Watchdog Taps Contractors for Lessons on Rebuilding Afghanistan


U.S. contractors on the front lines of the mission know better than “the happy talk coming out” of Afghanistan, said John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

On Tuesday, Sopko tasked a major contractors group with supplying lessons learned and best practices to help the U.S. effort to rebuild and stabilize the country against terrorism. A similar request to the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development produced a “shocking result,” he said. “I asked for their top 10 successful programs and their 10 least successful, and none offered anything but general improvements—with no specifics or direct causal links,” he said. “In an era of declining funding, we have to know what works and what doesn’t.”

Speaking at a lunch put on the Professional Services Council, an Arlington-Va.-based association of major contractors, Sopko praised the role of contractors in U.S. government work from supplying Revolutionary War troops to helping invent the atomic bomb.

In Afghanistan, they are expected to play a continuing role after most U.S. troops officially depart at the end of 2014, and “many have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Sopko said, citing three contractors who died earlier this month from a suicide bombing in Kabul. After the September 2013 truck bomb attack on the U.S. consulate in Herat, Sopko’s representative there told him that contractors were the first to engage in a one-hour gun fight that prevented further enemy penetration of the complex -- a fact not reported at the time, he said.

The U.S. total investment in Afghanistan of more than $100 billion since 2002 is the “most costly effort to rebuild a nation in U.S. history -- more than what we give to Israel, Egypt and Pakistan combined,” Sopko said. The U.S. will leave when the funds fall to $250 million, but with $20 billion still in the pipeline, U.S. agencies will be there for some time, he said. Only 20 percent of the country, however, is currently accessible to SIGAR’s 50 auditors there on the ground due to continuing combat, he said, a drop from 50 percent in 2009.

The urgency of the approaching troop departure has prompted SIGAR to accelerate audits, having released 30 reports in the past quarter, compared with about four during that time frame in the past.

The dialogue with contractors comes as SIGAR is butting heads with a Marine General with the International Security Assistance Force in a public relations battle. A Jan. 30 USA Today story said Gen. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford sought to blunt the impact of a coming SIGAR report finding construction defects in a $600,000 U.S.-built hospital by releasing an advance statement praising the hospital -- even though it is located in an area too dangerous to inspect. Last Thursday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote to Dunford demanding an explanation for actions she said undermine SIGAR.

The general’s moves were “silly and waste money,” Sopko told Government Executive. “They should spend more time fixing problems and less time spinning to make themselves look better.” What would be less silly, Sopko added, is if such tactics by subjects of SIGAR audits introduce “any obstructionism in us going out to do our work, or creating a chilling effect on people talking to us.”

Explaining that SIGAR’s 200 employees are auditors “not cheerleaders,” Sopko defended the use of the press and social media to promote the work of inspectors general. “Oversight is most effective when it’s public,” he said. IG and Government Accountability Office reports “often fall in the black hole of Washington background noise and go unnoticed, useful to no one, and have no impact.” His team, he added, “didn’t give up higher-paying jobs to kill a bunch of trees. Press reports spur agency officials to take corrective action,” with the added benefit of increased whistleblower hotline tips on waste and fraud.

What is necessary to stabilize Afghanistan, he said, is implementation of the more than 700 recommendations, such as those involving safeguarding investments against theft and misuse of funds. Contracts should be “sustainable,” he added, noting that some contracts allow purchase of buses but don’t pay for their maintenance.

Among the biggest issues affecting contractors has been the Afghan government’s attempts to withhold $900 million in bogus taxes on 43 contractors or subcontactors. When Sopko personally raised this issue with U.S. commanders and embassy personnel, “they didn’t want to hear it,” he said, adding that he personally visited the Afghan border with Uzbekistan to see the trucks carrying fuel being held up while such taxes are paid. “Contractors are faced with not knowing whether it’s a bribe or a tax, and we don’t want them in that position or they won’t want to work there,” Sopko said.

Prohibitions against such a tax and requirements that U.S. aid to the Afghan government be cut as reimbursement for the illegal tax were included, Sopko noted, in both the fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act and January’s catchall spending bill. “It’s a good example of how SIGAR and the contractor community work together.” 

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.