New Afghan leaders must root out corruption: US watchdog

WASHINGTON - Next month's Afghan elections provide a unique chance to usher in a new leadership capable of weeding out systemic corruption threatening to undermine the country's future, a top US official said Thursday.

America has poured some US$102 billion (S$130 billion) into Afghanistan since invading the country in 2001 to throw out the hardline Taliban militants.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan John Sopko termed it "spending on steroids" triggered by the war effort, but criticised the lack of proper audits and oversight, saying "we don't even know what we spent, where we spent it, 12 years into this."

The billions of dollars spent on the impoverished country has allowed corruption to flourish amid a weak and overwhelmed government, he told the Atlantic Council think tank.

"Allowing corruption to continue unabated will likely jeopardize every gain we have made over the last 12 years. In other words, rampant corruption may be the spoiler for 2014 and beyond," Sopko warned.

A stunning report by a local Afghan group estimated that some US$1.25 billion were paid by Afghans in bribes in 2012 - almost equivalent to half of the government's domestic revenues.

With Afghanistan now "the largest reconstruction effort of a single country in US history," Sopko called for a unified anti-corruption strategy for the nation between the United States and its global partners.

"I believe we have a window of opportunity to tackle corruption. If the elections go well, Afghanistan will have a new government," Sopko said.

"The new government will be dealing with an international community that has far less patience for corruption. It must act quickly to prove to the international community that it is serious about attacking the problem."

A recent US military report found that "corruption directly threatens the viability and legitimacy of the Afghan state," Sopko warned.

But Sopko, whose office has produced a series of reports highly critical of the waste and poor use of US taxpayer dollars, said there was still time to turn the tide.

The United States has already set up various task forces to try to track the "pervasive and interlinked nature of corruption," and Sopko outlined a series of steps that could be taken with the new Afghan leadership.

The measures include ensuring that both Washington and the government in Kabul hold contractors and employees accountable.

"We need to recognise that too much money, spent too quickly, with too few safeguards, is a recipe for disaster," Sopko said, adding the US should also support civil society.