Worries grow about overseeing billions more in aid to Afghanistan

Watchdog says it will be harder to oversee aid once troops withdraw

Afghan workers clear out residential and government buildings destroyed by the civil war in western Kabul in 2003.  (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images file photo)
Afghan workers clear out residential and government buildings destroyed by the civil war in western Kabul in 2003. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images file photo)
Posted July 29, 2021 at 2:02pm

With American troops, civilians and contractors leaving Afghanistan, but billions of dollars in U.S. aid continuing to flow in, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction is painting a dire picture of conditions on the ground and the prospect for waste in the U.S.'s ongoing aid.

The American government has spent, by some estimates, more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan over nearly two decades — on U.S. military operations, aid to Afghanistan’s military and civilian sectors, care for American veterans and interest on the borrowed money. 

Going forward, President Joe Biden has promised to continue the aid to Afghanistan’s government, including nearly $4 billion proposed for the coming fiscal year.

The latest quarterly report to Congress from the inspector general, John Sopko, made public Thursday, warns that if the ongoing and future spending is not effectively monitored, the wasteful spending in Afghanistan, already reckoned by the auditors at some $3.8 billion, could get worse.

In a virtual press conference with defense reporters Thursday, Sopko said his team would prefer to maintain a presence in Afghanistan but can perform its audits and criminal investigations from elsewhere, as long as it has access to Afghan government records. But that access is not yet assured.

“Is it going to be more difficult? Yes. Are we going to miss more theft and misconduct? Yes,” he said. 

“But we can do our mission as Congress has told us to do it,” he said. Still, he added, “You need to do oversight, otherwise, it will be wasted, and it will actually harm us in the long run.”

‘Strict’ conditions sought

Some $6.7 billion in U.S. funds await disbursement in Afghanistan, he said. For fiscal 2022, Biden wants $3.3 billion in Defense Department aid to support Afghanistan’s army and police, plus another $364 million in assistance for civilian programs. 

On June 1, Sopko sent lawmakers and Biden administration officials a white paper requesting, among other things, that the U.S. government “strictly condition” future aid to Afghanistan on his team maintaining access to that government’s key records. 

The white paper, obtained by CQ Roll Call, cites the need to access some of the Afghan government’s personnel, inventory and financial management documents. 

Sopko said he has gotten encouraging feedback from U.S. Central Command and some administration officials about his proposals, but it remains unclear what kind of steps they might take or the Afghan government might enact.

Lawmakers worried

Congress is already recommending some actions.

Earlier this month, the House Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal 2022 Defense spending bill that would require the Defense secretary to certify, for the first time, that funds for Afghanistan’s forces will be “used for their intended purposes” and will not contribute to “waste, fraud and abuse.”

“The Committee continues to be concerned with the proper oversight of funds, particularly given the challenges of administering programs from over-the-horizon locations,” the panel’s report said.

The appropriators also said they are not going to fund any major new projects in Afghanistan and they expect the Afghan government to start paying more of the bills for things such as fuel and other operating expenses going forward.  

The House panel’s report also indicated that money for paying Afghan army and police personnel must only go to people who are actually enrolled in the forces, a reaction to reports that so-called “ghost soldiers” who were not actually in the ranks have been receiving some payments.

Yet Sopko said Thursday that ghost personnel are “still a problem.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee, too, is concerned about how new spending in Afghanistan will be monitored.

The committee’s new National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2022 would require the Pentagon to brief the panel on “plans to execute” the funding for Afghan security forces after the U.S. withdrawal, according to a committee summary of the as-yet-unpublished draft measure. 

Bigger deal now

Other audit organizations — including the Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon inspector general — also cover U.S. spending in Afghanistan.

Sopko’s latest report to Congress said the auditors’ mission in Afghanistan is more, not less, important now. 

“SIGAR’s oversight mission has become both more consequential and more challenging in the absence of a major U.S. troop presence, and in light of the growing insurgent pressure on the Afghan government,” it said. “Despite repeated reductions in American staff at the U.S. embassy, SIGAR remains the only U.S. oversight agency on the ground in Afghanistan, so maximizing the reach and impact of our statutory duty takes on increased importance.”