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US risks setback to oversight of Afghan reconstruction, watchdog says

WASHINGTON — An independent watchdog agency warned Congress on Tuesday that the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan will hinder efforts to monitor dozens of U.S.-financed reconstruction projects, including a hydroelectric dam and health clinics, that cost billions of dollars.

U.S. civilian oversight personnel will be able to visit only one-fifth of Afghanistan after the scheduled departure of most American troops by the end of 2014, John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a House oversight committee.

The accessible areas mostly are near cities and major military bases even though most of Afghanistan’s population lives in rural areas.

A lack of effective oversight could jeopardize hard-won gains in gender equality, health care, education, sanitation and other areas that American officials have touted as signs of Afghan progress in the 12 years since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, Sopko said.

Despite widespread waste and mismanagement in the U.S.-financed effort, American officials plan to shift more responsibility for reconstruction and oversight to Afghan government ministries and contractors. Sopko said the Afghan government’s ability to adequately monitor U.S. investment in infrastructure, social programs and security services remains in question.

“The reconstruction effort is undergoing a massive transition,” Sopko told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Pentagon officials have told Sopko’s office that they will help U.S. inspectors reach only those project sites within a half-hour helicopter ride of an “advanced medical facility” in case of accidents or attacks.

Sopko said only projects near the capital, Kabul, the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the southern cities of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, and the western town of Herat would meet those conditions.

As a result, he said, 72 projects are expected to be outside oversight areas after 2014. They include barracks, training centers and other facilities for Afghan soldiers and police, as well as a major hydroelectric project at Kajaki in the southern province of Helmand.

U.S. civilians who oversee the reconstruction effort rely on the American military to provide transportation and security for project visits. With about 52,000 American troops left in Afghanistan, about half the total of two years ago, much of the country already is off-limits for the civilian auditors.

Pentagon officials expect troop levels to drop to 34,000 by spring, and then fall more sharply. U.S. and international troops now staff about 90 military bases, down from more than 800 at the height of the war.

At the same time, Kabul still expects to receive about $20 billion in U.S. reconstruction funding that Congress has approved but not yet disbursed, according to the special inspector general. That is in addition to $100 billion that Congress has appropriated for Afghan relief and reconstruction since 2002.

The Los Angeles Times reported in August that the U.S. Agency for International Development plans to spend up to $200 million to monitor its relief projects by equipping Afghan contractors with smartphones and GPS-enabled cameras.

The so-called remote monitoring, the largest such effort by the agency, would be used in nearly all its 80 major development projects in Afghanistan, according to a draft proposal.

In a letter to senior Obama administration officials, Sopko questioned that strategy, saying there is no substitute for direct monitoring by U.S. government personnel or contractors.

“Even if these alternative means are used to oversee reconstruction sites, direct oversight of reconstruction programs in much of Afghanistan will become prohibitively hazardous or impossible as U.S. military units are withdrawn, coalition bases are closed and civilian reconstruction offices in the field are closed,” Sopko wrote.

USAID, which has spent more than $15 billion in Afghanistan over the last decade, said it will rely on monitoring tools it has used in other dangerous regions, including South Sudan and the Palestinian territories.

“USAID is committed to monitoring and overseeing its projects, and ensuring the accountability of U.S. government funds,” Larry Sampler, the agency’s acting head of Afghanistan programs, said in a statement. “Each USAID project has its own unique monitoring plan to ensure it effectively tracks progress and identifies potential problems as they arise.”

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