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Hearing Spotlights Afghanistan Corruption and Waste

On Thursday, the House Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing titled “Afghanistan: Identifying and Addressing Wasteful U.S. Government Spending.” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) official Donald Sampler testified.

The U.S. has committed more money to rebuilding Afghanistan than to any other single country in our history—$102 billion since 2002. The hearing focused on USAID’s efforts to help rebuild the country’s political, economic, and social infrastructure, which have cost taxpayers more than $18 billion. Sampler discussed his agency’s successes over the last 12 years, emphasizing that Afghanistan is a difficult environment in which to work.

Sopko’s written testimony lays out four lessons learned from USAID’s efforts in Afghanistan, all of which have relevance to future contingency operations.

Lesson #1: Reconstruction programs must take into account the recipient country’s ability to afford the costs of operating and sustaining them.

USAID has implemented projects and built infrastructure without articulating a clear plan for ensuring that the Afghan government can sustain them. The risks of unreasonable sustainability expectations include cost overruns, project delays, wasted funds (resulting in what SIGAR calls “stranded assets”), and a loss of international confidence in the U.S.

Lesson #2: Reconstruction of a conflict-ridden state is inherently risky, and that risk must be properly mitigated.

USAID and other donors must not only worry about the safety of their workers in Afghanistan, they must also take steps to safeguard funds from corruption. “Corruption poses the most severe threat to the integrity of U.S. government reconstruction aid to Afghanistan,” according to SIGAR. Indeed, most of the hearing focused on steps USAID is taking to address the massive amount of corruption in Afghanistan. In January, SIGAR caused a stir when it issued an audit report that found billions of dollars in USAID assistance provided directly to Afghan ministries is at high risk of misuse.

Lesson #3: Oversight is a critical element of reconstruction.

SIGAR acknowledges that oversight in Afghanistan is “uniquely challenging.” One of the biggest impediments to oversight is limited mobility due to insurgent violence. The Project On Government Oversight has blogged about “oversight access bubbles” shrinking as U.S. and NATO troops withdraw and leave vast areas of the country unguarded. SIGAR estimates that no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible to civilian oversight personnel by the end of 2014.

USAID and other international relief and development organizations must therefore develop alternative oversight methods. Last month, POGO expressed concerns about USAID’s plan, which outsources oversight to contractors. USAID continues to have contract oversight problems, which makes us worry about oversight of the overseers.

Lesson #4: A reconstruction effort must have clearly articulated goals and a sound way to measure progress toward those goals.

While it is widely acknowledged that strategic planning is a must, SIGAR has repeatedly found that such planning has been ignored throughout the reconstruction effort. For example, the U.S. has never articulated a clear anti-corruption strategy in Afghanistan. SIGAR also found that, even when nominal strategic plans exist, U.S.-government implementing agencies, including USAID, do not consistently articulate the goals they hope to achieve and the metrics they intend to use to assess whether those goals have been achieved. In short, the problem is that these agencies emphasize outputs over outcomes.

Finally, Special Inspector General Sopko’s written testimony notes that USAID needs to be “more forthright in providing complete information to both Congress and the American people about its reconstruction activities in Afghanistan.” This became a flashpoint at the hearing due to recent events. Earlier this week, USA Today reported that SIGAR had accused USAID of concealing from Congress information showing that the Afghan government is unable to prevent contracting with individuals and companies tied to insurgents and terrorist groups. At the hearing, Sampler took strong issue with the USA Today article, insisting it was false. Sopko stood by the accusation.

Judging from the highly charged questioning at the hearing, especially by Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Representative Peter Welch (D-VT), Congress is far from done on the issue of waste in Afghanistan reconstruction. Expect many more animated hearings in the near future.

By: Neil Gordon
Investigator, POGO

Neil Gordon, Investigator Neil Gordon is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Neil investigates and maintains POGO's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.

