US is mostly out of Afghanistan, but not completely

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The Biden administration pulled U.S. troops and pretty much everything else out of Afghanistan months ago. But the work of the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) goes on. There’s humanitarian aid flowing into Afghanistan, and still lots of things to account for. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin got an update from the special IG...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Biden administration pulled U.S. troops and pretty much everything else out of Afghanistan months ago. But the work of the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) goes on. There’s humanitarian aid flowing into Afghanistan, and still lots of things to account for. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin got an update from the special IG himself, John Sopko.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Sopko, good to have you back.

John Sopko: It’s a pleasure to be here again, Tom, always a pleasure.

Tom Temin: And during this pullout, of course, knowing the work that you do, our first thought here was what’s going on with SIGAR? But you would think that logically, you’d say, well, who needs this anymore? Let’s end this whole thing, but not the case at all, is it?

John Sopko: Well, we’re smaller than we were before. But there still is a lot of money going in. And we still are wrapping up a lot of audits where we can capture money if it’s been wasted. So we’re still working pretty hard. And we got a new request from a number of congressional committees and members to look at actually the collapse, and what has happened in Afghanistan since the collapse.

Tom Temin: I pity you having that assignment, because no matter what you say, it’s going to be divisive, even though I know you’re on a policy type of shop. So what is left to do? What are you looking at at this point? What are the projects ongoing?

John Sopko: We have a number of audits that we were doing up to the end, which was last August. Those are finishing, we have a number of financial audits where we can still identify money. That’s outstanding. But the important thing is Congress has come back and asked us to answer some big questions. Number one, why did the Afghan government collapse so suddenly, I mean, within months? And we have a big team on that, we’ve interviewed 100-some people on that. Second question is why did the Afghan military collapse so suddenly? We gave them close to $80 billion, and Congress wants to know what went wrong? They also want to know what happened to all the weapons, and where are they now? And where are they going to, are the Taliban selling them to other people, to terrorist groups? They want to know what happened to the money, because we were pumping money in there up to the very end. So where did that money go? And was any of it stolen by the Taliban or by some nefarious former government officials? They also want to know what happened to all of the Afghans who believed in us, the teachers, the women, the professors, the journalists just like yourself, we had a nascent, Afghanistan at nascent journalists and newspapers and TVs – what happened to all of those people? So those are some of the questions we’re working on right now. At the same time, we’re being asked by aid and by the UN, the World Bank and other NGOs as to how do we do humanitarian aid? So we’re still here looking at the humanitarian aid, and we’ve got about $700 million going over to humanitarian aid. The UN is saying they need $6 billion and we of course pay 20% of what the UN spends. That’s how much money we spend to the UN. Plus, as you notice, just last week, President Biden signed an executive order, we’re potentially in over $3.5 billion. And that’s of assets that the Afghans had in our central bank here. That’s going to be going to Afghanistan. The only caveat on it is that it can’t go to the Taliban. So that’s a tricky thing. How do you send money to the Afghan people without the Taliban grabbing it? So that’s something we’re working on.

Tom Temin: So lots of questions in that first initial list that are kind of new to the list. How do you go about finding out that information? You can’t send people over there and wander around and knock on doors and check in with people. I mean, it’s a place Americans really can’t go at this point.

John Sopko: Well yes, you’re absolutely correct. And it’s difficult. That’s why we issued our quarterly report, and I’ve spoken about this publicly, this is [an] extremely difficult time to do oversight, and to try to protect the money. We think we’re the best government agency to do that, because we had the largest oversight presence in Afghanistan. We’ve also been doing this for 10 years or more. I’ve been doing it for 10 years and more. We’ve been around for 13 years. So we can use our network of sources. We can use our experts and we can also try to follow the money. A lot of these cases that we’ve made in the past, are basically paper cases. We’re following the money from the U.S. or other donors to Afghanistan. But it’s going to be extremely difficult, and that’s the warning we are sending to the World Bank, to the UN, to Congress, to the administration, to oversight. Don’t forget oversight. I was a bit shocked yesterday, a very good presentation by a senior State Department official about Afghanistan, went on for an hour and a half at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and not one word, not one word was said how we are going to protect the billions of dollars we’re sending over to Afghanistan.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with John Sopko, he’s special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction. And with respect to the audit work that you have done for these past several years now, in many ways, it’s all in vain because all the money we spent there is sunk, and we can’t get it back. And now the government and the military have collapsed. But at the same time, do you think that what you learned in that oversight and the recommendations you made are still valid in the general sense for when the United States is involved in another nation in some manner?

