistan. The greatest change of the last year highlighted in SIGAR's report is a new political process that, frankly, took the world by surprise. On April 5, more than 7 million Afghans – a third of them women – traveled to 6,218 polling stations that Afghan security forces were able to keep safe and open. These new democratic practitioners braved real and widely broadcast threats from the Taliban for violent retaliation – threats that on multiple occasions yielded actual, deadly attacks.

[ALSO: Corruption Plagues Afghanistan Ahead of U.S. Withdrawal]

A runoff election now looks likely between the two front-runners, both of whom have committed to asking the U.S. and its allies to remain beyond 2014 to help maintain and advance the development work achieved so far.

“Just because the drawdown is planned for the end of December does not mean that the reconstruction ends,” Sopko says. “If anything, it means reconstruction is going to be far more important because that will be the main tool remaining to reach out and touch the Afghans and influence the development of that country [into] a reputable, responsible member of the international community.”

The NATO presence in Afghanistan is, at its root, designed to prevent the country from collapse and ensure it does not again become a haven for al-Qaida.

“Reconstruction becomes more important post-December 2014,” Sopko says.