IG for Afghanistan reconstruction has plenty of work to do after departure of U.S. troops

Even though the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is coming to an end, the need for oversight isn’t. With billions of federal dollars still flowing into the country, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) thinks it’ll have plenty to keep its workforce occupied for a long time to come.

SIGAR’s mission isn’t tied to any particular agency. Rather, its mandate from Congress is to oversee the expenditure of any federal funds in Afghanistan. And even after U.S. troops are completely gone, U.S. dollars will still be there. The Biden administration has proposed $3.3 billion in military assistance next year, plus several hundred million more in development funding from civilian agencies. That’s on top of $6.7 billion already appropriated for 2021 that hasn’t yet been obligated.

John Sopko, the special inspector general, said at least for the time being, he envisions some of his staff staying in the country to conduct that oversight work in a hands-on fashion.

“We have people on the ground, but we’re used to also operating in dangerous locations — we’ve been doing it in Afghanistan with a reduction in the military since 2014, and we try to get out and kick the tires when we can,” he told a media roundtable organized by George Washington University’s Project on Media and National Security Thursday. “Our preference is to be present, because we also have an extensive informant network where we talk to people all the time who give us information, so it’s useful to have somebody in Afghanistan to do that.”

According to the IG’s latest quarterly report, it has five employees detailed to the U.S. embassy in Kabul out of a broader workforce of 174 people. But Sopko said even if conditions in Afghanistan become too dangerous to conduct in-person oversight and investigations, most of what the office currently does can still be done from afar.

“A lot of our work is paper — in particular, we follow the money from contracting. But it’s important that we have access, and up to now we have access to a lot of the internal computer systems that the Afghans use and which the U.S. government paid for,” he said. “So yes, we can do it. Is it going to be more difficult? Yes. Are we going to miss more theft and misconduct? Yes. And that’s just the nature of the beast with security. But we can do our mission as Congress has told us to do it.”

SIGAR’s latest report, published Thursday, argues that its oversight work has become both “more consequential” and “more challenging” in light of the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

That’s partly because of the uncertainty over whether the IG will still have access to the information it needs to do its work. Sopko said historically, it’s obtained most of the information it needs from the Afghan government with U.S. agencies acting as intermediaries. But especially with the U.S. military no longer on the ground, it will have to obtain that data more directly from Afghan officials.

His office has made several recommendations to Congress on the way forward, including that any future U.S. funding come with strings attached — including the ability for SIGAR, the Government Accountability Office and other oversight organizations to access Afghan government ministries’ data.

“[Another recommendation] is we’ve got to make certain that the trust funds controlled by the World Bank, the UN, NATO and Asian Development Bank give us access to data. They’ve been problematic in the past with giving us access, even though we contribute a significant amount to those trust funds,” Sopko said. “Another very relevant proposal is we recommend that the administration reestablish the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell, which was used in the past to combine law enforcement, intelligence and the military to try to document corrupt elements that not only support terrorism, but also divert money and funds.”

The office has also asked DoD and the State Department to stand up a joint security cooperation office at the embassy to coordinate ongoing military assistance to the Afghan government.

As for the broader security situation in Afghanistan, SIGAR’s latest update paints a fairly dim picture. It notes the Taliban has made major territorial gains in just the past month, including major stretches of highway and at least six of the country’s international border crossings. The report warns those trends point toward an “existential” crisis for the government if they go unaddressed.

But Sopko said it’s not a foregone conclusion that the Afghan government will collapse without U.S. forces there to support it. And he said there’s good historical evidence to suggest financial assistance might be more important to the government’s stability than direct military involvement.

“I think the Afghan military can succeed. They can’t continue with the status quo, but it’s not all bleak,” he said. “Our best example is what happened when the Soviets left [in 1989]. There was a three year period before the Najibullah government collapsed, but it was only three months between when President Yeltsin ended funding from the Russian government until that collapse. So the biggest support we could give the Afghans is financial support. That’s the best example we have, and it’s right in Afghanistan history, so I think they can succeed.”

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