For nearly four years, POGO has been closely following the operations of Afghanistan’s reconstruction watchdog, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). As long ago as July 2009, we expressed doubts that SIGAR was up to the challenge of protecting the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on rebuilding the war-torn country.
The intervening years haven’t been kind to SIGAR, with several harsh performance reviews and a major executive house-cleaning. But in May, POGO’s spirits were lifted by President Obama’s appointment of John F. Sopko as SIGAR’s new permanent chief. Since then, SIGAR has been relatively busy, releasing one inspection report (the first in nearly three years), four audit reports, and one quarterly report to Congress.
More than $89 billion has been appropriated for the reconstruction of security, governance, and socioeconomic development in Afghanistan. That total will soon reach the $100 billion mark. (By contrast, U.S. reconstruction aid to Germany in the seven years after World War II amounted to less than $35 billion in today’s dollars.) With the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan scheduled to end in 2014, the pressure is growing to complete reconstruction work, as is the need for aggressive scrutiny of this work to protect the taxpayers’ investment.
“The window of opportunity is closing,” SIGAR Inspector General Sopko writes in SIGAR’s latest quarterly report. “That is why, under my leadership, SIGAR will intensify its oversight work…We will be aggressive. We will be accurate. We will be fair. And we will be smart.”
SIGAR expects to have a full-time staff of 175 employees by the end of August, a 20 percent increase since March. Even with the staffing increase (which will grow by another 14 percent over the next year), SIGAR faces an uphill battle. As POGO blogged last week, two of the three principal contracting agencies in Afghanistan, the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), seem to be ignoring Commission on Wartime Contracting recommendations that would vastly improve their oversight capabilities. SIGAR’s quarterly report notes that USAID’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued only two reports during the last quarter related to Afghanistan reconstruction while State’s OIG issued none.
Sopko promises to aggressively expose and remedy corruption and fraudulent contract spending. Among his strategies are a new financial audit program of “high-risk” reconstruction contracts and a new Joint Strategic Oversight Plan that will scrutinize 13 areas deemed essential to achieving U.S. reconstruction goals. These proactive initiatives may be our last chance to deter and minimize waste, fraud, and abuse in Afghanistan before the 2014 transition.