Topics: Contract Oversight

Related Content: SIGAR, Inspector General Oversight, Iraq & Afghanistan Reconstruction Contracts, Waste

Authors: Neil Gordon

Submitted by A. Scott Crawford at: April 5, 2014
Mr. Godon, A search of GAO reports on USAID pre-2002 should be enough to convince you that the areas noted shouldn't properly be called "lessons learned" from Afghanistan, as all were well documented problems identified elsewhere, and were merely ignored… cynically, in my opinion, by DoS and USAID managers. It's my suspicion that only the US military was surprised by USAID, and the usual suspects within the NGO universe, behaving exactly as they had previously (they've just recycled the same excuses). And even the DoD cannot claim it wasn't informed and warned beforehand. The fact is, the military deferred to civilian 'experts' and organizations whom they (and the DoS) knew had failed to produce promised results previously, and then refused to muster up the necessary political will to replace incompetent or corrupt civilians, when, in my opinion, the inevitable occurred and demonstrable results weren't forthcoming. If the DoD ever decides to commit itself to actually delivering on its promises to the locals in areas where it's operating, the brass will have to go THROUGH the Department of State, which took over USAID, technically, during Bush's first term. Or.. more accurately, the Military Commander of the area has to bring in his own civilians, and back them (via his MI staff officer), while they engage all the various DoS and CIA and "international community" elements corrupting the process (but not necessarily the locals). One last point Mr. Gordon: What the largest cash Bribe you've ever turned down?
Submitted by Inmytime at: April 5, 2014
The best solution for the whole corrupt country of Afghanistan would have been to get a 99 year lease. That way the US could do what it wants to. Afghanistan is rife with corrupt warlords ( Karzi included) and officials. It is regrettable that all lives lost and money spent will garner no change. Any Afghan woman that wants to come to the US should be given an immediate visa.
Submitted by Vance Jochim at: April 5, 2014
I was an anti-corruption adviser in Iraq and also 2 months in Afghanistan in 2009. I recopied your great summary and inserted my comments about each SIGAR point. Hearing Spotlights Afghanistan Corruption and Waste April 4, 2014 http://www.pogo.org/blog/2014/04/20140404-hearing-spotlights-afghanistan-corruption-and-waste.html On Thursday, the House Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing titled “Afghanistan: Identifying and Addressing Wasteful U.S. Government Spending.” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) official Donald Sampler testified. The U.S. has committed more money to rebuilding Afghanistan than to any other single country in our history—$102 billion since 2002. The hearing focused on USAID’s efforts to help rebuild the country’s political, economic, and social infrastructure, which have cost taxpayers more than $18 billion. Sampler discussed his agency’s successes over the last 12 years, emphasizing that Afghanistan is a difficult environment in which to work. Sopko’s written testimony lays out four lessons learned from USAID’s efforts in Afghanistan, all of which have relevance to future contingency operations. Lesson #1: Reconstruction programs must take into account the recipient country’s ability to afford the costs of operating and sustaining them. USAID has implemented projects and built infrastructure without articulating a clear plan for ensuring that the Afghan government can sustain them. The risks of unreasonable sustainability expectations include cost overruns, project delays, wasted funds (resulting in what SIGAR calls “stranded assets”), and a loss of international confidence in the U.S. (Neither SIGAR or USAID have learned the lessons we learned in Iraq when I was there - in 2005, we discovered the same problem - The Iraqis (and generically, it seems developing middle east or arabic countries) have no maintenance gene when getting foreign aid to pay for capital projects, whether trucks or $10-million generators. Since the items are FREE, they fail to assign maintenance budgets or people to maintain equipment. That is a huge reason to never give them capital goods unless a maintenance contract is part of it. vj) Lesson #2: Reconstruction of a conflict-ridden state is inherently risky, and that risk must be properly mitigated. USAID and other donors must not only worry about the safety of their workers in Afghanistan, they must also take steps to safeguard funds from corruption. “Corruption poses the most severe threat to the integrity of U.S. government reconstruction aid to Afghanistan,” according to SIGAR. Indeed, most of the hearing focused on steps USAID is taking to address the massive amount of corruption in Afghanistan. In January, SIGAR caused a stir when it issued an audit report that found billions of dollars in USAID assistance provided directly to Afghan ministries is at high risk of misuse. (This has always been a huge risk and mistake. NEVER trust third world governments to actually use the funds