Watchdog: $100 billion investment in Afghanistan at risk
By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 30, 2013
KABUL — Little more than a year before all international combat troops are set to leave Afghanistan, the nearly $100 billion U.S. investment in the country is under threat from lack of oversight and an increasingly difficult security situation, according to a quarterly report from the top government watchdog in Afghanistan.
As the U.S. continues to withdraw troops, concerns remain about civilian inspectors’ access to projects and about the abilities of the Afghan National Security Forces — America’s biggest investment in the country, at roughly $54 billion — according to a quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The 12-year reconstruction effort in Afghanistan has come in for heavy criticism and many are concerned about the difficulty of tracking billions of dollars in aid money after the Dec. 31, 2014 deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave Afghanistan. The international community has pledged $16 billion in aid beyond 2014, and making sure that money goes where it is supposed to will be a challenge in a country ranked by Transparency International as the most corrupt in the world.
This quarter, SIGAR published reports that highlighted lack of accountability for billions of dollars in fuel purchases and spare parts for the Afghan security forces and the quarterly report also echoed concerns about rising casualties among Afghan troops as they take over more responsibility for day-to-day fighting.
“The success of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan depends to a great extent on the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police’s ability to protect Afghan civilians and prevent al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups from establishing strongholds from which to mount attacks against the United States and its allies,” Inspector General John Sopko wrote in the report’s introduction.
Another major concern, highlighted in a recently released SIGAR letter to U.S. government leaders, is the dwindling number of military resources available to escort inspectors from various governmental agencies to project sites and provide security. SIGAR estimates that no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible after 2014.
A senior USAID official, who commented on condition of anonymity, said the agency is continuing to monitor projects through a mix of first-hand reporting, Afghan government and civil society partners and independent contractors.
“USAID will absolutely ensure that projects are performing as intended,” the official said. “As responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, USAID is already implementing a multi-tiered monitoring strategy to collect and verify information to inform decision-making.”
So-called “direct assistance,” where money goes directly to Afghan government ministries is increasing, an aid delivery mechanism complicated by continued corruption in the country, according to the report. SIGAR is currently examining USAID’s program to evaluate ministries’ ability to absorb direct assistance.
The USAID official said the agency has robust controls in place to safeguard taxpayer money, including dedicated bank accounts for funds flowing to ministries, auditing programs, and regular financial and program reporting.
“There are risks involved in what we do,” the officials said. “That includes government-to-government activities, but there is clear evidence that the extensive measures taken by USAID to safeguard taxpayer resources have been successful.”
SIGAR has been aggressively pursuing investigations since Sopko took the helm in July 2012, and some officials in agencies targeted by its reports have privately grumbled about SIGAR’s methods and conclusions as well as one-sided media coverage.
Some government agencies have also started sending out their own press releases responding to, and sometimes refuting, SIGAR’s findings.
Jeffrey Hawk, spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, which is one of the largest aid contributors in the country, did not criticize SIGAR but said USFOR-A now sends out detailed responses to each of the inspector general’s reports.
“The thing we realized is we just weren’t having an opportunity in the public space to respond to the initiatives mentioned in the SIGAR reports,” Hawk said.