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Widespread corruption is one of the main barriers to a stable Afghanistan. U.S. officials have long said it undermines support for the government and helps fuel the Taliban insurgency.

Despite U.S. effort to train Afghan investigators and help build corruption cases, NPR's Tom Bowman reports the problem is as bad as ever.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: For years the U.S. has battled corruption in Afghanistan. It's created several task forces. One is called Transparency. A new one is being set up to be based in Washington, they're calling this one the Illicit Activities Initiative for Afghanistan.

Not long ago, while reporting from Afghanistan, I met the American in charge of anti-corruption efforts in Kabul. He's Brigadier General Rick Waddell. He says the U.S. is working closely with the Afghan government to bring corrupt officials to justice.

BRIG. GENERAL RICK WADDELL: Ideally you would investigate and prosecute, sentence and imprison these sorts of people. But this isn't going to happen overnight.

BOWMAN: So when you come to a place like this and say, I'm working anti-corruption and people say the entire government is corrupt.

WADDELL: I would say that we work with good Afghans at all levels of the government. What we tell them is let's go after the ones we can. You go after lower-hanging fruit to make a difference.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: The real problem with the low hanging fruit is why are they low hanging?

BOWMAN: Anthony Cordesman is a defense analyst in Washington who has written extensively on Afghanistan.

CORDESMAN: Because they don't have political support or because somebody wants to use an ax to take them out of power.

BOWMAN: Meaning they weren't big enough players to matter.

The problem is the U.S. has had little success going after senior Afghan officials accused of corruption - those with ties to President Hamid Karzai.

American officials tell NPR they've helped prepare more than a half dozen high-profile corruption cases against government ministers, provincial governors, senior military officials. All the cases are languishing in the Justice Ministry, they say.

I found one example not far from General Waddell's office in Kabul. We're standing outside of one the symbols of corruption here in Afghanistan. It's the Mohammad Daud Khan military hospital. And it's here that the Americans allege that the man in control of this hospital, General Ahmad Zia Yaftali, stole tens of millions of dollars' worth of drugs and pharmaceuticals and sold them off.

That's the allegation. Here's what happened. General Yaftali was removed from running the hospital a year-and-a-half ago.

NADER NADERY: He was fired, was appointed somewhere else, but no prosecution yet.

BOWMAN: That's Nader Nadery, a former member of the Afghan Human Rights Commission. Nadery has joined the Americans in pressing the Karzai government to move forward on this and other cases.

NADERY: I asked for the president not only to remove those people who are known for their bad practices and undermining his own legacy, but also to start prosecuting people.

BOWMAN: Nadery never heard back from Karzai's office. Meanwhile, American investigators working on the anti-corruption task forces have left in frustration. Others privately admit their efforts have achieved little. They estimate that hundreds of millions of American dollars have been lost to corruption.

Some analysts, like Anthony Cordesman, say the U.S. is partly to blame for the corruption. It flooded the country with money, but didn't insist on monitoring how it was spent. And several top current and former officials tell NPR the issue of corruption never got the attention it deserved in Washington.

SETH JONES: Administration officials certainly talked about the importance of anti-corruption efforts.

BOWMAN: Seth Jones served as an adviser to the American command in Afghanistan last year and now works for the RAND Corporation.

JONES: But when it came to specific, concrete, sustained efforts to target and reduce corruption within the Afghan government, there was not a lot of stomach for it.

BOWMAN: So because officials believed they needed Karzai to fight the Taliban, they were reluctant to cut off aid if he didn't deal with corruption. Not everyone's given up. John Sopko is the new special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. The man he replaced told Congress in December that corruption in Afghanistan is almost insurmountable.

JOHN SOPKO: I can't assess that and I wouldn't want to assess that. And I'm approaching this job by not looking backward.

BOWMAN: What he sees in front of him is a real challenge. Sopko says it's significant that President Karzai just signed a pledge during an international donors' conference in Tokyo.

SOPKO: And it makes fighting corruption a key goal. The bottom line is we are going to hold everybody accountable.

BOWMAN: Accountable for the money still to be spent in Afghanistan. The United States and others have pledged to help the Afghan government in the coming years to the tune of $16 billion. Tom Bowman, NPR News.

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