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.