U.S. officials admit to fueling corruption in Afghanistan by flooding the country with money, turning a blind eye
About halfway into the 18-year war, Afghans stopped hiding how corrupt their country had become.
Dark money sloshed all around. Afghanistan’s largest bank liquefied into a cesspool of fraud. Travelers lugged suitcases loaded with $1 million, or more, on flights leaving Kabul.
Mansions known as “poppy palaces” rose from the rubble to house opium kingpins.
President Hamid Karzai won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes. He later admitted the CIA had delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it “nothing unusual.”
In public, as President Barack Obama escalated the war and Congress approved billions of additional dollars in support, the commander in chief and lawmakers promised to crack down on corruption and hold crooked Afghans accountable.
In reality, U.S. officials backed off, looked away and let the thievery become more entrenched than ever, according to a trove of confidential government interviews obtained by the Washington Post.
In the interviews, key figures in the war said Washington tolerated the worst offenders — warlords, drug traffickers, defense contractors — because they were allies of the United States.
But they said the U.S. government failed to confront a more distressing reality — that it was responsible for fueling the corruption, by doling out vast sums of money with limited foresight or regard for the consequences.
U.S. officials were “so desperate to have the alcoholics to the table, we kept pouring drinks, not knowing (or) considering we were killing them,” an unnamed State Department official told government interviewers.
The scale of the corruption was the unintended result of swamping the war zone with far more aid and defense contracts than impoverished Afghanistan could absorb. There was so much excess, financed by American taxpayers, that opportunities for bribery and fraud became almost limitless, according to the interviews.
“The basic assumption was that corruption is an Afghan problem and we are the solution,” Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department adviser and a New York University professor, told government interviewers. “But there is one indispensable ingredient for corruption — money — and we were the ones who had the money.”
To purchase loyalty and information, the CIA gave cash to warlords, governors, parliamentarians, even religious leaders, according to the interviews. The U.S. military and other agencies also abetted corruption by doling out payments or contracts to unsavory Afghan power brokers in a misguided quest for stability.
“We had partnerships with all the wrong players,” a senior U.S. diplomat told government interviewers. “The U.S. is still standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these people, even through all these years. It’s a case of security trumping everything else.”
Gert Berthold, a forensic accountant who served on a military task force in Afghanistan during the height of the war, from 2010 to 2012, said he helped analyze 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion to see who was benefiting.
The conclusion: About 40% of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials.
“And it was often a higher percent,” Berthold told government interviewers. “We talked with many former (Afghan) ministers, and they told us, you’re under-estimating it.”
Berthold said the evidence was so damning that few U.S. officials wanted to hear about it.