Is State Dept. Trying to Muzzle Afghanistan Watchdog?
Policy + Politics

Is State Dept. Trying to Muzzle Afghanistan Watchdog?

REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A battle for independence seems to be breaking out between the State Department and the federal watchdog in charge of keeping tabs on the entire $110 billion reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. 

Last week, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that U.S. Embassy officials in Kabul informed his team “out of the blue” that it would have to reduce its staff by 40 percent over the next year. 

Related: What the Pentagon is Hiding from Its Auditors 

The IG said he was told the cuts were “non-negotiable” and warned that they could have a devastating impact on his team’s mission overseeing the billions of tax dollars getting pumped into Afghanistan. The implication was that the State Dept. was attempting to muzzle a watchdog that has been extremely critical of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, frequently releasing reports flagging wasteful spending, ineffective programs, fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars. Several times, Sopko has warned that the entire reconstruction effort is failing. 

Since then, Sopko has spent the past week raging against the cuts--arguing that the State Department, one of the federal entities his team investigates, has no authority to make staffing decisions for SIGAR. 

"SIGAR is an independent Inspector General and this is an issue of independence,” Sopko said in an email to The Fiscal Times. “Just like we don't let the banks decide the number of banking regulators, the State Department, who we investigate, shouldn't determine our staffing at the Embassy.” 

His argument gained some traction with members of the House Oversight Committee. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) even suggested offering an amendment to maintain the current oversight by SIGAR. 

Related: Pentagon Refuses to Verify $300 Million a Year in Afghanistan 

Now, one week later, the State Department is denying that embassy officials ever made such a demand. 

“Any assertion that the Embassy Kabul unilaterally ordered SIGAR to make staffing cuts in 2016 is false,” a spokesperson for the State Department said. The official implied that the staffing discussion with SIGAR was “the beginning of a dialogue on what functions and positions must be kept” as the U.S. winds its role down in Afghanistan. 

An official with knowledge of the conflict, said because SIGAR investigators and auditors live at the Embassy and are protected by the embassy’s security, embassy officials believe they can decide how many people can be there. 

Meanwhile, SIGAR maintains that because it is an independent inspector general, its staffing decisions should be made independently, not by an agency it is tasked with investigating. 

Related: 7 Threats to U.S. Rebuilding Efforts in Afghanistan 

“The independence of Inspectors General staffing has long been respected by all U.S federal agencies since 1978,” Sopko said. “SIGAR has a staffing plan in place, which is based on the amount of work that needs to get done and not an arbitrary number meted out by the State Department." 

Under the discussed 40 percent reduction, Sopko’s staff in Kabul would be scaled back from 42 people to 25 by this time next year. That’s a particularly small crew to oversee dozens of programs costing tens billions of dollars a year. 

“When we did our audits, we talked to our military, and they basically told us they don't have the bodies to do adequate oversight…. That's why we're doubly concerned” about the potential cuts, Sopko said. 

During an interview on CSPAN, the IG raised his concerns about State’s assertion that it should be involved in SIGAR staffing decisions. 

Related: Veterans Affairs Makes the Government’s ‘High Risk’ List 

“Now, I have a problem with that. For the State Department, who we investigate, to tell me how many people I need to have in Afghanistan is in direct contradiction of my independence,” Sopko said. “This is absurd.” 

SIGAR was created by Congress in 2008 as an entity independent of any government agency. Unlike most other inspectors general assigned to investigate a specific department, SIGAR is charged with examining all programs relating to Afghanistan reconstruction—be it a Pentagon program or a project funded by USAID or State. 

SIGAR’s budget is determined by Congress and its staffing levels are decided by Sopko. 

The U.S. is planning to pump tens of billions of new dollars into Afghanistan reconstruction in the coming year, and SIGAR would be responsible for tracking how the funds disbursed. For at least the next few years,

Washington is expected to spend about $6 billion a year on Afghanistan reconstruction. 

With that much money still flowing into the country, Sopko’s team argues that a staff reduction could be seriously detrimental to the U.S.’s entire rebuilding efforts. 

Related: The U.S. Could Be Paying $2.3 Billion a Year for Afghan Ghost Soldiers 

 “While the U.S. reconstruction effort may have declined compared to its high point, Afghanistan is still the largest single recipient of U.S. foreign assistance and is projected to remain the largest single recipient for years to come. In other words, while the troops may be coming home, the checks are still going over there,” Sopko told lawmakers last week. 

Still, Sopko said if there isn’t enough work for his staff, he would make cuts. But he made clear that staff reductions should not be the State Department’s decision. 

The confrontation comes just months after President Obama decided to delay the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan for another year. It also is not the first time the watchdog has butted heads with the agencies it oversees. 

While the administration hasn’t disputed all of SIGAR findings, it occasionally argues that the auditors aren’t accurately portraying their programs. 

Officials from State and USAID told The New York Times last year that responding to SIGAR’s reports takes up too much of their time, slows down their work and ultimately undermines their efforts since the reports yield negative media attention about government waste. 

Late last year, the Pentagon and SIGAR clashed over whether information used in an audit on the Afghan National Police Force should be classified. The Pentagon ultimately gave into pressure and unclassified the information so the IG could make it public—but not without a fight. 

The latest scuffle has further inflamed relations between the auditor and the agencies. 

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