The U.S. has appropriated about $110 billion over 14 years attempting to rebuild Afghanistan, and $15 billion remains unspent as of March 2015.
But there may not be enough watchdogs left in Afghanistan to adequately oversee how the remaining money is spent, according to testimony prepared by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Sopko warned that in-country staff from the SIGAR and other watchdogs—including the Government Accountability Office, and IG offices at the Department of Defense, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development—have been reduced by 45 percent, and that further cuts may be necessary as the State Department draws down its mission. In addition, Sopko said, State’s decision to “normalize” its presence in Afghanistan will force the SIGAR to reduce its deployed staff again by 40 percent, from 42 to 25 positions, by the summer of 2016.
The oversight provided by these federal watchdogs will be “lost and gone forever,” according to Sopko’s prepared remarks. “[W]hile the troops may be coming home, the checks are still going over there,” he said.
Sopko gave his testimony yesterday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security. His remarks were spotlighted by Foreign Policy and the Washington Examiner.
In his prepared statement, Sopko described the forced staff reductions as a challenge to his office’s independence. “SIGAR was told that this 40 percent cut is non-negotiable,” he said. “This arbitrary number was developed without SIGAR’s input, and embassy officials did not provide any explanation for how they determined these cuts.”
Like all IG offices, the SIGAR had independent hiring authority, and the Departments of Defense and State are required by law to provide adequate resources for the SIGAR to carry out its mission in Afghanistan, according to Sopko’s prepared remarks. “Now we get an edict from the State Department that basically says, ‘this is your number, live with it,’” he said in response to questions at yesterday’s hearing.
A State Department official told Foreign Policy’s Situation Report that “any assertion that the Embassy Kabul unilaterally ordered SIGAR to make staffing cuts in 2016 is false. In preparation for a congressionally mandated rightsizing exercise, an embassy official in Kabul discussed staffing size with SIGAR, but underscored that the exercise was the beginning of a dialogue on what functions and positions must be kept, not a decision to cut.”
“We are happy that State is now willing to discuss SIGAR’s staffing numbers,” a SIGAR spokesperson told the Situation Report. “However, on Monday SIGAR was informed by senior US Embassy leadership not to bother challenging the staffing cuts.”
Sopko did not mince words in describing the effects of the drawdown in oversight personnel. “Too precipitous a drop in U.S. and Coalition resources to manage and oversee our 14-year investment in Afghanistan could be disastrous,” he said.
The following figure from Sopko’s testimony illustrates the reduction in investigative and law enforcement staff from the SIGAR and other offices, at a time when billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars remain unspent in Afghanistan.
In addition to highlighting the drawdown in oversight staff, Sopko sounded the alarm that “neither the United States nor its Afghan allies truly know how many Afghan soldiers and police are available for duty, or, by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities.” The SIGAR and other watchdogs have identified weaknesses such as “limited U.S. and Afghan oversight of data collection processes, little or no physical verification of [Afghan National Security Forces] ANSF personnel existence and daily attendance, and lack of controls over payroll processes.” This concern is becoming increasingly urgent since, as Sopko pointed out, the U.S. government is “becoming more and more reliant on accurate and reliable data on the reconstruction effort produced by the Afghan government and other international partners.”
Exacerbating the problem is a lack of access to large swaths of the country. In recent years, Sopko has warned that many U.S.-funded projects in Afghanistan could soon be outside the U.S. government’s “oversight bubbles.” At one point, he said the U.S. government’s oversight access in Afghanistan would shrink from 68 percent of the country in 2009 to an estimated 21 percent in 2014.
With the drawdown of U.S. oversight personnel in Afghanistan, “SIGAR’s role becomes even more important,” Sopko said in his concluding remarks. He said his office will continue to push for more accurate data on the Afghan National Security Forces.