Hard-fought gains in Afghanistan over the last decade are at risk of being squandered – unless immediate action is taken to determine the fate of tens of billions of dollars in questionable reconstruction projects, the chief of the Afghan audit agency said.
In an exclusive interview with The Fiscal Times, John F. Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said that the Pentagon, aid agencies and the State Department must quickly evaluate these projects to determine whether the billions being spent in Afghanistan right now will yield the desired results or not. Many projects are simply not sustainable, he said – and continuing to spend on them results not just in a wasted fortune, but very real risks to nearly 90,000 American soldiers who are still there.
“They have not thought about sustainability,” Sopko said, referring to the military, aid agencies and the State Department. “If you don’t think about that, you’re going to build a bridge and give it to the Afghans who can’t sustain it.”
He added, “There’s pervasive corruption throughout the country.”
These warnings from Sopko – who was appointed to his post last summer by President Obama – come as lawmakers, the public, and the policy community in D.C. have largely turned their attention away from the war and from the soldiers still fighting and dying there. Despite spending some $500 billion to fight in Afghanistan, the war is becoming invisible. Sopko and his team at SIGAR are among the few voices reminding the country about financial mismanagement, corruption and the continuing threat to American lives.
“I believe in the mission in Afghanistan,” he said. “We lost too many lives and we’ve spent too much money” to ignore it.
DOLLARS TO THE TALIBAN
In recent months, SIGAR has been especially busy identifying waste, fraud and abuse. Earlier this month, it found that a $53 million USAID project meant to supply power to Kandahar was unsustainable.
It also found that millions of contracting dollars have ultimately ended up in the hands of the Taliban. As The Fiscal Times recently reported, the Pentagon did not have the required protocols in place to prevent 80 percent of all contracts from getting into the hands of the enemy.
A quarterly report issued by SIGAR in January said that the United States has spent more than half of the nearly $100 billion in Afghan reconstruction funds on developing the country’s police and security forces. But numerous reports have found that the Afghan forces are not ready to take over security responsibilities.
Two recent SIGAR reports also found that police and Army buildings built by the United States for $26 million in two key strategic provinces were underutilized or sat empty. One was even being used as a chicken coop.
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All of this is especially troubling in the wake of a February 2013 GAO report that determined Afghanistan would essentially collapse without extensive U.S. financial support. Sopko painted a picture of a country with intractable corruption, a U.S. military that had not properly planned or executed countless projects, and an aid apparatus that has failed to acknowledge realities on the ground.
“We found systemic problems almost everywhere we looked,” Sopko said. “I think we have some really hard choices to make, and we’ve got to think anew about how we handle some of the assistance and reconstruction programs.”
POOR PLANNING, POOR QUALITY CONTROL
Unlike other inspector generals who work for the agency they’re inspecting, Sopko is independent. He has the power to audit any program related to Afghanistan reconstruction, whether the projects are implemented by DOD, State or USAID.
In his tens months on the job, Sopko, a veteran investigator and attorney with more than 30 years in oversight work, has discovered that corruption within the Afghan government is the primary obstacle to effective reconstruction.
But there are also a myriad of problems on the American side. Sopko said poor planning and inadequate quality assurance practices make it nearly impossible to effectively implement reconstruction programs.
“What’s caused the extensive problems is something I emphasized in the last quarterly report: inadequate planning, poor quality assurance,” he said. “We’re not enforcing quality. The successful programs are the ones that [were] planned properly,” Sopko added. “They had talked to the Afghans, they had worked out sustainability. They dealt with corruption.”
One problem, he suggested, is the lack of U.S. boots on the ground. Sopko said the United States has relied too much on geospatial intelligence to determine whether a project is proceeding as planned. This strategy also fails to address the human element of projects.
He referenced a story written by The Fiscal Times’ Josh Boak when Boak was with The Washington Post. In 2011, Boak found that a school built by the U.S.in a remote region of Afghanistan had actually been taken over by the Taliban.
“You’ve got to go kick the tires. You’ve got to make certain someone we trust goes out and makes certain the money is spent the way it was intended,” Sopko insisted. “You’ve got to verify that the money you gave to buy fuel bought the fuel.”
Sopko refused to say whether fatigue has contributed to a lack of oversight by U.S. agencies and departments. But he did say many government employees would prefer that the audit process disappear altogether.
“There are too many people in this government, in the bureaucracies, who would like IG [inspector general] reports to be classified, secret and show up in the dead of night in a sealed envelope. If that happened, there will never be any improvements in how the government’s run,” he said.
CRITICAL CHECKLIST FOR PRICEY PROGRAMS
In recent congressional testimony, Sopko laid out criteria for evaluating whether a reconstruction program should continue. He listed seven questions (from a January 2013 quarterly report):
- Does the project or program make a clear and identifiable contribution to our national interests or strategic objectives?
- Do the Afghans want it and need it?
- Has it been coordinated with other U.S. implementing agencies, with the Afghan government, and with other international donors?
- Do security conditions permit effective implementation and oversight?
- Does it have adequate safeguards to detect, deter, and mitigate corruption?
- Do the Afghans have the financial resources, technical capacity, and political will to sustain it?
- Have implementing agencies established meaningful, measurable metrics for determining successful project outcomes?
If an agency can answer these basic questions in the affirmative, then the project should continue – it’s as simple as that, Sopko suggested. If not, the project should be reevaluated. If, after reevaluation, an agency still wants to proceed with the project, it must provide justification.
“Those seven questions are not rocket science,” he said.
Sopko said he is especially concerned about continued direct foreign assistance to the Afghan government. “It’s a big area of concern,” Sopko said about U.S. assistance to Afghanistan. “Afghans don’t have the capability to handle the direct assistance.”
The amount of money provided to Afghanistan is expected to exceed $100 billion by the end of the year – and the U.S. will need to fund the country far into the future if the government is to have any chance of success.
USAID also lacks the ability to effectively monitor money being given to the Afghan government, suggested Sopko. “When I talk to some of the people in USAID, they refer to direct assistance programs they’ve done in Egypt and Israel. They’re not Afghanistan. I’m looking for models where this has worked in a kinetic environment,” he said.
It’s imperative, Sopko says, for the U.S. to determine which programs should continue before we withdraw next year. Once the U.S. presence is gone, there will be little hope of effectively monitoring how U.S. dollars are spent.
“My job is not to be the cheerleader … I’m supposed to give recommendations to highlight problems so things get better,” Sopko said. “I think we have some really hard choices to make [on] assistance and reconstruction … We have to think smart. We can’t wait two years to do it smart.”