Transcript: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan John Sopko on the oversight challenges after the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014

Transcribed & edited by Jenny Jiang

Transcript of remarks by John F. Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), at the Center for Strategic & International Studies on Feb. 4, 2013:

It’s been only 7 months, however, since I was appointed by President Obama as the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. Since then, I’ve traveled twice to Afghanistan. I’ve spoken to all the major players both in and out of the government as well as many of our nation’s top policymakers and prestigious think tank experts, including many right here in CSIS and the audience. I’ve learned a lot about our government’s efforts there – what we’ve accomplished and what we haven’t – as well as many challenges that still face us in that country.

I’ve also spent a great deal of time thinking about my role – what my agency’s role at SIGAR is in Afghanistan.

Let me just take a few minutes to tell you a little bit about SIGAR. It’s not a well-known organization. It’s not something you smoke either. It’s the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. It is the only agency in the entire United States government whose mission is reconstruction in Afghanistan – nothing else. So we’re unique about that.

We have the unique authority to examine any project by any government agency operating in Afghanistan dealing with reconstruction. So we can look at the Department of Defense, Department of State, USAID, Department of Justice – any agency operating in Afghanistan. That’s unique.

We have the largest oversight presence on the ground in Afghanistan. We have the most aggressive suspension and debarment program in Afghanistan. And we have the most successful record of working with Afghan law enforcement in arresting and prosecuting individuals in Afghan courts.

Now, we are a temporary agency. We go out of existence – we sunset when reconstruction drops below $250 million in unexpended funds. So we have a way to go. We’re in the billions right now.

Accordingly, we have some unique hiring and contracting authorities – unique to the government – that allows us to get the best people as quickly as we can for what I think is the most dangerous oversight job in the United States government.

When Congress created SIGAR in 2008, it also gave us the responsibility and the authority and the statute to lead, coordinate, and recommend policies to improve the Afghanistan reconstruction effort. Accordingly, I believe it is our job to evaluate the bigger picture and offer direction as necessary and appropriate on the reconstruction effort.

Now, just last Wednesday…I returned from Afghanistan. I try to visit Afghanistan every quarter. Everyone there, I can assure you, in the Embassy and in the military is intensely focused on the difficult task of transferring security responsibilities to the Afghans by the end of 2014 and equally interested and concerned about strengthening the Afghan government’s ability to manage the country’s continued reconstruction efforts during this transition period and beyond.

I think it is fair to say that the success or failure of our entire investment in Afghanistan is teetering on whether these two inter-related and ambitious goals can be met. And I have little doubt, especially from speaking to all the major leaders in my latest trip, that the men and women responsible for taking on this challenge are acutely aware of that situation.

Likewise, the newly-installed 113th Congress have the responsibility to ensure that the next stage of our nearly $100 billion decade-long reconstruction effort is properly directed towards those activities and projects that will have the greatest opportunity for long-term success.

In light of my role as Inspector General and our unique mission and mandate, today I want to pose to you a set of 7 fundamental questions that I believe need to be asked of every ongoing and planned reconstruction project by both Congress and the Executive Branch in order to ensure their success – the ultimate success of our mission in Afghanistan.

The first question is: Does that project or program make a clear and identifiable contribution to our national interests or strategic objectives?

The second question is: Do these Afghans want those programs and projects and do they need those programs and projects?

The third question is: Have those programs and projects been coordinated with our allies, with the Afghans, and internally with our own government?

Fourth question we like to ask is: Do security conditions permit the effective implementation and oversight of those projects and programs?

Fifth question is: Do those programs and projects have adequate safeguards to detect, deter, and mitigate against corruption, which is endemic in Afghanistan?

Sixth question we need to ask is: Do the Afghans have the financial resources, the technical capability, and the political will to take those programs and sustain them in the next decade ahead?

And lastly, have the implementing agencies established meaningful, measurable metrics for determining success and are they applied to their own programs?

Now, to many of you in the audience, these questions seem simple and, in fact, they are. But unfortunately, what we have found in our work and in what the other Inspectors General have found in their work is that they are often ignored by those designing and implementing our reconstruction programs.

Now, I’d like to take some time and the rest of the speech to explain why these questions are important, discuss our work and the work of the other IGs are doing about them, and share our plans for using these questions in the years to come as we look at reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Let’s look at that first question: Do the projects and programs make a clear and identifiable contribution to our national interests or strategic objectives?

As you are well aware, the United States’ primary goal in Afghanistan has been to prevent Afghanistan from becoming once again a safe haven for Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups to launch attacks against the United States and its allies. Our central tenet of the U.S. campaign to achieve this goal has been the counter-insurgency or COIN strategy with its three primary phases of clear, hold, and build.

However, our work has found instances in which reconstruction programs have failed to achieve this intended benefit and in some cases have actually resulted in adverse effects.

