SIGAR: US must learn from Afghan rebuilding mistakes

John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, center, tours facilities in Afghanistan.


By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 10, 2015

The U.S. government risks undermining its 14-year mission in Afghanistan and repeating the often “delusional” mistakes of its $110 billion Afghan reconstruction mission elsewhere in the world, according to the top American watchdog for rebuilding in the country.

“If after 13 years and so much blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan we cannot be honest with ourselves about our successes and failures, we are not only leaving the Afghans in a precarious position, but also putting our entire mission there at risk,” John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in a speech at Georgetown University on Thursday.

Misguided projects occur so often in Afghanistan they suggest “a modus operandi that is woefully out of touch at best, and delusional at worst,” he said, according to a draft of the speech released before the event.

Since his appointment in 2012, the former federal prosecutor and his staff of about 200 have harshly criticized waste, fraud and abuse tied to U.S.-funded rebuilding projects across Afghanistan.

Their targets have included the 64,000-square-foot command center built by the Army in Helmand province despite a coalition general’s statement that he didn’t need it; the Kajaki Dam, in the same province, whose redevelopment has been thwarted for years amid heavy fighting and whose benefits are questioned by Sopko’s office; and a $15 million hospital in Paktia province that was too large for locals to operate and maintain.

“I wish I could say that this is an isolated incident, but this sort of thing happens in Afghanistan all the time,” Sopko said. “It seems that time and again, people have to be reminded that Afghanistan is not Kansas.”

Sopko noted that the value of Afghan reconstruction aid exceeds that given to Western Europe under the Marshall Plan after World War II, after adjusting for inflation.

Sopko spoke of the need for “evidence-based policymaking,” which would vet projects more thoroughly and determine whether they were wanted by locals and were sustainable.

Developing baselines to measure the effect of a project or funding effort would be key to preventing waste or corruption, he said. He cited what he described as the vague guidance behind the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, a nearly $4 billion Defense Department program for “humanitarian relief and reconstruction” between 2003 and 2014.

“The bottom line is that if you don’t have a means of knowing whether or not your programs are succeeding, the policymaker’s job just became that much harder,” he said.

The issue will become increasingly important as America’s involvement in hot spots like Iraq, Syria and Yemen increases, Sopko said.

“Getting things right there will largely set the tone for future stabilization and post-conflict reconstruction missions,” he said.

His message has been well-­received in Congress, which created his office in 2008. It has played less well among the agencies and departments it frequently targets, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Defense and State departments. Officials there have criticized the conclusions of some reports and pointed to the physical difficulties of working in a war-torn country with high levels of corruption. They also have complained that SIGAR often ignored their explanations for certain actions it had criticized.

But Sopko said the agencies were not able to identify their shortcomings, instead identifying those of Afghanistan.

He said that in years to come, the U.S. likely will be involved in other poor countries that need help redeveloping after conflict.

“We simply must be smarter,” he said.

Twitter: @sjbeardsley


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