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Afghanistan Oversight: Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen?

What’s in a name? Plenty, if your job is to oversee U.S. spending in Afghanistan. The end of Operation Enduring Freedom and the beginning of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel on January 1, 2015, are creating a bureaucratic stir in Washington.

First, the good news. In February, the Department of Defense (DoD) declared Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS) as “a qualifying operation for award of the Afghanistan Campaign Medal.” According to former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, OFS:

will pursue two missions with the support of the Afghan government and the Afghan people. We will work with our allies and partners as part of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission to continue training, advising, and assisting Afghan security forces. And we will continue our counterterrorism mission against the remnants of Al-Qaeda to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used to stage attacks against our homeland.

Second, the head-scratching news. DoD thought it would be a good idea to create a new Afghanistan operation name, but it failed to consider the unintended likely consequences: namely, the substandard and nontransparent oversight of billions of taxpayer dollars.

According to law, the Inspector General (IG) for DoD, the State Department, or the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is assigned the role of lead IG for overseas contingency operations (Sec. 848) lasting longer than 60 days. That provision was created by Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Jim Webb (D-VA) in response to the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan’s recommendation to create a permanent IG for overseas operations.

Michael Horowitz, the head of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, is “required to designate a lead Inspector General for this overseas contingency operation….” Horowitz picked DoD IG Jon Rymer.

The change in operation names is creating confusion within the Washington bureaucracy. The DoD IG is assuming the role of lead Inspector General while the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), established in 2008, continues its excellent work overseeing the more than $100 billion spent so far on the reconstruction. Congress should consider amending SIGAR’s sunset provision (Sec. 1221) and allow the aggressive and effective watchdog to continue, as long as necessary, leading oversight of all Afghanistan spending.

Horowitz’s letter emphasized to Rymer that the DoD IG and SIGAR must “cooperate and closely coordinate their current oversight missions.” The letter further reaffirmed SIGAR’s authorities and responsibilities. This was probably done to appease Senator McCaskill, who wants to ensure that the SIGAR is not replaced, as reported by Politico.

The designation of the DoD IG as lead Inspector General for OFS most likely won’t change the current Afghan oversight landscape. However, despite the collegial tone of Horowitz’s letter, we’re worried about having IGs with overlapping jurisdiction, especially considering that SIGAR has a successful track record of oversight in Afghanistan and the DoD IG doesn’t. With the IGs at State and USAID also involved in the Afghanistan reconstruction, it could be a situation of too many cooks in the kitchen and weakening the broth. This could lead to duplicative efforts, waste, and plenty of counter-productive political infighting inside the watchdog community.

The designation of the DoD IG as lead Inspector General is also troubling given the DoD IG’s ridiculous policy of labeling reports “For Official Use Only,” which keeps reports under wraps unless specifically requested through the Freedom of Information Act, and given its recent attempt to classify a large amount of data about the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The DoD IG’s general track record for whitewashing reports and withdrawing reports causes added concern about that office’s ability to conduct real oversight of Afghanistan spending. The DoD IG has also been designated at the lead IG for Ebola operations in Africa, so it really has it hands full.