In April of last year, for example, we released an audit report on Local Governance and Community Development program or LGCD program, which the U.S. Agency for International Development had touted as “the flagship COIN program.” Primary goal of that program was to create – in partnership with the Afghan government – a stable environment for long-term political, economic, and social development. However, as we reported, the program had not met its primary goal of extending the legitimacy of the Afghan government nor had it brought the government closer to the people nor had it fostered stability. In fact, my auditors found that each of 8 provinces with the most LGCD activity experienced dramatic increases in the level of violence between 2006 and 2010. Although the effects of the LGCD program on security levels could not be isolated, violence data is a useful indicator of stability and this data certainly suggested that the program was not achieving its intended goals.

Likewise, July of last year, we issued a report on the Afghan Infrastructure Program or AIP, which Congress created to leverage and coordinate the Department of State, Department of Defense, and AID resources for large-scale infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. We found that 5 of the 7 fiscal year 2011 projects were behind schedule and that some of these projects may not achieve the positive COIN effect for several years, if at all. We also identified some instances where the project resulted in the adverse effects because they either created an expectation gap among the populous or lacked citizen support.

Now, SIGAR intends to conduct more assessments of programs designed to support the COIN strategy in the upcoming year, including an audit that we will initiate soon on the Stabilization in Key Areas program, which is a $177 million community development program.

Likewise, SIGAR intends to increase its focus in the next year on that second question that should be asked for each reconstruction project, and this is “Do the Afghans want it and do they need it?” Now, you’d be surprised how often we find that the answer to this question is no.

Let me give you an example…as many of you saw in the press, we released an inspection report on a $7.3 million border police facility built in Kunduz Province. When our inspectors went to visit the site, they found that it was sitting unused. Although the facility was built for 175 troopers, there was only 12 Afghan personnel onsite and no one was sure among them whether the site was going to be used. Moreover, our inspectors could not even access most of the buildings because they were locked and the board of police personnel present did not have the keys.

Now, there’s a bit of good news to Kunduz. As a result of our inspection, the combined security transition command under Gen. [Daniel] Bolger, which is responsible for these projects, agreed with our recommendations to reassess its plan and determine whether construction contracts could be downsized or facilities could be eliminated or re-designed. I think this is a great example of how our work can lead to tangible improvements. And I’m especially pleased with the continued cooperation of Gen. Bolger and his team in attempting to improve efforts on reconstruction.

Now, let me turn to another troubling problem, which is in our third question and that is, “Has the program or project been coordinated with other U.S. implementing agencies, the Afghan government, and with other international donors?”

The border police facility I just mentioned is certainly an example of poor coordination with the Afghan government. But let me give you an example of poor coordination within the U.S. government.

In 2011, SIGAR conducted a thorough assessment of U.S. efforts to strengthen the financial sector in Afghanistan and to safeguard U.S. funds that flow to the Afghan economy. We found even though the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security were working with the same Afghan banks, neither agency was aware of the other’s actions. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security had not been included in important inter-agency working groups designed to coordinate efforts to gain visibility over cash flows. As we reported, limited inter-agency coordination puts U.S. agencies at risk of working across purposes and definitely not benefitting and leveraging existing relationships.

The next question I pose is particularly important for SIGAR because it impacts us almost as much as it impacts the agencies implementing reconstruction and that is whether security conditions permit effective implementation and oversight.

Now, although the U.S. combat role is scheduled to end by December of 2014, the withdrawal of U.S. troops is well underway. U.S. and Coalition forces have already pulled out of a number of locations in Afghanistan, leaving some of those places too dangerous for us or the implementing agencies to visit.

Now, some of you may have heard a term called the “golden hour.” This refers to the policy unique to only U.S. forces and only in Afghanistan, which in essence says that the military will only provide security in areas within an hour of a facility that can provide emergency medical care. The “safe zone” or “bubble” around those medical facilities extends as far as a 20-minute helicopter ride.

Now, as the troops continue to withdraw, the amount of territory inside Afghanistan that falls outside these bubbles will increase. Accordingly, the number of U.S. projects and programs that can be monitored and overseen by U.S. personnel will decrease. If we can’t get out to review a project or inspect a facility, it is highly unlikely that the agencies funding them can do either, whether it’s an agency of the Department of State, Department of Defense, AID, Department of Justice, Department of Agriculture, any myriad of U.S. agencies operating in Afghanistan. This means that more reconstruction projects exist with no direct U.S. oversight.

Now, we have already seen the effect of security limitations on the reconstruction effort as well as on our own operations and that of our colleagues in the oversight and law enforcement community.

For example, we reported in 2011, that the World Bank had not conducted site visits outside of Kabul to monitor the activities funded by the multi-billion Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund because of security concerns.

Security restrictions are not limited just to the World Bank. Just recently, one of my inspection teams was told that a location in northern Afghanistan was beyond the “golden hour”, beyond the security “bubble”, and therefore deemed too unsafe to visit. As a result, we are unable right now to inspect 38 facilities worth approximately $72 million.

Now, I want to take this opportunity to personally thank the operations under the command of Col. J.R. Bass and the Fourth Alabama National Guard who with Task Force Centurion Prime has done wonderful work supporting us in not only northern Afghanistan but elsewhere in the country. But even they are limited by the security “bubble”.

Now, even in Kabul we’re finding that we cannot always get the protection we need to conduct our work. Although Kabul is clearly within the “bubble”, the Embassy’s Regional Security Officer has informed us that because of limited resources it is already becoming increasingly difficult to support all the requests for movements by U.S. personnel in the Kabul area.

Despite these restrictions, SIGAR is committed to forging ahead even under the most severe conditions. I’m very happy to give as an example – just recently I learned that two of my agents went out into the field to inspect a particularly dangerous stretch of road as part of their criminal investigation into a contractor’s failure to build systems designed to prevent insurgents from placing explosives in culverts along the road. My agents were surrounded by heavily-armed U.S. military units, who protected them as the agents literally ran down the road from culvert to culvert inspecting and photographing to see if there’s a culvert protect device there and was it adequate.

I’m happy to announce that while I was in Afghanistan, those agents were able to arrest with Afghan participation and the Afghan government is charging the contractor who was involved in this with crimes related to the fraud committed upon the government and the negligent homicide of two U.S. personnel.

Now, we are developing alternative ways to conduct oversight in Afghanistan’s evolving security environment. For example, we have local nationals on our staff who are not subject to the same security restrictions that our American employees are. In some cases, we may have to rely on them. We are also exploring the use of geo-spatial imaging to assist our oversight. And finally, we will continue to cooperate and work with our other Inspector General’s offices there to see if we can combine our activities or come up with best practices to do oversight.

These tools are helpful but they’re not perfect…The gold standard on oversight is a U.S. government employee who’s trained to do oversight to going out there and inspecting the sites, inspecting the records, kicking the tires. But unfortunately, we may not be able to do that for very much longer in Afghanistan.

I’m particularly grateful to Ambassador [James] Cunningham and Gen. [John] Allen for their continued expressions of support for our work. Both promised me during my latest visit that they would ensure that our people would be able to access the same locations that their people can access. But ultimately, as you can see, the question is how far will their people be able to access, what will they be able to see, how far will they be able to go outside the Kabul “bubble”.

I fear many of our programs will be exposed to increased risk of theft and misuse, especially as we continue to use direct or on-budget systems to the Afghan government and as especially if we do so without imposing strict pre-conditions on the Afghan government to permit effective oversight of these funds by U.S. personnel.

The next question I pose deals with a different but equally significant problem – namely, corruption. “Are reconstruction programs and projects developed and planned to include adequate safeguards to detect, deter, and mitigate corruption?”

Now, Afghanistan’s reputation for corruption is deep rooted and widespread, and I don’t have to devote too much time to that. A recent survey found that 60% of the Afghans believe that corruption is a major problem and even more believe that it’s a major problem on their national level.

An example – some of the work we had dealing with corruption is one that our Office of Special Projects recently reported on dealing with currency counters in the Kabul International Airport to count and track bulk cash flows out of Afghanistan. Estimates of cash taken out of Afghanistan in any given year are as high as $4.5 billion. However, although the currency counters were purchased by the United States government and installed in 2011, we found that the Afghan government has refused to use them. Even worse, those identified by the Afghan government as VIPs or – in some cases the VIPs – are allowed to bypass all controls at the Afghan airport, raising the risk of money laundering and bulk cash smuggling.

Now, the Afghan government has acknowledged that corruption is a significant problem and has made commitments to curb it. The July 2012 International Donors’ Conference in Tokyo led to a set of mutually agreed principles that included incentives for the Afghan government to carry out commitments to combat corruption.

Unfortunately, we are concerned that not enough is being done quickly enough on these principles and particularly developing specific benchmarks. It is now almost 8 months since this landmark agreement and we still have not seen any concrete benchmarks. If not now, when will we see them?

I can tell you that as a result of my latest trip to Afghanistan, I will shortly be putting the agencies on notice that both Congress and the American taxpayer need to seek concrete steps in place to ensure Afghan government progress to combat corruption and improve governance. If this is not done immediately, I fear we risk the loss of U.S. and international donor support for ongoing reconstruction.

Now, corruption can also undermine the sustainability of reconstruction programs – a key concern for the U.S. and international donors. And this leads me to the next in our series of questions: Do the Afghans have the financial resources, technical capacity, and political will to sustain the reconstruction programs we are funding and turning over to them?

