Billions in U.S. Aid Vanished in Afghanistan, Will Ukraine Be the Same?

A year after the Taliban's takeover of Kabul began a scrambled U.S. airlift out of a two-decade conflict in Afghanistan, the United States once again finds itself devoting billions of dollars of military and economic aid to a partner at war — this time to Ukraine, in its fight against Russia.

The U.S. had devoted at least $134 billion trying to shore up the Afghan government and a 2020 report by the congressionally mandated Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that around $19 billion out of the approximately $63 billion in assistance reviewed was lost to waste, corruption and abuse.

A further untold sum vanished when the Taliban successfully established its Islamic Emirate the following year. Today, experts warn that a substantial portion of U.S. aid to Ukraine may also be at risk without greater oversight measures.

John Sopko, a veteran U.S. government watchdog with 30 years of experience scrutinizing federal spending, has led SIGAR for more than a decade. Throughout the past three U.S. administrations, he has produced annual "Lessons Learned" reports involving comprehensive interviews and insights diagnosing deep-rooted issues that now provide some vital answers as to why the Afghan government collapsed so quickly.

Given the outcome of the longest war in U.S. history, it appears that too few decision-makers took his advice seriously at the time.

"I sometimes feel like Cassandra, you know, in Greek mythology — cursed to give accurate predictions, but they're never believed," Sopko told Newsweek.

Sopko emphasized that the conflict in Ukraine was very different than that of Afghanistan — as Afghanistan was different than Iraq, Vietnam and others on the long list of U.S. interventions abroad. But he identified "similarities" and "parallels" in the way the U.S. was going about devoting billions of dollars in both economic and military assistance to the Eastern European nation under attack by neighboring Russia.

After Biden approved another $1 billion-dollar tranche last week to Kyiv last week, part of a $40-billion dollar allotment signed off by Congress in May, Sopko said "we saw the same thing with Afghanistan when we poured a heck of a lot of money" in an effort to support the government there.

"I'm not saying that's a wrong thing to do; I'm not saying that the Ukrainian people are evil people, that they're going to steal things and all that; I'm not saying that," Sopko told Newsweek. "I'm just saying anytime you throw that much money that fast into one country, you should have oversight baked in from the beginning."

"And I don't see that now," he added. "I see the regular oversight agencies stretched very thin."

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Ukrainian gunmen fire a U.S.-made M777 howitzer from their position on the front line in Kharkiv region on August 1, amid Russia's war on Ukraine. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP/Getty Images

In order to improve the visibility and transparency of funding for the Ukraine war effort, Sopko suggests creating a new special inspector general agency devoted to the country.

"I actually think that, if there's any example where you need a special IG, Ukraine is it," Sopko said, "because there's so much money being spent so quickly."

Such oversight, he argued, could also be applied to other conflicts, such as that in which the U.S. has involved itself in Syria. He emphasized, however, that he had no interest in filling that position.

Gabriela Iveliz Rosa-Hernandez, a research associate at the Arms Control Association, agreed that a special inspector general could help address the task of tracking where U.S. assistance ended up in Ukraine, particularly in the security realm.

"The U.S. could also appoint a special inspector general of Ukraine to specifically oversee assistance to Ukraine," Rosa-Hernandez told Newsweek. "This is critical since Ukraine needs assistance to defend its sovereign territory against Russia."

But she noted this was a particularly intractable mission, given the scale of U.S. assistance and the flow of lighter weapons that are notoriously difficult to trace. That has been the experience in Afghanistan, where the Taliban acquired a fair share of U.S. equipment, and in Iraq and Syria, where countless arms intended for partners on the ground ended up in the hands of militant groups like the Islamic State (ISIS).

"Oversight in active combat is an incredibly difficult task, especially when it comes to small arms," Rosa-Hernandez said. "In the past few months, the Ukrainian government has undoubtedly shown that it is willing to be transparent with its partners through the establishment of oversight mechanisms."

But she noted that input from Ukrainian citizens is necessary for the process to succeed.

"However, civil society has a role to play when it comes to improving Ukraine's capacity for the absorption of the security assistance sent to Ukraine," Rosa-Hernandez said. "Ukrainian civil society experts should be systematically involved in advising the Ukrainian government via workshops, roundtables, and/or working groups while taking into account security concerns."

