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US inspectors to lose access to Afghan projects as pullout nears

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 28, 2013

KABUL — As U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the task of monitoring the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent on reconstruction is becoming more difficult and is likely to worsen, says the top U.S. watchdog in Afghanistan.

Already the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has been unable to gain access to some projects, including $72 million worth of infrastructure work in northern Afghanistan. By the end of next year, the deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave Afghanistan, the agency projects no more than 21 percent of the country will be accessible to its employees. That would represent a 47 decrease in accessibility since 2009.

“We have also been told by State Department officials that this projection may be optimistic, especially if the security situation does not improve,” Special Inspector General John Sopko wrote in a letter dated Oct. 10 to Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Rajiv Shah, who leads the U.S. Agency for International Development. The inspector general’s office released the letter Monday.

In the letter, Sopko said that it has been increasingly difficult for inspectors to get military escorts to examine projects. The military will escort them only to areas within a one-hour round-trip of an advance medical facility, and the shrinking military footprint means fewer areas meet that requirement. The NATO-led military coalition currently has fewer than 100 bases in the country, down from a high of about 800.

“It is clear that everyone working in Afghanistan, including SIGAR, will struggle to continue providing the direct U.S. civilian oversight that is needed in Afghanistan,” Sopko wrote.

The international community, led by the U.S. government, has come in for heavy criticism for the multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort. Poor oversight and rampant corruption have been documented, as well as cases in which taxpayer money has gotten into the hands of insurgents.

Afghanistan is almost wholly reliant on foreign aid for its budget. The international community has pledged $16 billion in assistance beyond 2014. But the country is ranked the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International, and there is concern in the international community about how that investment can be safeguarded.

Adding to the uncertainty, there is no deal yet in place to keep a contingency force of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014. Without a guarantee that the U.S. military will retain legal jurisdiction of their troops for crimes committed in Afghanistan, the U.S. will not maintain a presence there. Next month, a national meeting of elders convend by Afghan President Hamid Karzai is set to take up the issue.

Despite a massive buildup of Afghan security forces, Taliban guerrillas remain a threat in many parts of the country. Analysts predict that their military operations will intensify after the 2014 allied pullout.

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

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