A doctor checks on girl as other parents and patients sit in a crowded room at the Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

A doctor checks on girl as other parents and patients sit in a crowded room at the Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Felipe Dana / AP

Afghanistan Watchdog Doubles Down on Oversight Efforts

Upcoming reports will serve as “cautionary and instructive guides” for future operations, said the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

The Afghanistan reconstruction watchdog is not letting up on its commitment to untangle how taxpayer dollars have been spent (and misspent) on projects in the Taliban-controlled country. In a new report released on Friday, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said, “Although the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has largely ended for now, SIGAR will continue its work to get to the bottom of why reconstruction efforts failed the way they did and to ensure that the U.S. government is offered a comprehensive and documented array of the lessons to be learned from the collapse.”

It was SIGAR’s 53th quarterly report to Congress, which comes two months after the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of the country on August 15. The office was established by the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act to audit and investigate spending on reconstruction projects in the country. The United States has appropriated or otherwise made available about $145.96 billion for reconstruction and other related efforts since fiscal 2002, according to the IG office. 

Special IG John Sopko, who has been in charge of the office since July 2012, wrote in the report: “Despite these tumultuous events, SIGAR remained productive throughout the quarter, issuing four performance-audit reports and five financial-audit reports.”

During this past quarter––July 1 to September 30––congressional committees have asked the IG’s office to look into the factors that led to the collapse of the Afghanistan government and the Afghan National Security Forces. Lawmakers also requested a status update on U.S. funds appropriated or obligated for reconstruction programs in Afghanistan; how much access the Taliban has to U.S. equipment, weapons or assistance; and possible risks to Afghan people—women and girls in particular—journalists and other groups, said the report. 

Also, a lawmaker has asked SIGAR to take on a joint investigation with the IGs for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State and Defense departments to review the special immigration visa program for Afghans. 

SIGAR has set up several task forces to respond to the requests. Those include staff members from all directorates, who will produce reports, said Sopko. He estimates the work will be done in 2022 and the reports will not only look at what happened in summer 2021, but serve as “cautionary and instructive guides” for future operations. 

“The days and weeks since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan have been personally and professionally fraught for our SIGAR staff,” Sopko continued. “Although we were able to successfully evacuate all our U.S. and locally employed Afghan staff from Kabul in August, many other Afghan colleagues with whom we have worked closely for the past decade or more remain trapped in the country and at risk of reprisal.” Like many others in the United States, the office is still concerned “about the pace of relief for these individuals and will continue to work with the [Biden] administration and Congress to bring them to safety.” 

The office had 164 employees at the end of September, down by 10 positions since the end of June, as noted in its previous quarterly report. “In addition, five locally employed staff (foreign service nationals, or FSNs) employed in Kabul have left the agency,” said the report. 

“At the beginning of the [3rd] quarter on July 1, SIGAR had nine staff members deployed to Afghanistan, supported by five [foreign service nationals]. By August 15, all deployed staff had been evacuated from Afghanistan,” the report continued. “The five locally employed Afghan FSNs (and their families) working with SIGAR were also evacuated from country before the end of the quarter.”

Sopko told Government Executive in an interview shortly before the collapse of the government in Afghanistan and U.S. withdrawal that the sunset provision for the office is tied to funding levels, not troop levels in the country. Therefore, “as long as there's money flowing, there's a need for oversight and SIGAR’s responsibility.” 

Of the approximate $145.96 billion the United States has spent on reconstruction efforts in the country, about $110.26 billion was appropriated to six of the seven largest active reconstruction accounts. “As of September 30, 2021, approximately $3.59 billion of the amount appropriated to these six reconstruction accounts remained for possible disbursement,” said the new report. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a long-time advocate for whistleblowers and oversight, spoke on the Senate floor on September 27 about the work the office has left to do. “Congress needs to know why SIGAR’s alarm bells on poor security, corruption and waste were largely ignored,” said the senator. “They were unmistakable indicators of impending collapse.” 

During a speech at the Military Reporters and Editors Association Annual Conference on October 29, Sopko called for the government to be more transparent about the war and blasted the State and Defense departments for their attempts to block and restrict information being released.

The one thing he said he’s learned in dealing with classified information since 1978 is that “governments don't classify good news.”