John Sopko: Oh absolutely. You’re right on point, Tom. The lessons we have identified and hopefully, our administration has learned are useful, not only in Afghanistan, but any other place around the world, where we’re doing development aid, where we’re trying to support and build a military and there’s an ongoing war. And I think if you read our lessons learned reports in our reports, you’ll agree with that. They’re very useful. And we’ve been told that by eight officials, by development officials around the world. I mean, we get calls from the French, the Germans, the Brits on assistance they’re doing. They want to learn lessons from us. So I think they’re very useful.

Tom Temin: And with respect to the oversight, you have issued some kind of anticipatory principles for those that are giving humanitarian aid even before the money flows. Maybe review those for us briefly?

John Sopko: Yeah, very briefly. And this is based upon our 13 years of experience, we’ve issued over 700 reports. And I think we have some of the brightest auditors and analysts and investigators in the world. So what we’ve said is, these are, we sort of code through all of our recommendations. And these are sort of 10 things you have to keep in mind. First one is, and a lot of them sound real simple, but it’s amazing how few of these things were actually carried out over the last 10, 15 years. First thing is establish a clear purpose for your assistance. I mean, state it directly, what are we going to accomplish? Because all programs then follow that? You know, you probably talked to a lot of military officers or aid officials who came back from Afghanistan saying, “What was I doing there? I don’t even know why it was there.” Well, that’s a problem. So face that. Secondly, we got to have full transparency, we have to know where our money is going. So that means if we send money to UN, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, any other trust fund, we have to be able to follow that money. And in the past, the World Bank and the UN and other organizations have not been giving us or other oversight agencies access. We have to really come up with a tolerable level of risk, we have to be honest with the American people, we are going to lose some money. What we hope is we don’t lose as much as we did over the last 10 years. And that’s why we have these principles. You got to monitor, you have to have monitoring and evaluation in place. And then you have to monitor the monitors because we’re not going to have Americans out there in Afghanistan, we’re gonna have to use third parties. So those are some of the issues. I mean, the other key issue is, let’s use smart conditionality. We’re going to be sending, or the executive order potentially says we’re sending $3.5 billion to Afghanistan. The State Department isn’t clear in telling us where that money is actually going to go. Nor have they said how’s it going to be spent. But obviously, we can condition that $3.5 billion on something we want to see the Taliban do, whether it’s dealing with women, girls, human rights issues, a free and open press, smart conditionality not like we did in the past, and we’ve been very critical. We came up with 600- or 800-some conditions for the Afghan government in the past. They couldn’t do it.

Tom Temin: Yeah almost like a contractor deal or something you would put in requirements.

John Sopko: Yeah, well the other thing is, if you issue a condition, follow through if the Afghans or in this case, the Taliban, don’t live up to it. That was the everything that the prior government knew. We never had the guts to actually pull the money back for not meeting the conditions. So those are some of the issues. They’re all available, all of them in a long discussion of each one of them or why they’re important on our website, but if anybody wants to see him in more detail.

Tom Temin: And we’ll link that when we post this interview as well. We’re speaking with John Sopko, he’s special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction. With respect to the oversight principles you mentioned, the need for people to watch the watchers so to speak. Are they’re proxy agents that may not be Afghanistan, certainly are not American, or I guess, British or something like that, in Afghanistan that can be reliably used as sort of honest brokers between the Taliban and the United States?

John Sopko: In the past there were, and we worked with some civil society organizations that we trained, and they were set up and did an excellent job. We’re gonna have to try to do that again. And you can do it. But again, you’re hitting a good point, Tom: Who is going to go into Afghanistan right now and can we trust those people? So you have to set up a system for monitoring the monitors. And I haven’t heard anybody in the government talking about that. Now our 10 principles, we talk about that. And we also highlight some of the good things that USAID did in setting up a monitoring system. We also highlighted some of the good things the UN has done in other foreign countries. So it can be done. What we’re saying is, pause, think, before you throw billions of dollars. Because there’s one thing, Tom, I think I’ve been on the show before, and I’ve said I’m not good at predicting the future, and nobody is in Afghanistan. But one thing I could tell you with almost 100% certainty is if we don’t have oversight built in, baked into the money going to Afghanistan, now, I can tell you, we’re going to lose a great percentage if not all of that money.

