Wasteful spending in a major U.S. war zone is often the result of agency personnel failing to ask common-sense questions, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said Thursday in his first public talk since assuming his post in July.
John Sopko, speaking to a packed room at the Stimson Center the same week as Afghan President Hamid Karzai is visiting Washington, criticized the Defense Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development for a lack of due diligence to curb waste that stems from five core causes: inadequate planning, poor quality assurance, poor security, questionable sustainability and corruption.
“At $28 million a day, the United States has spent more money rebuilding Afghanistan over the past 11 years than we spent rebuilding Germany after World War II,” said Sopko, a longtime aide to retired Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. The 200 auditors and inspectors who work for SIGAR “are in a unique position to have an impact on problems because we’re the only agency with a sole mission” of uncovering waste and abuse by all U.S. funded organizations working in the still-dangerously divided country.
Though a temporary agency with 200 auditors and inspectors, SIGAR has the funding, he added, to remain at work past the 2014 planned withdrawal of most U.S. troops.
One telling example of wasteful spending, he said, is a garrison for the Afghan army in the northern province of Kunduz. The $70 million multi-building project was contracted out in 2008 but missed its construction deadlines. When SIGAR inspectors arrived at the site in 2010, they found “major problems, with the roofs sagging because of improper welding and unstable soil that caused buildings to collapse,” he said.
The Defense Department was told to fix it, but when inspectors returned in 2011, the site remained in “deplorable condition” with buildings not being used as planned. “Yet for some inexplicable reason,” Sopko said, “DoD released the contractor from all obligations and paid them in full, without fixing things.”
The reason was “a failure to ask simple logical questions you’d ask in buying a house or advising your daughter where to go to college,” the IG said, such as “Are these buildings needed?” and “ Have you asked the Afghans?” When SIGAR employees asked Defense employees, “often the answer was no, or you got a blank stare,” Sopko said. “In case you think I’m picking on DoD, USAID is no better. We’re missing a number of buildings we thought we had built in Afghanistan.”
Another example of poor performance he mentioned may have contributed to the deaths of coalition troops. SIGAR released a report in 2012 on a multi-million-dollar project to prevent highway culverts in Afghanistan from being used to hide improvised explosive devices. The fact that grates were missing when the project was supposedly completed was reported to SIGAR by commanding Gen. John Allen, Sopko said.
Oversight in a war zone is dangerous, he acknowledged. “As the military draws down, there are fewer places we can go to safely,” he said, “but we’re working to find ways around that, and it’s not insurmountable.” SIGAR has 60 employees currently on the ground, more than the FBI or other inspectors general, he noted, with some housed and embedded with U.S. troops.
Other challenges include the fact that the Afghans lack financial and technical capabilities, he said, “and corruption is so corrosive, it’s eating away at the reputation” of Afghanistan, which ranks with North Korea and Somalia as the “worst in the world.”
SIGAR has uncovered bribery schemes by locals, contractors and U.S. personnel, he said, and has made use of the Afghan court system.
Touting SIGAR’s “innovative ways of conducting oversight,” Sopko said the agency has made “aggressive recommendations for suspension and debarment” of 206 contractors accused of fraud, with 43 of them involving companies that actively supported the insurgency. Many of those referrals, however, were not acted on, which is why Sopko is seeking his own authority to suspend and debar.
Soon after Sopko took the job, SIGAR arrived at a joint strategy on investigative priorities working with inspectors general at the State and Defense departments and USAID.
“I don’t want to sound pessimistic,” he said, stressing the advantages SIGAR has in the breadth of its focus. He has “unique hiring authority” in that the employees sign on “at will” so he can base staffing on changing needs. All must be willing to go to Afghanistan, he said, noting he tells newcomers, “You must view this as a mission, not a job, and have that fire in the belly because we have a limited amount of time to do good.”
SIGAR strives to “be fair and aggressive but relevant -- we must do it soon,” he said. Employees must cater to multiple “clients” in the military, Congress and among the Afghans, Sopko said, having also added as “clients” many specialists in academia and at think tanks. “I hope and believe we have succeeded,” he said.
Asked about lessons from the U.S. Iraq experience on how to exit Afghanistan while using resources and contractors efficiently, Sopko said he’s “impressed with how DoD is handling it. I’m not sure USAID got the message -- though it’s too early to tell.”