Kabul Bank’s executives were accused of doling out nearly $1 billion in illicit loans to bank shareholders and other prominent Afghans. (Musadeq Sadeq — Associated Press)

But the senior military officer tasked with combating corruption in Afghanistan asserts that Afghan officials now recognize the long-term costs of the problem, and he says the Americans understand that their failure to properly oversee the huge sums of money the West has delivered to the country have helped fuel the problem.

“Afghans recognize – I mean very clearly – the threat to the Afghan state of corruption and organized crime,” Army Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster said Thursday in a rare briefing. “And what’s different now than maybe a couple of years ago is we have a common understanding of that problem as a basis for common action.”

U.S. military officials have long stressed that widespread corruption in Afghanistan threatens to undermine battlefield gains in the country. But actually reducing corruption in a desperately poor country that has seen decades of conflict has proven both practically and politically difficult.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly vowed to make a priority of anti-corruption efforts – most recently at an international conference on Afghanistan in December – only to condemn American attempts to combat corruption as interference in internal Afghan affairs. His moves to quash investigations into high-level officials in his government forced the Obama administration to back off a more aggressive approach to corruption.

Last year, the country’s entire financial system nearly collapsed after revelations that the leadership of Kabul Bank had funneled nearly $1 billion in illicit loans to shareholders and prominent government officials.

U.S. officials, meantime, have continued to fret about the consequences of corruption.

“Corruption makes a mockery of the rule of law,” Adm. Mike Mullen told Congress last fall, before he stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It de-legitimizes the very governing institutions to which we will be transitioning authority, and it sends an aggrieved populace further into the waiting arms of the Taliban.” 

Speaking to reporters from Kabul on Thursday, McMaster said the goal has been to reduce corruption – not win at an “all-or-nothing” contest. And he dismissed the “myth” that the Afghan government has always had a natural affinity for corruption, saying that that belief was “bigotry masquerading as cultural sensitivity.”  

“This is a problem fundamentally of political will, and there’s a need to generate the political will to take on this problem set…. I think now, because we’ve worked on this problem together, we can also see the long-term costs of inaction against these networks,” McMaster said.   

Whether that recognition will succeed in reducing corruption over the long term is far from certain. Transparency International still ranks Afghanistan as the one of the most corrupt countries in the world, tied with Myanmar, and less corrupt than only Somalia. In describing various anti-corruption reforms and auditing measures, McMaster did not cite any high-level prosecutions of senior Afghan officials.

Among the clearest signs of progress, McMaster said, may involve reforms to “make sure we’re not part of the problem,” with international aid continuously diverted to the insurgency or organized crime networks. 

Officials, McMaster said, “follow ... where our money goes much better than before.”