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Afghanistan reconstruction expert speaks at Pitt - The Pitt News

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Afghanistan reconstruction expert speaks at Pitt

John+Sopko%2C+the+special+inspector+general+for+Afghanistan+reconstruction%2C+spoke+at+Pitt+Wednesday+afternoon.+Jordan+Mondell+%7C+Staff+Photographer+
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, spoke at Pitt Wednesday afternoon. Jordan Mondell | Staff Photographer

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, spoke at Pitt Wednesday afternoon. Jordan Mondell | Staff Photographer

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, spoke at Pitt Wednesday afternoon. Jordan Mondell | Staff Photographer

By Andrew O'Brien / Staff Writer

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Americans may be concerned about dishonest public officials, but at least they don’t have to worry about bribing doctors to receive hospital care.

John Sopko, though, does.

Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, says Afghan citizens face systemic corruption daily in almost every facet of their public lives.

“Afghans regularly report that they pay bribes for almost all government services, including police, courts, health and education,” Sopko said. “I thought I knew something about corruption. Then I went to Afghanistan.”

During a lecture in Posvar Hall Tuesday, Sopko spoke on SIGAR’s efforts to rebuild post-war Afghanistan, drawing in about 50 students and faculty. The lecture, sponsored by the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, the University Center for International Studies and the Center for International Legal Education, meditated on the challenges the United States faces in Afghanistan as it tries to educate future foreign affairs officials on former mistakes, such as a lack of responsible oversight for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

The U.S. Congress created the office of SIGAR, which oversees the reconstruction of Afghanistan and provides feedback to Congress, in 2008. Since President Obama swore him in as SIGAR’s head official July 2, 2012, Sopko has been asking tough questions and challenging wasteful and fraudulent expenses.

“[The U.S.] went into Afghanistan with two goals: to kick the bad guys out and to make sure they stayed out,” Sopko said. “We have spent more money on reconstruction in the little country of Afghanistan [than we spent] reconstructing Europe after World War II.”

Unfortunately, Sopko said, Afghanistan’s government corruption and private contractors drained a huge portion of that taxpayer money. He said Afghan-led investigations have uncovered hundreds of “ghost schools” and “ghost teachers” — imaginary buildings and people that contractors used to justify their expenses.

When an audience member asked about the state of Afghanistan’s prewar corruption during a post-lecture Q&A session, Sopko said the United States’ willingness to pour endless amounts of money into the government probably just made the situation worse.

“The problem is, we have been afraid to say no to the Afghans,” Sopko said. “Counter-terrorism will always trump counter-corruption.”

Nicholas Caskey, a second-year Pitt grad student studying governance, shipped out to Afghanistan during his military career. He said the lecture resonated with him all the more because of his firsthand experience in the war-torn country, which led to his career studying governance.

“I’m not really surprised that [corruption] exists [there], but I’m surprised at the scope,” Caskey said after the lecture. “I’ve always thought of counter-terrorism and counter-corruption going hand in hand. It’s surprising to learn that they’re adversarial in nature.”

Jennifer Murtazashvili, a Pitt professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and GSPIA political scientist, originally reached out to Sopko to ask him to give a lecture at Pitt. She said she invited him because of the revolutionary work he and his organization have done in determining where the U.S. government has gone wrong in Afghanistan.

“[Sopko] highlighted the fact that management is important in terms of foreign affairs,” Murtazashvili said. “It’s not just spending money. How do we measure our outcomes? And what are we trying to do?”

Sopko tries his best to measure outcomes and define goals, but he’s fighting an uphill battle against years of entrenched corruption and mismanaged policies. He said the current mode of reconstruction is not sustainable, and said it’s urgent that we find a solution before it’s too late.

Without U.S. funding and involvement, he said, the current government of Afghanistan will probably collapse.

“We spent almost a trillion dollars in Afghanistan if you actually include the war fund,” Sopko said. “And if we don’t get it right now, [if we don’t solve] the corruption issue, it’s all for nothing, and that includes the 2,200 U.S. soldiers that lost their lives [during the war].”

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Afghanistan reconstruction expert speaks at Pitt