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Tiny Bubbles: Afghan Reconstruction Oversight Shrinks

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By the end of 2014, many U.S.-funded projects under construction in Afghanistan will be outside the U.S. government’s “oversight access bubbles,” according to a government watchdog.

John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), presented this alarming finding in testimony last week before the House Committee on Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

SIGAR defines oversight bubbles as areas in which the U.S. government provides “both adequate security and rapid emergency medical support to civilian employees traveling to the area.”

Sopko’s recent testimony highlights a worsening oversight gap. The U.S. government’s oversight reach in Afghanistan has decreased from 68 percent in 2009 to an estimated 21 percent by the end of 2014 (see pages 15-18 of the PDF). This will get worse as the troop drawdown continues and bases are closed. What should worry taxpayers is the fact that SIGAR’s 2014 map shows more than 70 active U.S. reconstruction projects costing over $725 million that will fall outside the oversight bubbles. This oversight gap is an open invitation for waste, fraud, and abuse

To make matters worse, SIGAR’s listed projects do not include completed projects that the Afghanistan government might not be able to sustain. U.S. overseers must keep a close eye on the billions of dollars already spent to ensure the money isn’t wasted. Despite the fact that many facilities have been turned over to the Afghan government, we are still paying operation and maintenance costs for facilities that are deteriorating.

According to SIGAR, “significant portions of Afghanistan are already inaccessible to SIGAR, other inspectors general, the Government Accountability Office, and other U.S. civilians conducting oversight, such as contracting officers.” In a letter to the Departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), SIGAR wrote:

It is clear that everyone working in Afghanistan, including SIGAR, will struggle to continue providing the direct U.S. civilian oversight that is needed in Afghanistan. U.S. military officials have told us that they will provide civilian access only to areas within a one-hour round trip of an advanced medical facility. Although exceptions can be made to this general policy, we have been told that requests to visit a reconstruction site outside of these “oversight bubbles” will probably be denied. Similarly, State Department officials have warned us that their ability to reach reconstruction sites will be extremely limited due to constraints on providing emergency medical support without assistance from the Department of Defense (DOD). They have also warned us about the challenges of providing adequate protection to civilians traveling in unsecure areas.

With lots of money still on the table (as of September 30, 2013, the U.S. government has appropriated $22 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction projects, of which approximately $18 billion was obligated and $14 billion disbursed), the government has to come up with a better oversight plan.