Tom Temin: Could it be a potential policy to say, OK, some of this money is going to go to the Taliban for its administrative needs, as long as say 80% of it goes to feed people, if that’s the object of it. And that may not be ideal in a perfect world, but if you can sort of buy them off and ensure that the rest of the money feeds people, is that the kind of trade off you think might have to take place or is doable?

John Sopko: That’s a policy decision, and I take no role. IG’s don’t do policy, we do process. So that’s a policy decision. I’ll tell you right now, the policy of the United States government, and I think most Western governments, is that we’re not sending any money to the Taliban. Now, you may not be sending the money directly to the Taliban, but the money is helping Afghans, that’s what we want to do – help the Afghan citizens. And so indirectly, you’re helping the Taliban, even if they don’t touch a dime. You’re helping the people who were in Taliban-control country. But I really think up to now, I have not heard of anyone in the U.S. government, or Congress saying that we should send money directly to the Taliban, even if it’s a percentage.

Tom Temin: Sure. It’s just hard to imagine how the money can go over their heads directly into Afghanistan, normal hands, and not some of it, maybe even just through extortion or shakedowns.

John Sopko: Oh you’re absolutely correct. And that’s the experience. And I think we should learn from the experience, even the UN faced that. But they tried to set up a system, let’s say, in the Sudan, and then later I think we did it in Syria and Yemen and all of that, a number of those countries where, again, this goes back to what’s your purpose? where’s the money going to go? What’s your level of risk, or loss, of money? And how do you set up a monitoring system? And the other thing is, and this one I think, is really good in systems we’ve looked at, where you have somebody on the ground working for the UN, or working for USAID or whatever, saying, hey, the money in this province, or this district is supposed to go to these poor people, these people who are starving. It’s not, and I’m sorry, whoever you are, who these or whatever the armed group was, we’re going to just stop because it’s being diverted to your soldiers, or it’s being diverted to somebody’s bank account in Europe or someplace else. But you’ve got to have the guts to say no. That’s the only thing these groups really understand. So I think that’s the important thing. It’s not easy, and that’s what we were warning our government, if you don’t do something, all of that money. I mean, we’re sending over right now, at least what’s been reported us, pallets of U.S. dollar bills. Now, I can understand that because there’s no food around. And that’s a quick way to get money out. But when you talk about pallets of dollar bills, that’s extremely risky. So what is the system in place to make certain that money doesn’t go to a poor person who then is immediately forced to give it to some Taliban guy with an AK-47?

Tom Temin: John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction is my guest. Well, let’s hope they’re listening. And I just wanted to also explore with you the SIGAR human side of all of this. You had people in Afghanistan. I believe you visited there yourself over the course of the years of the SIGAR work. And there are, as you mentioned, many Afghans who believe in the United States and who were friends. And so what happened there? It seems like a harsh pullout from your standpoint.

John Sopko: Well, we had the largest oversight presence in Afghanistan for the 10 years that I was there and right up to the end. Fortunately, for my staff, because of COVID, there was a drawdown starting a year or more before to all U.S. staff. So we had a small group of investigators and auditors there. We got them out. And we had a small contingent of Afghan employees. And we were able to get them out. But it took a long time. And the stories they told us, the Afghans did, it was just horrifying. And we were over in this side, and then some were hiding places and getting to the airport, it was horrendous. And I’m certain there’s far more stories like that. But we also sponsored or helped I think close to 600-some Afghans, and some of them are still there. And many we don’t know what happened. I mean, dealing with the State Department, unfortunately I have to admit, is dealing with a black hole. We don’t know. And I think anyone you talk to who has worked with trying to get Afghans out will say that. I mean, you submit the paperwork, the Afghans submitted the paperwork, there was no response. It was crickets. And that’s the sad thing. And we’re talking to Afghans right now about what’s going on in the country. And many Afghans are telling us that a lot of these people are still in hiding, using burn phones, because they don’t want to be traced, and they’re going from place to place. So that’s a concern I think everybody still has.

Tom Temin: Alright. So the future for SIGAR then is you had a sunset date at some point in the future. What is it now and we can wind up there?

John Sopko: Well the sunset is based upon the amount of money going over there. And we haven’t hit that yet. But we are in a declining staffing and budget, which is understandable. And at some point, we are a temporary agency. And I always, I think it’s a good idea. I think we should have more temporary federal agencies. And so we will go out of existence. We’ll wait and hear what Congress says when that will be and it’ll be some time in the future, in the near future.

Tom Temin: Well, it’s been quite an opus so far. John Sopko is special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Thanks so much for joining me.

John Sopko:  It is a pleasure, always a pleasure.

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