A Big Week in Afghanistan War Oversight

It has been a busy week for John Sopko, the US-appointed Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). He and his team just published a number of reports indicating that US-funded reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan continue to be plagued by contract performance problems, cost-overruns, corruption, and secrecy. SIGAR also exposed a significant legal issue related to classified evidence as a basis for suspension and debarment of a US government contractor who supports Taliban insurgents.

Many of these findings were published in, SIGAR’s quarterly report to Congress cataloging the host of troubles it found with NATO’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan between July and September 2014. To give a snapshot of the funds at stake, the US has appropriated approximately $104.1 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction, with about $14.5 billion still to be spent. Chief findings include:

  • SIGAR is “deeply troubled” by NATO’s recent decision to classify the executive summary of a quarterly report assessing the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) of the eve of NATO’s withdrawal from the country. Classification of the report summary “deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort,” reads SIGAR’s report, which also notes that the executive summaries were unclassified in earlier NATO reports on Afghan security forces.
  • Afghanistan’s “opium economy” is booming to record levels and now directly provides more full-time jobs (some 411,000) than the entire ANSF.
  • DOD reported a funding cut of $225.58 million for its counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan. These cuts were partially attributed to the threat of sanctions against parts suppliers for the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters used by the Afghan Air Force Special Mission Wing that performs anti-drug missions.
  • Irrigation projects in Afghanistan may have facilitated increased opium-poppy cultivation after periods of significant reductions.

In addition, SIGAR forcefully argues that the US Army’s refusal to suspend or debar supporters of the Afghan insurgency from receiving US government contracts is “legally wrong” and contrary to sound policy and national-security goals.  SIGAR reports that the Army refuses to suspend or debar contractors that support the Taliban insurgency on the grounds that the evidence proving their support is classified.

This last point is of particular interest to me because my congressional committee staff colleagues and I published the report Warlord, Inc. that provided evidence supporting allegations that US military trucking contractors in Afghanistan paid protection money to the Taliban for safe passage. In unusually strong terms, Sopko states:

I remain troubled by the fact that our government can and does use classified information to arrest, detain, and even kill individuals linked to the insurgency in Afghanistan, but appar¬ently refuses to use the same classified information to deny those same individuals their right to obtain contracts with the US government.

Recognizing I have not seen the evidence at issue, I certainly agree with SIGAR’s legal and policy perspective. Surely due process rights for a suspension and debarment proceeding do not require that the government continue to do business with those that aid US enemies.

In addition to its quarterly report to Congress, SIGAR announced this week that it found major delays and corruption in the US-funded renovation of Afghanistan’s notorious Pol-i-Charkhi prison, to which the US has been transferring detainees for many years due to overcrowding at Bagram Air Base’s detention facilities.  Pol-i-Charkhi prison itself is overcrowded; it was designed for about 5,000 prisoners, but currently houses about 7,400.  SIGAR’s major findings:

  • More than five years after renovation began, Pol-i-Charkhi prison has not been completed, and the contract with Al-Watan Construction Company (AWCC) has been terminated.
  • The State Department paid the AWCC $18.5 million on a contract valued worth $20.2 million even though AWCC only completed 50% of the work at the time of contract termination.
  • An independent firm identified defective workmanship, including, soil settlement issues & failure to connect back-up generators to the prison’s power grid.
  • A corrupt contracting officer’s representative was a factor in the oversight breakdown of the renovation work.

SIGAR also reported on an audit of one of the principal US-backed counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan: the Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan’s (CNPA) “neglected” provincial units.  It included the following findings:

  • Significant resources have been devoted to developing the CNPA, but did not directly benefit CNPA provincial units, which have been neglected and continue to struggle in terms of development and capabilities.
  • The level of US direct assistance provided to CNPA provincial units is unknown and the US government cannot ascertain whether its financial assistance actually reaches them.
  • SIGAR expressed concern with DOJ’s response to its report.  DOJ objected to “the inclusion of DEA in the recommendations” because it contends that DEA has “no role or responsibility” for implementing SIGAR’s recommendations.

Finally, SIGAR identified several potential pitfalls in how DOD, the State Department, and USAID provide Afghan government ministries with direct financial assistance through Afghanistan’s relatively weak public financial management and procurement systems. These are significant dollar figures. Since the US government’s commitment to expand its direct on-budget assistance to Afghanistan, DOD has committed nearly $6.4 billion and disbursed approximately $3 billion, the State Department has obligated roughly $140 million and disbursed nearly $77 million, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has committed and obligated approximately $668 million and disbursed $217 million to bilateral direct assistance programs in Afghanistan. The US has provided an additional $1.25 billion in direct assistance through the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund.

  • While SIGAR noted a number of important financial management controls put in place by the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) incident to disbursements to the Afghanistan Ministry of Interior (MOI) and Ministry of Defense (MOD), “CSTC-A has not instituted a number of other controls, such as completing comprehensive assessments of MOI and MOD financial management capacity and internal control systems.”
  • Similarly, SIGAR also found that State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) did not require the completion of a comprehensive assessment of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics’ capacity to manage and account for direct assistance funds prior to disbursement.
  • Finally, SIGAR found that USAID disbursed some $208 million in direct assistance notwithstanding the fact that it only included 24 of 333 “conditions precedent” risk mitigation requirements of recipient Afghan ministries in the USAID implementation agreements with those ministries.

SIGAR is a unique component of Executive Branch war oversight. Like the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), SIGAR is designed to provide a modicum of interagency oversight jurisdiction to a single Inspector General. Specifically, SIGAR has jurisdiction over the Department of Defense and the Department of State, which includes USAID. Interagency oversight is critical to the modern whole-of-government national security approach, and all the more so in the context of counterinsurgency operations that put a premium on integrated military-civilian coordination.

While the enhanced jurisdiction of SIGAR, like SIGIR, has been an important innovation in Executive Branch oversight, it still has significant limitations. First, SIGAR is restricted to “reconstruction” spending, which can be a significant limitation in a country in the midst of expensive military and counterterrorism operations. It does have jurisdiction over the Department of Justice and other agencies for purposes of reconstruction projects including the counter-narcotics initiatives. Such limitations therefore would not explain DOJ’s resistance SIGAR’s counter-narcotics reporting on the DEA. Second, in the context of “Af-Pak,” it would have been helpful to have extended SIGAR’s geographic beat to include Pakistan.

Now that SIGAR’s reports are in the public domain, it will be interesting to see how Congress and Executive Branch leaders respond.

 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Senior Fellow and Founding Editor of Just Security, former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyMcCanse.