Did the gas station in Afghanistan cost the United States $43 million, as reported by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), or less than $10 million, as claimed by the Department of Defense (DoD)? The answer to this question is starting to take a back seat to a new concern: Is the Afghanistan reconstruction watchdog producing subpar work or is it being unfairly maligned for shining a light on problems in the reconstruction effort?
What we found while looking into the gas station affair was quite extraordinary, and leads us to believe the latter. In October last year, SIGAR reported that a DoD task force spent $42.7 million to build a compressed natural gas filling station in Afghanistan that should have cost less than $500,000. SIGAR based its findings on an economic assessment performed for the DoD by a private consulting firm. In January, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Brian McKeon testified at a Senate hearing that SIGAR was wrong and that the actual cost of the gas station was “well under $10 million.” McKeon quoted this figure from a two-page memorandum that the consulting firm’s CEO, Robert Schraven, had submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) just days before the hearing. The memo was not provided to SIGAR.
In April, Special Inspector General John Sopko told a House Armed Services subcommittee that, after further investigation, he was holding firm to the $43 million cost figure. He testified that Schraven told SIGAR investigators that he didn’t write the paragraph containing the cost estimate McKeon quoted at the hearing, and that he “strongly disagreed” with the new lower cost figure. Sopko also testified that, according to emails SIGAR obtained, Schraven collaborated on the memo with a former member of the DoD task force responsible for the gas station project. That former official told SIGAR he “did not know how any information he provided may have been used” and did not review the memo before it was submitted to the Senate.
This succession of events raises additional questions for us. Who actually wrote the passage in the memo containing the lower gas station cost estimate? Why was this memo created for SASC?
If the Pentagon orchestrated a scheme to discredit or undermine SIGAR, it wouldn’t be the first time. Two years ago, USA Today reported that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan developed a public relations strategy designed to weaken the impact of SIGAR findings that paint the U.S. reconstruction effort in a bad light.
Over the years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department have also clashed with the watchdog.
SIGAR’s critics recently got a chance to air their grievances in Politico. In a lengthy profile of Sopko that dubbed him “the Donald Trump of inspectors general,” a parade of anonymous sources—described as current and former government officials and SIGAR employees—lambasted Sopko and the investigative work of his office, including the gas station audit. These sources “requested anonymity,” according to Politico, “for fear that Sopko would retaliate against them, entangling them in inquiries that could lead to hefty personal legal bills, not to mention a potential public shaming.”
The suggestion that some fear retaliation by Sopko and thus were only willing to be anonymous sources is concerning. But the only specific example given in the story is irresponsibly conflating retaliation with the natural tension between investigative bodies and the officials under review.
There were also allegations that Sopko wrongly maligned a cashmere goat-farming program. Here again, though, our review shows that the story might not be quite as portrayed. SIGAR’s written testimony on the subject never represented that they had audited the program. It is true that Sopko was flippant in oral testimony about the whereabouts of the cashmere goats. But in his written testimony SIGAR noted, “SIGAR has not conducted an independent analysis of the cashmere support program.” They go on to note the improved operations and employment created by the program.
Inspectors General play an essential role in effective oversight of federal programs. We’ve seen too many examples of watchdogs who have abused their authority, or who have failed to be adequately independent to conduct the quality oversight their jobs demand. Allegations of impropriety must be taken seriously, but if they’re ill-founded, these kinds of attacks create a significant chilling effect that ultimately hurts government effectiveness.
According to SIGAR’s latest quarterly report, about $113 billion has been devoted to Afghanistan’s rebuilding, with approximately $12 billion remaining to be spent. SIGAR will continue operating until reconstruction funds drop below $250 million. That’s assuming its growing legion of critics doesn’t succeed in bringing it down before then.