you give them for what they are intended. Another reason to discontinue foreign aid to such countries. If they are in the lower half of Transparency Internationals Corruption Perception index, axe the funds. vj) Lesson #3: Oversight is a critical element of reconstruction. SIGAR acknowledges that oversight in Afghanistan is “uniquely challenging.” One of the biggest impediments to oversight is limited mobility due to insurgent violence. The Project On Government Oversight has blogged about “oversight access bubbles” shrinking as U.S. and NATO troops withdraw and leave vast areas of the country unguarded. SIGAR estimates that no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible to civilian oversight personnel by the end of 2014. USAID and other international relief and development organizations must therefore develop alternative oversight methods. Last month, POGO expressed concerns about USAID’s plan, which outsources oversight to contractors. USAID continues to have contract oversight problems, which makes us worry about oversight of the overseers. (This was always a problem in Iraq also. Their IG, the SIGIR, reported many abuses and lack of completion of projects. They had to hire local national contractors and make them take lots of pictures to actually see what the problems on a project were. Thus another reason to terminate foreign aid for reconstruction is when security is so bad you cannot get your own trusted observers to a work site. vj) Lesson #4: A reconstruction effort must have clearly articulated goals and a sound way to measure progress toward those goals. While it is widely acknowledged that strategic planning is a must, SIGAR has repeatedly found that such planning has been ignored throughout the reconstruction effort. For example, the U.S. has never articulated a clear anti-corruption strategy in Afghanistan. SIGAR also found that, even when nominal strategic plans exist, U.S.-government implementing agencies, including USAID, do not consistently articulate the goals they hope to achieve and the metrics they intend to use to assess whether those goals have been achieved. In short, the problem is that these agencies emphasize outputs over outcomes. (When I was in Iraq, the reconstruction programs were run by civilian subject matter experts in IRMO, which was initially staffed via the DoD, then State. They were experts, not STATE department employees. In Afghanistan, all the leaders of reconstruction were STATE Dept. employees who had no clue about reconstruction, construction or anti-corruption practices. I was there in 2009 and because my anti-corruption training program kept finding corruption, their prime contractor shut it down. They were more interested in training consulting revenues than reporting corruption, and had no faith the State Dept. people would do anything to back them up. vj) Finally, Special Inspector General Sopko’s written testimony notes that USAID needs to be “more forthright in providing complete information to both Congress and the American people about its reconstruction activities in Afghanistan.” This became a flashpoint at the hearing due to recent events. Earlier this week, USA Today reported that SIGAR had accused USAID of concealing from Congress information showing that the Afghan government is unable to prevent contracting with individuals and companies tied to insurgents and terrorist groups. At the hearing, Sampler took strong issue with the USA Today article, insisting it was false. Sopko stood by the accusation. (State Dept. "weenies" avoid conflict and seem to always support the conflict country government, no matter what. Rather than have people who can be strong overseers to protect US investments in reconstruction, they hide information. From my experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. See more at my old blog on corruption at http://webworks.typepad.com/corruption_in_iraq ). Judging from the highly charged questioning at the hearing, especially by Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Representative Peter Welch (D-VT), Congress is far from done on the issue of waste in Afghanistan reconstruction. Expect many more animated hearings in the near future. By: Neil Gordon Investigator, POGO
Submitted by usmilitarycontracting.org at: April 5, 2014
SIGAR's Legacy will be a few arrests, no foreign convictions, a little whitewashing of the facts and overall - effectively ineffective. U.S. Small Businesses and the U.S. Economy has been harmed by the Obama Administration not fullfilling the intent of Congress and that of this $ 100 Billion spent in Afghanistan - and it is closer to $ 1 Trillion - Obama has failed to makes sure U.S. Businesses benefited by oversight of every aspect of the Department of Defense and the Criminal Organization that operates in Rock Island, Camp Arifjan Kuwait, Camp As Asaliya-Qatar and the Pentagon. The Organized Crime rings that are headed by General Officers of DLA, Army, Army Corp of Engineers, USAF, Navy, and the Marines dwarfs the problems of USAID. SIGAR is a flash in the pan and will not solve the corruption that is systemic in the DoD Agencies.

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