She noted that the large difference in length and scope make U.S. aid comparisons between Afghanistan and Ukraine difficult.

"The main difference is that the U.S. committed far more financial assistance to Afghanistan in a span of 20 years," Rosa-Hernandez said.

But she noted that it is important to draw upon previous experience to improve the current strategy.

"The main lesson that can be applied to the massive sums of aid being provided to Ukraine today is that poor military equipment accountability practices are common in active combat zones," Rosa-Hernandez said. "Proper accountability for the assistance provided needs to be a top priority for both American and Ukrainian policymakers as the fighting continues."

In Washington, a push for more stringent observation over the flow of U.S. money to Ukraine has come from both sides of the aisle. The $40 billion-dollar package to Ukraine was delayed in May by a rebel vote from Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. While the measure ultimately passed, fellow Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa also raised oversight concerns the following month, setting the tone for growing skepticism from the right wing of the Republican Party over where the U.S. funds might ultimately land.

Conservatives are not alone in speaking out on the issue. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also called for robust oversight mechanisms.

Kyiv, for its part, has taken a defensive position regarding allegations that U.S. aid may be misused.

A CBS News report last week originally alleged that only about 30% of U.S. military assistance is making it to the front lines of Ukraine's fight with Russia, citing Lithuanian NGO Blue/Yellow leader Jonas Oehman, as a source. Shortly after publication, and ahead of a now-delayed documentary, the article was updated to reflect a new reality on the ground after the arrival of U.S. defense attaché Brigadier General Garrick M. Harmon earlier this month. The updated article noted that the flow of supplies to the front lines has improved significantly.

But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba still took exception to the amended report, calling it a "welcome first step," yet "not enough."

"You have misled a huge audience by sharing unsubstantiated claims and damaging trust in supplies of vital military aid to a nation resisting aggression and genocide," Kuleba tweeted Monday. "There should be an internal investigation into who enabled this and why."

More than a week before the CBS report emerged, Newsweek also spoke to Oehman, who said at the time that "unfortunately, bureaucracy, kleptocracy, and sometimes just sheer chaos, do not allow you to do everything by the book" when it comes to providing frontline supplies.

Ukraine, which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has long struggled with a reputation for corruption. It ranks 122nd in the world with a score of 32 out of 100 on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, tied with Eswatini and just above Gabon, Mexico, Niger and Papua New Guinea at 124th and 31 points.

Afghanistan, for its part, falls far lower than Ukraine at 174th and a score of 16, as does Iraq at 157th with 23 points and Syria at 178th with 16 points. The U.S. ranks 27th with 67 points, while Russia sits at 136th with a score of 29.

Transparency Initiative senior analyst Oleksandr Kalitenko, who helped formulate Ukraine's score on the Corruption Perception Index, told Newsweek that "it is important to remember that it is the perception of corruption that the CPI measures, and not the actual level of corruption."

Kalitenko explained that Ukraine's score was based on the results of research on corruption conducted by nine reputable international organizations. He also offered some insight into why Ukraine's score had fallen from the previous year.

Among the factors he cited for this was "the overall growing pressure on the anti-corruption ecosystem, including because of the long absence of permanent managers in institutions."

"Thus, the competition for the selection of the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecution Office (SAPO) head continued for more than a year," Kalitenko said, "and the competition for the selection of the Asset Recovery and Management Agency (ARMA) head was launched only in the autumn of 2021, almost two years after the dismissal of the previous head of the Agency."

Two additional issues were "the delay in the implementation of the judicial reform, despite the adoption of the legislative framework for its start" and "the postponement of the adoption of the Anti-Corruption Strategy in the second reading, which would help to comprehensively solve several problems with corruption in Ukraine."

The ongoing conflict has only further strained Ukraine's anti-corruption infrastructure.

"While it is unrealistic to expect that the country can progress all outstanding anti-corruption reforms while the war is still raging," Kalitenko said, "some must be tackled right away."

He pointed out that SAPO leadership was only appointed last month, while the search goes on to fill the top spots at ARMA and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU). He said these unfilled positions are "a weakness for Ukraine, especially if combined with challenges in the institutions' independence and enabling legislative framework."

Kalitenko said the delays have negatively affected the efficiency of the agencies.

"For example, even after the recent appointment of the SAPO head, SAPO's operational independence still needs to be strengthened, its leadership authority expanded, and risks of unjustified interference minimized," he said, "even when the war with Russia affected the full-fledged operation of Ukraine's anti-corruption infrastructure, when some of its resources are now aimed at bringing the victory closer."

He also noted that "the implementation of the judicial reform did not finish yet" after the country finally adopted the Anti-Corruption Strategy, shortly after being recommended for European Union "candidate" status by the European Commission. This status, he argued, should prove "a new incentive for successful transformations and reducing corruption" in Ukraine.

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Taliban fighters in armored vehicles supplied by the U.S. army to the collapsed Afghan National Army take part in a military street parade in Herat on April 19. Unlike the Afghan military, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have managed to stave off Russian advances into the capital. MOHSEN KARIMI/AFP/Getty Images

Allegations of corruption in Ukraine have often been cited as a leading factor in the unwillingness of the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance to allow Ukraine into its ranks, a bid that Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited as a compelling factor in his decision to launch a "special military operation" against the country on February 24. Even U.S. President Joe Biden asserted last year that Ukraine must "clean up corruption" before it could be admitted to the bloc.

Steven Myers, a former member of the U.S. State Department Advisory Committee on International Economic policy and the National Security Membership Committee, who founded the aerospace and defense management consulting firm Steven Myers & Associates, said he too remained wary about Ukraine's apparent lack of transparency.

"There are no effective mechanisms in place in Ukraine for accountability of the aid being provided," Myers told Newsweek. "The risk is very real."

He argued that, for 20 years, each Ukrainian administration, including that of President Volodymyr Zelensky, "has had significant issues with corruption. And beyond the potential for bribes or other illicit cash outflows, he said that "the more serious issue is the military equipment and weapons being provided."

"There is little to prevent a field commander from diverting some of the equipment to buyers, aka the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians or whomever," Myers added, "while claiming the equipment and weapons were destroyed."

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Program, also expressed concern regarding possible corruption in Ukraine, especially the effect that specific incidents could have on the current bipartisan support for the U.S. role in the conflict.

"If examples of corruption came out, it would undermine this bipartisan consensus," Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel who previously worked at the Office of Management and Budget, told Newsweek, "and that would be extremely damaging, because Ukrainians need what might be years of high levels of support from the United States and NATO."

He too emphasized stark differences in the circumstances of Afghanistan and Ukraine, while at the same time arguing that the appointment of a special inspector general could help prevent frivolous or illicit spending. Like Sopko, he also acknowledged that SIGAR's years-long warnings went largely unheeded.

"Every commander in Afghanistan bemoaned corruption," Cancian said. "At the end of the day, the Afghans kept on saying, 'Well, if you cut back on the aid, we're gonna collapse; You gotta keep the aid coming,' and Ukraine might be inclined to do the same thing."

Kyiv has so far successfully lobbied to attain more advanced and more costly weapons systems from Washington. While Zelensky's desperate pleas for a no-fly zone that could put NATO and Russia in direct conflict have been sidestepped by the West, the U.S. has provided cutting-edge arms such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which Ukrainian forces have reportedly employed to deadly effect against Russian troops.

As the amount and grade of assistance increased, however, Cancian warned that "the risks are increasing." He boiled them down to two major contingencies.

The first concerns the possible rerouting of arms to third-party hostile actors.

"The risk with weapons is that they might get diverted," Cancian said, "that some of these Javelins or anti-tank weapons or even Stingers might end up in the wrong hands because somebody in Ukraine diverted them and sold them to some other party."

"That would be enormously damaging if some terrorist group in the Middle East showed up with Javelins that came out of Ukraine," he added.

The second risk entails U.S.-supplied weapons killing civilians in a war in which both sides regularly have accused the other of committing atrocities. Cancian warned of a scenario in which such equipment could be "used not on the Russians, but on the Ukrainian population, particularly Russian speakers" that comprised majorities in the eastern and southern regions in which Moscow's troops have concentrated their occupation.

