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Paying Afghanistan’s Bills

By the end of the year, Congress will have appropriated more money for
Afghanistan’s reconstruction, when adjusted for inflation, than the
United States spent rebuilding 16 European nations after World War II
under the Marshall Plan.
A staggering portion of that money — $104 billion — has been
mismanaged and stolen. Much of what was built is crumbling or will be
unsustainable. Well-connected Afghans smuggled millions of stolen aid
money in suitcases that were checked onto Dubai-bound flights. The
Afghan government largely turned a blind eye to widespread
malfeasance. Even as revelations of fraud and abuse stacked up, the
United States continued shoveling money year after year because cutting
off the financial spigot was seen as a sure way to doom the war effort.
As the Pentagon winds down its combat mission there at the end of
the year, it’s tempting to think of the Afghan war as a chapter that is
coming to an end — at least for American taxpayers. But, as things stand,
the United States and its allies will continue paying Afghanistan’s bills for
the foreseeable future. That commitment was solidified Tuesday as the
American ambassador in Kabul and Afghanistan’s security adviser signed
a bilateral security agreement that will keep a small contingent of NATO
troops there for at least two years.
The United States and NATO partners recently agreed to spend $5.1
billion a year to pay for the army and police, until at least 2017. Western
donors are expected to continue to give billions more for reconstruction
and other initiatives, recognizing that Afghanistan won’t be weaned off
international aid anytime soon. In fact, the government appears to be broke.

A few weeks ago, Afghanistan’s Finance Ministry made an urgent
plea to the United States for a $537 million bailout, warning that it would
otherwise not be able to make payroll. That’s part of a broader,
worrisome trend. The International Monetary Fund estimates that
Afghanistan will face a financial gap of roughly $7.7 billion annually
between now and 2018.
If the flow of money is to keep going, the Afghan government has to
prove that it can be trusted. And, for its part, Congress should not
hesitate to cut off the aid if corruption remains unabated.
Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, who took office on
Monday, has pledged to stamp out graft. “I am not corrupt, and I am not
going to encourage corruption, tolerate it or become the instrument,” the
president, a former World Bank executive, told the BBC in an interview.
That will be easier said than done in a country where back-room
deals are the norm. Mr. Ghani can show he is serious by appointing and
empowering a new attorney general willing to take on unscrupulous
officials. His proposal to lead a new procurement board is commendable
because it would make him personally accountable.
Of the $104 billion that American lawmakers have appropriated for
Afghan reconstruction, nearly $16 billion remains unspent, according to
John Sopko, the inspector general who is overseeing the reconstruction
effort. As one of the poorest nations on earth, Afghanistan clearly has
plenty of needs. But the American agencies tasked with spending the
money must do a better job identifying priorities, setting realistic goals
and adopting stronger safeguards.
Delivering a speech at Georgetown University recently, Mr. Sopko
marveled at the Marshall Plan comparison. “What have we gotten for the
investment?” he asked.

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