Through our audit inspection work, we have identified numerous examples in which the United States created a program or built a facility without consideration as to whether the Afghan government could sustain it.

In October 2012, for example, we reported that the Afghan government will likely be incapable of fully sustaining ANSF – that’s Afghan National Security Force – facilities after the transition in 2014. We found that the Afghan National Security Forces lack personnel with technical skills required to operate and maintain critical facilities and that the Afghan government had filled less than 40% of authorized operations and maintenance positions.

Likewise, in 2010, we audited reconstruction efforts in Nangahar, Afghanistan and we found that the Afghan government was severely limited in its ability to operate and maintain U.S.-completed development projects in that province. As a result, we found many projects that have become dilapidated or in disrepair, including a number of projects that have been completed under the Commander’s Emergency Response Program or CERP.

And in regards to CERP program, we were particularly troubled by statements that some senior officials told us that they did little more than check the box in the CERP project files to indicate that the government of Afghanistan agreed to fund and sustain those programs.

Now, the logical result of such policies is a waste of U.S. taxpayer money by building infrastructure or developing programs that the Afghans will never effectively use.

My seventh and last question is this: Have the implementing agencies established real metrics for measuring success and are they using them?

Too often, we find that agencies are focused on outputs not outcomes. For example, they’re interested in how many teachers they train, how many schools they build, how many kilometers of roads they build, how many culverts they build but not on what is the result. Is there any result from doing that? These metrics give us a part of the picture but they do not give us meaningful assessments of whether programs have achieved their goals.

For example, in 2011, we assessed efforts to build the capacity of the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture to better serve farmers and promote private sector development. Unfortunately, we found that the U.S. Embassy could not determine how much progress has been made from the project because all they had done was measure the products of capacity building efforts, such as the number of research stations that have been built, the number of research stations that have been rebuilt, the number of labs that have been built, the number of labs that have been rebuilt – never the results that have been achieved by the construction.

Now, if we proceed with our audit work, we are going to be increasingly looking for ways to go beyond the stated output metrics to assess the impact. What did a project or a program actually achieve? If we can’t answer that question now – 11 years into the conflict – then why did we spend the money? At the end of the day, the American taxpayers need to know what the U.S. reconstruction effort has accomplished – not just output – what’s the outcome of all that money spent in Afghanistan.

So in sum, those are our 7 simple but, we think, critical questions. To the extent that agencies could answer in the affirmative to them we believe that a project or program has a better chance for achieving real success. But if, as in the case with the Afghan infrastructure program or the border police facility in Kunduz or the currency counters in Kabul International Airport, the agencies spending our reconstruction dollars find that the answer to these very basic questions is in the negative, is no, it is time for them to re-evaluate continuing or starting that project or program.

Now, I particularly posed these questions in the quarterly report that we just issued last week because we are troubled now, because we have been told that some of the agencies operating in Afghanistan may be poised to obligate as much money as they can as soon as they can before the troop drawdown takes place. If this happens without first assuring that we answer those questions in the affirmative, we are likely to waste billions of taxpayer dollars.

Likewise, it’s incumbent upon the Congress to also keep these questions in mind as they review new authorizations and new appropriations. And as I mentioned, Congress needs to assure itself that the almost $19 billion already appropriated but not yet obligated – not yet spent – could only be spent if they have evidence that projects meet these 7 requirements.

Now, obviously, we recognize that there may be projects that do not meet any or all of these 7 questions that still need to be funded because the potential benefit clearly outweighs the inherent risks of failure. If that is the case, the implementing agencies need to clearly articulate the reasons for doing so – for taking that risk, and Congress needs to hold those agencies accountable for that explanation for why they took that risk.

Now, in conclusion, we’re about to embark on a dramatic drawdown in our troop level. At the same time, we are poised to turn over to the Afghan government an unprecedented amount of buildings, projects, and funds with the hope that they can manage them effectively. This is a risky endeavor and I believe that strong and independent oversight needs to be an essential part of such withdrawal plans if reconstruction activities are to succeed. At no other time in our decade-long struggle in Afghanistan has reconstruction been so critical to our ultimate success.

Actually, as our military role recedes, the next 2 years and beyond – what some call the “decade of transformation” – will really be the decade of reconstruction. Therefore, Congress and the executive branch need now to conduct a thorough re-examination of reconstruction issues, programs, and projects.

Now, we at SIGAR look forward to the challenge ahead, and I can assure you that we are also committed to the success of the military drawdown and closely working with the implementing agencies to ensure that we embark upon this next critical stage in the Afghan reconstruction and ultimate success.

Thank you very much.

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One Comment on “Transcript: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan John Sopko on the oversight challenges after the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014

  1. Pingback: Inspector General foresees reconstruction oversight challenges in Afghanistan after U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014 | What The Folly?!

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