In addition to Ukraine's NATO aspirations, Moscow's claims of defending the Russophone community in Ukraine have also been key to the Kremlin's war narrative.

Cancian dismissed the argument from Ukraine that greater oversight runs the risk of slowing down the supply of vital weapons during the heat of the conflict. He said there are "risks in undermining the consensus about the aid," and argued that "these mechanisms might feel intrusive but, in fact, they're pretty standard for U.S. aid."

"If there was a narrative arising, as there was in Afghanistan, that this is a corrupt country and the money you give them is just gonna get siphoned off," he added, "then that long-term support that they desperately need to sustain a conflict against Russia would start to evaporate."

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A Russian soldier holds up what is purported to be a U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missile allegedly seized along with foreign weapons provided to Ukrainian forces by the United States, United Kingdom, Poland and Sweden in this footage shared August 7 by the Russian Defense Ministry. Newsweek could not independently verify the claims. Russian Ministry of Defense

Reached for comment, the State Department defended Washington's approach to offering Kyiv assistance, which a spokesperson told Newsweek "has been flowing and will continue to flow across all sectors—including security, economic and governance, and humanitarian assistance."

"This continuing assistance means more weapons such as artillery, armored vehicles, and advanced air defense systems for Ukraine," the State Department spokesperson said. "It will help Ukraine keep vital civilian infrastructure like schools and hospitals open. And it will support those from Ukraine who have been displaced from their homes both inside the country and who are now refugees in neighboring countries."

Speaking to the U.S. strategy of providing aid abroad, the spokesperson said that "the United States works with partners to ensure humanitarian assistance is delivered directly to the most vulnerable populations in need, including those internally displaced within Ukraine." And "despite the logistical and security challenges, U.S. humanitarian assistance has reached at least 5.2 million people in Ukraine," according to the spokesperson.

The spokesperson also argued that President Joe Biden's administration was working directly with Zelensky's government to ensure all forms of assistance was falling into the right hands.

"The United States takes very seriously our responsibility to protect American defense technologies and prevent their diversion or illicit proliferation," the spokesperson said.
"We are actively engaging with the Government of Ukraine to ensure accountability of assistance, even amidst the challenging conflict environment in which it is operating."

"The United States works with partners in the field to ensure aid reaches those who need it most," the spokesperson added.  "We take all possible steps to ensure that U.S.-funded assistance reaches those for whom it is intended and carefully monitor the risks associated with providing aid, targeting the most vulnerable populations during this period of severe economic deterioration and unprecedented humanitarian need."

Such measures, according to the spokesperson, were standard procedures for providing such aid.

"We require our partners to have proper safeguards and risk mitigation systems in place to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those who need it most," the spokesperson said. "We require our humanitarian partners to implement comprehensive risk mitigation plans and include details for our approval within each proposal they submit for funding."

And, so far, "the Ukrainian Government has also shown they take this responsibility seriously as well," the spokesperson said.

"We welcome the Ukrainian Government's recent announcement of their formation of a new commission to strengthen monitoring of donated military equipment," the spokesperson added. "We are confident in the Ukrainian government's commitment to appropriately safeguard and account for transferred U.S.-origin defense equipment."

Such assurances, however, have yet to quell the burgeoning calls among analysts, lawmakers and former officials in support of even tighter, more transparent mechanisms. Just short of a year on from Biden's exit from the "forever war" in Afghanistan, concerns attached to U.S. aid for Ukraine are amplified by uncertainties over the timeline and scope of the country's conflict with Russia.

Sopko, who is set to enter his second year observing Afghanistan under Taliban control, echoed Cancian's emphasis on the importance of bipartisanship, including on the part of the watchdogs themselves. He argued that an open, non-partisan process was needed in both the executive and legislative branches in order to provide an honest accounting of the conflict and avoid the pitfalls of the past.

"That's what we really need," Sopko said, "And if we don't, then we're just going to be on that hamster wheel of history where we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again."

Newsweek has contacted the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C. as well as the offices of Senators Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren for comment.

This article has been updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson.