Afghanistan Watchdog Agency: Critical Oversight or Overzealous Hounding?

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John Sopko — the trenchant Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) whose reports track American taxpayer money but whose enthusiasm for embarrassing officials borders on glee — believes he has found a willing partner in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

While Sopko never met with Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, in the more than two years in which the men’s tenures overlapped, a meeting with Ghani has given the inspector general confidence. Sopko says corruption cases that would have likely languished in the previous government have found an ear under Ghani, a former World Bank official and finance minister who took office last September.

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Photos: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
John Sopko, the outspoken Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) whose reports track American taxpayer money spent trying to rebuild the war-torn country, inspects soybeans in Mazar-e-Sharif.

“Those cases in the past, we had nowhere to take them, but now with the new unity government, they’re very interested in those allegations because they really care about changing the way procurement is done in Afghanistan,” Sopko said in an interview with The Diplomat. By contrast, the freewheeling former mob prosecutor said he never met with Karzai “because I actually didn’t think it was worth it.”

Sopko has never been shy about doing his job. SIGAR is a U.S. government agency tasked with monitoring the money spent by Washington trying to rebuild Afghanistan — an estimated $110 billion allocated over the last 13-plus years. In its quest to uncover fraud, waste and abuse, the watchdog group has been fiercely blunt about the rampant corruption and mismanagement that have siphoned off U.S. funds and undercut confidence in the Afghan government.

The plague of corruption in Afghanistan is acute and seemingly indelible. Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2009 declared corruption to be a dire threat to the International Security Assistance Force mission he was leading in Afghanistan, one on par with the Taliban insurgency. Six years later, as the drawdown of American troops continues, the specter of venality has not receded. A United Nations assessment published in December 2012 found that half of Afghans paid a bribe that year to public officials when requesting a service, and that the total cost of such bribes was $3.9 billion. It is not a question of whether to combat corruption in Afghanistan, but how — and SIGAR’s bruising style has at times chafed other independent auditors working toward the same goal.

Fuel to the Fire?

Created by Congress via the 2008 defense authorization bill, SIGAR has gone about its job of calling out corruption in Afghanistan in an apologetically loud manner. The agency’s emails to reporters come with jarring headlines, such as: “$2.89 Million DOD-Funded Facility Never Used and Not Maintained,” or “DOD Built Hazardous Buildings for Afghan Army in $1.57 Billion Program” or “Half a Million Dollar Afghan Police Training Center Melts.” That “shout it from the rooftops” philosophy is wholly Sopko’s. “If it’s important enough to publish, it’s important enough to publicize,” he said. “Although I sound like a broken record, that is on purpose. You keep repeating the issue until you change it.”

Not everyone agrees. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes Sopko has at times poured fuel on the fire by stating the obvious about corruption in Afghanistan.

Early in Sopko’s tenure, “I do think that he, frankly, was focused on making a bit of a name for himself and the organization to the point of at times almost belaboring the obvious or piling on,” O’Hanlon said. “It was a little bit like Humphrey Bogart in ‘Casablanca,’ and the notion that he was finding all these things that were hugely revelatory and incredibly damning compared to what we already thought we knew…. I thought was somewhat overdone.”

O’Hanlon nonetheless said that SIGAR’s analyses are generally well-researched and hard to dispute, and that the watchdog has had a more “constructive” relationship with the Ghani government than with its predecessor.

SIGAR’s audits not only offer detailed breakdowns of where U.S. funds are going, but many of its recommendations are also often adopted. The watchdog has secured dozens of criminal convictions since its inception and conducted over 860 investigations that it says have saved the U.S. government nearly $800 million. And despite the dangers, Sopko’s agency maintains a sizable presence on the ground in Afghanistan, allowing for firsthand accounting.

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A report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction earlier this year detailed how buildings in an Afghan Special Police Training Center's dry fire range disintegrated within four months of completion — "melting" that it attributed to poor contractor performance and lax government oversight.

But SIGAR has also butted heads with officials from USAID and the Defense Department over its abrasive style, and Sopko has warned that his office faces the perennial threat of budget cuts, along with moves to classify information used in SIGAR findings.

Daniel Egel, a Rand Corp. economist doing research in Afghanistan, has been on the receiving end of SIGAR’s blunt approach. Egel was working on a report evaluating the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, a Pentagon program to spur development in Afghanistan through private investment and other means, at the same time that SIGAR was auditing the program.

Egel said he offered to share a draft of his report with SIGAR, but that the next day he heard, via a news report, that his work had been subpoenaed. Though Egel said he has had a good working relationship with SIGAR officials, he said the move to subpoena seemed unproductive, given that he and SIGAR were working toward the same goal. The watchdog has a sizable staff in Afghanistan, making it a challenge for everyone to be on the same page, Egel noted by telephone from Kabul.

But Egel, like other outside experts interviewed for this story, sympathized with the monumentality of SIGAR’s mission. “I give them a lot of respect for the effort they put in, their due diligence,” he said. “A lot of times they’re trying to figure out what happened years ago and they just don’t have the data to do it.” A congressional mandate for oversight should have come much earlier than six years into the war in Afghanistan, he said. “It’s probably too little too late.”

Trevor Sutton, a nonresident fellow at the Center for American Progress, said that regardless of what others studying the problem may think of SIGAR’s approach, the agency is indispensible. “Corruption has massively — perhaps irretrievably — undermined U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, and if SIGAR isn’t regularly banging the drum on this issue, then who will?” Sutton wrote in an email.

When asked whether he worried about alienating allies in Washington or elsewhere with his explosive style, Sopko replied: “No not really, because I think there’s enough people out there … who support us.” He added that many of SIGAR’s tips for investigations come from military officials and U.S. defense contractors.

“I have not been able to find any of these nameless, faceless bureaucrats who will occasionally whisper, saying, ‘Oh, Sopko’s too aggressive,’ ‘Oh, the SIGAR doesn’t understand this situation,’” Sopko said. “We understand the situation real well.”

Ghani Strikes Anti-Corruption Stance

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Sustaining non-security projects in Afghanistan, like this Department of Defense-funded road, could cost as much as 15 percent of Afghanistan's GDP, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

In a visit to the United States in March, Ghani made a point of thanking “the American taxpayer” who “will make your hard-earned dollars available for Afghanistan,” pledging to “account for every single one of those dollars and pennies.”

Sopko sees deeds behind those words: He pointed to the National Procurement Commission set up by Ghani as an encouraging sign. Ghani allows a SIGAR representative to attend commission meetings, a designation Sopko said was telling of the government’s seriousness on the issue.

After SIGAR said it uncovered price-fixing and bribery in a nearly $1 billion fuel contract awarded to the Afghan Defense Ministry, Ghani swiftly suspended the accused ministry officials and canceled the contract, according to SIGAR’s report to Congress in April. The report stated that SIGAR’s relationship with Afghanistan’s national unity government, which includes Ghani’s former rival, Abdullah Abdullah, “promises to create unique opportunities for us to help them fight corruption.”

Sutton pointed to Ghani’s reopening of the Kabul Bank case, a nearly $1 billion theft that implicated Karzai’s brothers, as another positive sign of Ghani’s willingness to tackle graft. Nonetheless, Sutton wrote, “it remains to be seen how sincere Ghani and his administration are about tackling Afghanistan’s entrenched culture of graft — so far the signs are encouraging — and whether they have the legal and administrative resources to make a dent.”

Ghani received a boost in those resources from his Washington trip in the form of $800 million toward a new development program. According to a State Department summary, the program “supports the new government’s ambitious efforts to improve the effectiveness and accountability of its own systems for managing resources and delivering development results.” The State Department pledged “sustainability” and “fiscal transparency” through the program, but that is perhaps easier said than done. A recent BuzzFeed News investigation into U.S.-funded schools in Afghanistan, for instance, found that an alarming number of schools the agency said it had built either no longer exist or never existed in the first place.

Blind Spot of U.S. Troop Withdrawal

The U.S. military is winding down its presence in Afghanistan after more than 13 bloody years. After a peak of about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2011, 9,800 are set to remain there through year’s end. Less troops has arguably meant less attention from U.S. policymakers. “Anybody who is talking about Afghanistan is getting less attention than they used to, regardless of what they’re saying,” said O’Hanlon, the Brookings scholar. But SIGAR’s more productive relationship with the Ghani government means corruption could command “a better form of attention,” he added.

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Staff from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction collect data from Afghan National Army personnel in Herat province during a site visit in April 2014. The report found that millions of dollars that had gone to the Afghan Army were at risk due to minimal oversight of personnel and payroll data.

Sutton of the Center for American Progress warned policymakers not to disassociate the dual threats of the Taliban and corruption. “Corruption has always been overshadowed by the immediate threat of the insurgency, and one might argue that it’s easier to imagine an Afghanistan free of the Taliban than an Afghanistan free of corruption,” he said. “That’s why it’s crucial to repeatedly make the case that dysfunctional government and the Taliban insurgency are interrelated phenomena, otherwise the latter will always take priority over the former in policymakers’ minds.”

A big part of SIGAR’s mandate is to monitor efforts to build up the Afghan security forces, which will be critical to the transition once U.S. forces pull out. On that front, Sopko’s recent assessment, “Budgets and Bullets: Taking Stock of Afghanistan’s Security Forces,” isn’t encouraging. Among other things, he criticizes overly optimistic assessments by U.S. officials that downplay longstanding problems such as high attrition rates, saying the “evidence strongly suggests that Afghanistan lacks the capacity — financial, technical, managerial or otherwise — to maintain, support and execute much of what has been built or established during more than 13 years of international assistance.” 

Budgets are another potential challenge for SIGAR. House lawmakers recently took the State Department to task for big cost overruns in the construction of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Kabul. In a tight fiscal environment, lawmakers are asking administration officials to do more to justify their budgets. As of 2014, SIGAR had been allocated some $214 million since its inception. That is a fraction of the money Washington has poured into Afghanistan, and appropriators seem generally supportive of SIGAR. But $214 million is still no pittance, and it remains to be seen how the watchdog will continue to carve out dollars as U.S. resources in Afghanistan wane.

SIGAR’s fiscal 2016 budget request is for $56.9 million, and SIGAR spokesman Alex Bronstein-Moffly says that House and Senate appropriators have supported that amount in their respective legislation. Despite the cut in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, SIGAR’s mandate keeps the agency in existence until the amount of unspent reconstruction funds drops below $250 million, according to Bronstein-Moffly. The amount of unspent but appropriated funds for Afghanistan reconstruction is currently about $14 billion, he noted.

In its most recent quarterly report to Congress, SIGAR said that during the most reporting period, it saved the U.S. government nearly $215 million. It also noted that U.S. agencies "do not have a comprehensive strategy to help develop the rule of law in Afghanistan, and problematic performance-management systems make it difficult for agencies to fully determine the effectiveness of rule-of-law programs."

Regardless of what the future holds for his agency, Sopko plans to keep banging the drum, and with a wry beat. “If you screw up, you’re going to get fired,” he said, referring to this author. “If I screw up, I definitely will get fired. But if you screw up in Afghanistan, you get a promotion.”


About the Author

Sean Lyngaas (@snlyngaas) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 31, 2015