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Corruption in Afghanistan offers lessons for billions going to Ukraine

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko speaks in April during a hearing of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee concerning the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sopko says the U.S. also needs to keep an eye on the billions of dollars provided to Ukraine.
Alex Brandon
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko speaks in April during a hearing of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee concerning the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sopko says the U.S. also needs to keep an eye on the billions of dollars provided to Ukraine.

WASHINGTON — Just last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired all two dozen regional military recruiters. Investigators found they were coming up with bogus documents to show a potential recruit was unfit for military duty. The price? $10,000 each.

And a few days later, the New York Times reported that a Ukrainian weapons dealer was inflating prices. This follows the dismissal of the chair of Ukraine's Supreme Court in May after being accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes. And before that Zelenskyy removed six deputy ministers and five regional administrators on charges of – you guessed it – corruption.

That's not all. Last fall, the U.S. Agency for International Development's Dekleptification Guide reported that costs for large-scale state construction projects in Ukraine are inflated by 30 percent, including 10 percent kickbacks for government officials and their friends.

None of this comes as a surprise to Transparency International, which tracks corruption in government. It lists Ukraine as the second most corrupt state in Europe — after Russia.

Battling corruption

Zelenskyy and his aides say they are trying to turn things around, and point to their swift action against corrupt officials. But now there are calls in Congress to appoint a U.S. special inspector general for Ukraine, much like it did for Afghanistan.

Lawmakers point to both corruption and the scale of U.S. military, financial and humanitarian aid – which now stands at some $113 billion. And the Biden Administration has asked Congress for another $20 billion. The House-passed defense authorization bill calls for the creation of a inspector general for Ukraine; the Senate measure does not. That means the issue will be worked out in a conference committee.

NPR sat down with the current Inspector General for Afghanistan, John Sopko who just published his 60th quarterly report that includes lessons learned – for Ukraine.

One problem, he says, is the volume of money.

"Well, we tend to throw a lot of money at a problem and we ignore the fact that you overwhelm a country," Sopko says. "Now, in this case, in Ukraine, we're spending a lot of money on weaponry. And this isn't a bad thing. It needs to be done. But the warning bell is if you if you send too much money too fast and you don't have enough oversight, you're going to have wastage and other problems."

And of course another lesson for Ukraine, he says, is well known.

"The other issue is the corruption issue. That was something that was endemic in Afghanistan and it is endemic in Ukraine," he says. "Now, the good news is that the president of Ukraine and a number of people around him are trying to do something about the corruption. But it is problematic. We had warlords and oligarchs in Afghanistan. You got oligarchs in Ukraine right now. And so that's a big problem."

Sopko says besides the huge flow of money and the history of corruption, there are large numbers of people trying to help.

"The other big lesson to be learned is we approach these problems with what we call a whole of government approach," Sopko says. "That means we have multiple agencies. I think we have over 17 different agencies currently U.S. alone, currently operating in Ukraine. There are like 30 some countries operating in Ukraine. A number of international organizations. So you got the EU, you got all the EU countries. That is overwhelmingly confusing and it needs to be coordinated."

Sopko says it's not only important to coordinate, keep an eye on the money and how it's spent. But you can't do it from Washington, or London or Berlin or even Poland next door.

"We need people on the ground," Sopko says. "You cannot do oversight remotely. I don't care what people tell you. You cannot do it. Trust me. I've been doing this for almost 50 years."

Still, that could pose problems for investigators in a war zone where there are no U.S. military "boots on ground," like the American forces who assisted Sopko and his investigators as they traveled around Afghanistan. Ukraine, with its vast front-line, Russian air and missile strikes is far more hazardous.

A question of oversight

Sopko says there are now three U.S. inspectors general in Ukraine. One for the Pentagon, another for the State Department and still another for USAID. Each is looking at their own department.

That's why the White House opposes a special inspector general for Ukraine, saying in a statement last month there are "multiple investigations regarding every aspect of (U.S.) assistance."

"I mean, my experience is the more the merrier," Sopko says. "A special IG has jurisdiction to look at the whole of the government in the whole of governments. That's how they set up when special IGs are created. They can look at all agencies, any U.S. government agency operating in the country or the area of authority."

Looking back on Afghanistan and his work since 2012, was it successful?

"Well, those people we indicted got convicted," he said. "Those people who committed fraud that we could find, we punished them. Did it fail? Well, I didn't do the war fighting. We gave them the facts of what the problems were. You know, I can't do anything more than that. And no IG can do that. Our job is to present the facts and make recommendations on how to improve things."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 17, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A typo misstated the amount military officials reportedly accepted for bogus documents as $10,00. The correct amount is $10,000.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.