U.S. Army Soldiers construct a police checkpoint in Robat, Afghanistan, on March 19, 2010.

U.S. Army Soldiers construct a police checkpoint in Robat, Afghanistan, on March 19, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II

Afghanistan's Reconstruction Future Looks Very Bleak, IG Warns

The IG for Afghanistan reconstruction says the financial and operational burdens of rebuilding that nation are still well beyond anything Kabul can manage by itself. By Charles S. Clark

Though the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is winding down, agencies still have $16 billion in the pipeline that will be spent on infrastructure and local military capabilities for years to come, a watchdog warned.

Hence agencies such as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development had better get used to continuing audits and loud publicity from any waste and fraud, John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told an audience at Georgetown University Friday.

“By December of this year, the president plans to leave just 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and by the end of 2015 just around 5,000," Sopko said. “[But] our reconstruction mission is far from over, and I would say will continue at a high tempo for some years to come if we want to keep the Afghan military and government afloat and protect our reconstruction successes.”

The $104 billion already spent to bolster the war-torn nation’s government, economy, health and education sectors, and legal system represents “more money than we’ve spent on reconstruction for any one country in our nation’s entire history,” he said.

As a longtime Washington player on Capitol Hill and in the legal community, Sopko frequently peppers his speeches with self-references and tutorials on the law’s charge that inspectors general function independently. “One of the things that has surprised me the most since I took this job is just how few people at USAID, in our Foreign Service and in the military were aware of SIGAR and more importantly the critical role of an independent inspector general as explained in the 1978 IG Act,” he said. Sopko noted that some agency employees expected him to allow them to edit his report headlines and approve his press releases.

(Related: The Looming Narco-State in Afghanistan)

His team’s dozens of audits and letters to commanders and U.S. diplomats, SIGAR, he said, have saved billions—their audit of the Defense Department’s basing plans for the Afghan National Security Forces saved nearly a half a billion dollars for identifying “duplication and unnecessary expenditures,” he said.

Sopko's work has come across as an inventory of troubles. “Someone decides to buy $500 million worth of non-airworthy planes that are later abandoned,” he said, citing examples. “Federal contract officials don’t bother to make site visits, fail to keep proper documentation, fail to enforce standards, and fail to ensure work is done before accepting it.”

And yet Sopko’s auditing agency differs from other IGs in that it is temporary, not attached to a single agency, free to tackle issues from any agency involved in Afghanistan and is able to focus on multi-jurisdictional programs, he said.

The prognosis for rebuilding Afghanistan, Sopko said, is bleak unless that nation and its American allies get a handle on sustainability, corruption and narcotics trafficking.

“The sheer size of the U.S. government’s reconstruction effort has placed both a financial and operational burden on the Afghan economy and its government that it simply cannot manage by itself,” he said, pointing to an Afghan government’s revenue of $2 billion annually and a stated budget need of $7.6 billion.

SIGAR’s reports have continually shown that “the United States lacks a unified anti-corruption strategy in Afghanistan,” Sopko said. “This is astonishing, given that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.”

The United States has spent nearly $7.6 billion to combat the opium industry, but “by every conceivable metric, we’ve failed,” he added.

Sopko’s harsher indictments have struck some agency managers as motivated by publicity-seeking and ego, he acknowledged. “But nothing will change if you don’t publicize these problems,” he said. “That is the cost of transparency and open government.”

The barrage of bad news does not, however, mean SIGAR’s staff members don’t wish for the United States to achieve the mission, he said. “We at SIGAR and our other oversight colleagues have a different role in the mission than those in the implementing agencies. We are like the referee in the football game. But just because we throw penalty flags doesn’t mean we support the success of the sport any less than the players do.”