The old saying holds true when it comes to how the West went into Afghanistan.
“You go to bed with dogs, you wake up with fleas,” said John Sopko, U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. “That happened in Afghanistan.”
And he warns that is complicating efforts to try and root out systemic problems like corruption and the expansion of the opium trade.
Sopko sat down for an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson while visiting Ottawa for meetings with officials at Global Affairs Canada.
In the discussion, Sopko said the challenges facing both donor countries contributing aid to the troubled country, and those like the U.S. deploying fresh batches of soldiers to its regions, stem to a large degree from going in without a clear understanding of exactly who Western countries were empowering when they set about replacing the Taliban with local leaders.
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Many of them, however, had ties to the same group the West wanted to defeat — now, the longer-term consequences are being felt.
“We empowered a lot of these warlords,” Sopko said, pointing to corruption as one of the major problems facing countries trying to change the system.
“Now we’re stuck with them, and we’ve got to do something with them.”
So how does one deal with a problem like corruption?
It has consistently stymied efforts in countries around the world, as corruption is not limited to Afghanistan.
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But Sopko says it’s time for donor countries to take a harder stance and commit to three clear actions.
“Stop supporting them. Identify them. Apply real conditions,” he said, pointing to the expansion of opium production in the country. The illicit trade makes matters worse by creating even more opportunities for the Taliban and corrupt officials to tax profits and extract bribes.
For example, he said, local leaders taking bribes or failing to crack down on their own jurisdictions should be made aware not doing so could cost their families things like visas.
“We have to be brave enough as a donor to say no to the Afghans. And for too long, we’ve thought if we say no, they won’t like us, they won’t take our money,” Sopko said. “Of course they’ll take our money.”
Canada no longer maintains troops in Afghanistan but NATO and the United States do.
Roughly 15,000 U.S. soldiers are deployed there.
Earlier this summer, there were reports of preliminary peace talks between the Taliban and senior American officials in the region.
Canada is the ninth-largest donor to reconstruction projects in the country.
It has spent roughly $2.8 billion in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2016, and recommitted an additional $465 million in 2016 to help with the cost of the Afghan security forces and empowering women and girls.
Watch an extended interview with John Sopko below