Inspector General foresees reconstruction oversight challenges in Afghanistan after U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Feb. 4, 2013. SOURCE: CSIS.org

Overseeing reconstruction projects and programs in Afghanistan will become increasingly difficult – and in some cases, impossible – after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014, according to Special Inspector General John Sopko.

Without the protection provided by U.S. troops, many of the areas outside of Kabul will be too unsafe for American inspectors to visit and verify that nearly $100 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely to help Afghanistan rebuild and prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups – such as Al Qaeda.

“The number of U.S. projects and programs that can be monitored and overseen by U.S. personnel will decrease,” said Sopko, who leads the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). “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, USAID, 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.”

The lack of oversight increases the likelihood of waste, fraud, and abuse of U.S. reconstruction funds, especially in Afghanistan where corruption is “deep rooted and widespread,” according to Sopko, who spoke at a forum organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

American inspectors already are limited to visiting areas within what’s known as the “golden hour” or “bubble” because the U.S. military will not provide security to areas that are not within an hour of a medical facility that can provide emergency care. And as the U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, the areas that fall within the “bubble” shrinks.

“As a result, we are unable right now to inspect 38 facilities worth approximately $72 million,” said Sopko. “I fear many of our programs will be exposed to increase risk of theft and misuse.”

For example, SIGAR agents discovered that a private contractor failed to install a culvert protection system to prevent insurgents from placing explosives along a dangerous stretch of road. Because of the photographs that the agents took during the site inspection, the contractor was arrested and charged with fraud against the U.S. government and the negligent homicide of two U.S. personnel.

Security concerns also pose challenges to oversight of reconstruction programs funded by international organizations, such as the World Bank. A 2011 report by SIGAR found that security concerns prevented the World Bank from conducting site visits outside of Kabul to monitor how billions of dollars worth of reconstruction funds were being spent.

The lack of independent monitoring and oversight combined with corruption that Sopko said is “endemic in Afghanistan” would undermine U.S. and international donor support for the ongoing reconstruction that’s required to achieve America’s security interests in Afghanistan.

Sopko said SIGAR is exploring alternative ways to conduct oversight after the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014, including the use of geo-spatial imaging and relying more on their Afghan staff.

“These [alternative] tools are helpful but they’re not perfect,” Sopko acknowledged. “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.”

Another way to address the post-2014 oversight challenges is to have Congress impose “strict pre-conditions on the Afghan government to permit effective oversight of [reconstruction] funds by U.S. personnel”.

“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,” said Sopko. ” 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.”
 

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