US finds Afghan anti-corruption efforts 'deeply troubling'

 

Kabul, Afghanistan

Two small machines sit on a shelf in a closet at Kabul International Airport, surrounded by cardboard boxes and idle desk fans.

The machines are bulk currency counters, provided by the United States to help Afghanistan stop cash smuggling estimated last year at $4.5 billion.

When U.S. investigators visited in September, they found the counters in working order, but they "did not observe any use of the machines."

Not far away, the investigators found that an airport lounge that allowed departing VIPs to bypass security and customs screenings had been expanded. The new area was designated for those the Afghan government deemed "very, very important persons."

The saga of the cash counters, described in a report released Tuesday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, is emblematic of the difficulties looming over international plans to provide Afghanistan with long-term economic support following the departure of U.S. combat troops two years from now.

U.S. and other donors pledged $4 billion a year after 2014 at an international conference in Tokyo this year. But the money is contingent on Afghanistan meeting a series of good-government and anti-corruption benchmarks.

Threats to curtail aid have been made and abandoned many times in the past in the face of impervious corruption in Afghanistan. But the Tokyo agreement noted that "business as usual" could not continue, and both sides agreed on the need to "move from promise to practice."

In October, Afghan President Hamid Karzai fulfilled one of the Tokyo commitments by promising to hold the country's next presidential election on time, setting the vote for April 5, 2014. Postponement of the last election, which gave Karzai a second term in 2009, contributed to widespread charges of electoral fraud.

But Afghanistan has yet to pass an electoral law that would allow foreigners to oversee the upcoming vote, and elections experts say that they confront substantial organizational work.

The more immediate challenges are corruption and good-government practices. Specific Tokyo benchmarks remain unaddressed, including putting those responsible for the failure of Kabul Bank on trial and implementing money laundering measures.

Smuggling bulk cash is one of the principal forms of laundering money "to finance terrorist, narcotics and other illicit operations," the SIGAR report said. It is also one of the primary ways that senior Afghan government officials are suspected of transferring ill-gotten gains to safety outside the country.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul tried to address the problem in 2010 by placing bulk currency counters at the international airport to get a sense of how much cash was leaving the country. The Afghan government pledged to adopt regulations within a year to govern bulk transfers of cash.

The cash counters also are designed to capture currency serial numbers and create databases to be transmitted via the Internet to a records center in Kabul, where the information could be used by law enforcement authorities.

A contract was awarded in 2010 to install the currency counters in the airport customs area, but the machines were not installed until nearly a year later, the SIGAR report said, "in part because U.S. and Afghan officials disagreed on where to put them."

In April, U.S. investigators found that the machines were being used to count cash, but they discovered that the serial numbers on the bills were not being recorded and that VIP passengers, who presumably had cash to carry, were allowed to bypass all screenings and use a separate entrance to the airport's secured area.

Despite this lack of cooperation, the government "continued to make public commitments to combat corruption and institute stronger border controls," including at the Tokyo conference in July, the report noted.

When investigators returned Sept. 20, they found the currency machines had been moved to "a small, closet-like area." The machines were plugged in and apparently in working order, but they were not connected to the Internet and were not being used.

In addition, VIPs continued to be exempt from screening, although "many of the individuals who traffic money leave from the VIP area," according to a Department of Homeland Security official who accompanied the SIGAR investigators.

"A new Very Very Important Persons (VVIP) lounge was built to provide easier boarding access for high-ranking officials, again allowing transit without main customs screenings or use of a bulk currency counter," the report said.

In its conclusion, the SIGAR report called the situation "deeply troubling."

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