Top Afghan Watchdog Says U.S. Withdrawal Complicates Efforts to Fight Fraud

The top watchdog overseeing the deeply flawed U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan has warned for months that his agency’s ability to fight corruption and fraud will be drastically curtailed as the Pentagon continues to bring troops back home. But it turns out, the problems will be worse than even he thought. Officials with the watchdog ...

Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ismael E. Ortega
Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ismael E. Ortega
Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ismael E. Ortega

The top watchdog overseeing the deeply flawed U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan has warned for months that his agency's ability to fight corruption and fraud will be drastically curtailed as the Pentagon continues to bring troops back home. But it turns out, the problems will be worse than even he thought. Officials with the watchdog organization plans to hire Afghan inspectors to help check up on U.S.-funded projects, but they acknowledge that won't be enough to ensure the reconstruction efforts are free of waste and abuse.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told Foreign Policy on Thursday that a February meeting with officials from other government agencies, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations left him deeply pessimistic about his auditors' ability to find ways of ensuring proper oversight as the war winds down. Sopko's agency, commonly known as SIGAR, pressed for information on how the other organizations do so-called third party monitoring of U.S.-funded projects elsewhere in the world. The government agencies and private institutions typically hire local residents in the countries where they are working to serve as de facto auditors, but warned him that those efforts often don't work as planned.

"I'll be honest with you: Maybe I was hoping for a silver bullet," Sopko said during an interview in his Virginia office just outside Washington. "The results are kind of mixed. People have thought of ideas and applied it, but they're not always as good as they're promised to be. I didn't walk away with an answer, and we're still mucking around trying to find one."

The top watchdog overseeing the deeply flawed U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan has warned for months that his agency’s ability to fight corruption and fraud will be drastically curtailed as the Pentagon continues to bring troops back home. But it turns out, the problems will be worse than even he thought. Officials with the watchdog organization plans to hire Afghan inspectors to help check up on U.S.-funded projects, but they acknowledge that won’t be enough to ensure the reconstruction efforts are free of waste and abuse.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told Foreign Policy on Thursday that a February meeting with officials from other government agencies, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations left him deeply pessimistic about his auditors’ ability to find ways of ensuring proper oversight as the war winds down. Sopko’s agency, commonly known as SIGAR, pressed for information on how the other organizations do so-called third party monitoring of U.S.-funded projects elsewhere in the world. The government agencies and private institutions typically hire local residents in the countries where they are working to serve as de facto auditors, but warned him that those efforts often don’t work as planned.

"I’ll be honest with you: Maybe I was hoping for a silver bullet," Sopko said during an interview in his Virginia office just outside Washington. "The results are kind of mixed. People have thought of ideas and applied it, but they’re not always as good as they’re promised to be. I didn’t walk away with an answer, and we’re still mucking around trying to find one."

The comments come as senior U.S. officials in Washington and Kabul grapple with what a U.S. military presence may look like in Afghanistan after 2014, when President Obama says he will withdraw the remainder of U.S. combat troops from the country. Reuters reported Monday that the White House is considering chopping the residual force due to remain there afterward to less than 5,000 troops – less than half of what senior U.S. military commanders say they need. At the same time, U.S. officials anticipate spending another $20 billion in Afghanistan.

Sopko said he has not yet determined how a drawdown to that size will affect his agency’s work after 2014. But SIGAR is likely to adopt a multi-prong approach for oversight after 2014 that includes contracting the work out to private companies, reviewing projects remotely through geospatial imagery and other technology, and recruiting Afghan civilians who already have worked for the U.S. government to perform inspections for SIGAR. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in particular, has employed a bevy of Afghans to work for the organization in the past, but is letting many of them go as it reduces its operations.

"They’ve already been cleared," Sopko said of their ability to work for the United States. "They’ve already been polygraphed and all that. We’re talking about hiring more people like that to supplement our inspections staff, which is made up of U.S. employees."

SIGAR was established by Congress in 2008 to expose waste, fraud and abuse in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, with a primary emphasis on development projects that have cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the last decade. Sopko took the reins at SIGAR in July 2012,

jump-starting an organization that had a reputation for being inept and poorly managed. His predecessor, Arnold Fields, came under fire on Capitol Hill and resigned in 2011 under pressure. Since Sopko has taken over, however, SIGAR has maintained a frenetic pace, pumping out reports and letters that underscore mismanagement and occasionally embarrass U.S. military commanders and diplomats.

Despite the troop drawdown, the agency’s size has remained steady so far, with about 200 employees spread across Afghanistan and Washington. However, the inability to find an easy answer on how to oversee reconstruction efforts after most of the troops go home at the end of this year also will mean it will cost more money to do so, Sopko said.

"It’s going to be tougher, it’s going to be more costly," he said, "And we’re going to have to remind Congress that it’s probably not going to be as good as all of the audits we’re doing now."

Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases. Twitter: @DanLamothe

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