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Darkness Falls on Afghanistan Oversight

This week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its 26th Quarterly Report to Congress. The last quarter saw great accomplishments in Afghanistan, as well as a disturbing reminder of our government’s obsession with secrecy.

The final three months of 2014 marked a milestone in Afghanistan, with NATO formally ending its 13-year combat mission. Combat forces were replaced by the Resolute Support Mission (RSM), a much smaller, U.S.-led NATO force that will train and advise the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), in which the U.S. has invested $65 billion. Congress has appropriated $107.5 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2001, more than $15 billion of which has yet to be spent.

The quarter also marked a more troubling milestone. For many years, SIGAR kept Congress and the public informed about our $65-billion investment in the ANSF by regularly reporting on the effectiveness of the Afghan military and police. That all changed this month when the RSM began to retroactively classify most ANSF data, including information about troop strength, salaries, training, equipment, and infrastructure projects. SIGAR will now publish this data in a classified appendix that only those with a high-level security clearance can read. RSM commander U.S. Army General John F. Campbell's claim that releasing such information could endanger American and Afghan lives is ludicrous: this data, which is not considered a secret by the Afghans, has been included in every SIGAR quarterly report for the past six years. (We would be remiss if we didn’t point out the equally ludicrous practice by the Department of Defense Inspector General of keeping its assessments of the ANSF classified.)

SIGAR also got the brush-off last quarter from the State Department, which did not answer any of its questions about economic and social development and failed to respond to SIGAR’s attempts to follow up. Meeting such defiance is nothing new for the reconstruction watchdog, which has had its share of battles with State, the DoD, and USAID.

The report wasn’t all bad news, though. SIGAR issued 17 performance audits, financial audits, alert letters, and other reports. It found that DoD implemented more than 75 percent of SIGAR’s recommendationsin a timely and successful manner, reducing the risk of fraud, waste, and abuse of reconstruction funds. SIGAR’s investigators recovered $53.7 million and saved taxpayers an additional $12 million. To date, criminal fines, restitutions, forfeitures, civil settlement recoveries, and cost savings resulting from SIGAR’s investigations total more than $570 million. Its investigations also resulted last quarter in five arrests, six indictments, six convictions, and one sentencing.

SIGAR referred for suspension and debarment 12 individuals and 5 companies for alleged fraud and poor contract performance. The watchdog reiterated its concerns about the U.S. Army’s refusal to bar suspected terrorist supporters from receiving federal contracts. However, the IG is optimistic that the new U.S. military command in Afghanistan shares those concerns, reporting that the Army’s newly appointed suspension and debarment official began a review of the issue.

With the departure of combat troops, Afghanistan has entered a new era. SIGAR promises that its oversight will be “more aggressive than ever, even as carrying out that oversight becomes more difficult and dangerous.” Given the steadily shrinking areas of access in the country, ongoing conflicts with the reconstruction agencies, and a growing shroud of secrecy concealing its work, we hope SIGAR can deliver on that promise.