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Afghanistan Watchdog Pushes Pentagon on Lavish Spending

A top U.S. watchdog is raising new questions about the Pentagon's $700 million effort to boost Afghanistan's economy.

Afghan workers unload bricks from a kiln
Afghan workers unload bricks from a kiln in Kabul, 24 September 2007. Some 50 factories in western Kabul produce hand-made bricks used for the reconstruction of buildings in the Afghan capital which were destroyed during two decades of war. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

The top American watchdog for Afghanistan’s reconstruction is investigating whether a Pentagon task force charged with juicing Afghanistan’s moribund economy misspent millions of taxpayer dollars on lavish overseas travel and complicated development projects that did little to create new jobs or spur new growth in the country.

John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, made public Tuesday, Dec. 16, two letters to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in which he questioned the “troubling allegations” that American officials and contractors from the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) mismanaged projects and spent taxpayer dollars on extravagant travel to Paris and Milan during their operations in Afghanistan.

Sopko also questioned the task force’s large investments in the growth of the Afghan gem industry. His letter noted that TFBSO sent Afghan jewelers to monthlong gem training programs in India and may have sent others to Paris and Milan without providing proof that those programs resulted in any lasting economic development in the industry.

“Despite these expenditures, it is not clear to me that the gem industry program produced any positive and lasting economic development or increased employment in Afghanistan,” he wrote to Hagel.

The task force, which is slated to cease operations entirely by March 2015, has until Dec. 24 of this year to respond to Sopko’s requests for all plane tickets and hotel receipts for the 15 members of the task force who traveled most frequently over the last two years. His letter also requested analysis of program outputs from gem designers’ classes in India.

A Pentagon spokesman told Foreign Policy on Tuesday that the Defense Department will respond directly to Sopko’s letter before speaking to the press.

The United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2002, much of which Sopko has revealed was mismanaged by American contractors or government employees. Although the United States is winding down combat operations in Afghanistan, with most troops slated to head home before the end of the year, 10,500 are expected to stay back to help with reconstruction efforts.

Sopko’s new report drills down into one of those programs, a $700 million effort designed to help lower Afghan unemployment rates and develop the country’s agricultural, energy, and industrial sectors. One of the largest projects the task force oversaw was a joint project between Afghan and American engineers to address growing concerns over the safety of the Soviet-era Sheberghan-Mazar pipeline, which shuttles natural gas from an oil field in northwest Afghanistan to a fertilizer and power plant in Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city.

According to TFBSO, the pipeline, which was built in 1970 and “suffered years of corrosion” — as Sopko’s letter put it — required 15 kilometers of new pipe to replace sections that were considered too dangerous for use. The task force was slated to pull out of Afghanistan on Nov. 21 and failed to complete the project before its departure. It oversaw the replacement of only 12 kilometers and left the remaining three kilometers to be replaced by Afghan engineers. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted that the pipeline, which is 89.1 kilometers in length, could very well have other leaky segments that were never addressed because the task force only tested a handful of segments.

Since taking on his role in 2012, Sopko has repeatedly pointed to lack of oversight as one of the greatest risk factors for corruption in the reconstruction process. And as of Dec. 3, when TFBSO responded to Sopko’s letter, Afghan officials had not tied in the last section of the pipeline, and TFBSO confirmed it would not be present for the tie-in. TFBSO’s response cited security concerns that forced the relocation of Afghan National Security Forces to another high-priority area as the cause of delay, and it claimed that multiple segments had already been installed by Afghans independent of American supervision and that it had full faith that the remaining three kilometers would be installed successfully.

SIGAR also highlighted potential mismanagement in the mapping of underground gas reserves, which will be further explored in an audit that Sopko’s office will release in early February.

Photo by Shah Marai