What’s going wrong with rebuilding Afghanistan? Inspector general has a list.

The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, in its latest report on the $104 billion project, takes the Pentagon and Afghanistan government to task for a broad range of questionable policies.

Charles Dharapak/AP
John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in June, before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa hearing on Examining U.S. Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan.

The most expensive foreign reconstruction effort ever underwritten by the US taxpayer – more than the wildly successful Marshall Plan to remake Europe after World War II – has been the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

But this $104 billion effort has been plagued by head-scratching decisions on the part of the Pentagon.

Among the most perplexing of these has been its failure to bar American and Afghan contractors who are embezzling millions from US taxpayer coffers, warns the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an office created by Congress in 2008 and filled by John Sopko since 2012.

In his latest report on the reconstruction efforts, released this week, Mr. Sopko, a lawyer and former prosecutor with extensive experience in government oversight, notes that while Afghan National Security Forces have received billions from the US for training, the Afghan government routinely fails to come through with basics for their soldiers, such as pay, which serves to “severely undermine” US efforts.

This spring, for example, an Afghan local police unit cut the power lines from Kabul to two eastern provinces in retaliation for not being paid for three months.

Then, Sopko notes, there is the “misguided policy” of the Pentagon. This most notably involves the decision of senior US defense officials to release fewer and fewer statistics about progress in Afghanistan. As a result, he warns, “One of my concerns is that US agencies often lack metrics for determining whether their projects and programs are contributing to the achievement of overall US strategic objectives.”

Indeed, the US government has “increasingly reduced the amount of data we make public on the course of the fighting and the state of the Afghan economy,” said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

At the same time, the US has “spun the data we do provide to support our present political goals,” Dr. Cordesman added in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee this week. “We focus on Afghan forces and the military dimension at the tactical level, and understate or ignore massive uncertainties as to Afghanistan’s political unity and capacity to govern.”

What’s more, “We talk about aid levels that are not based on concrete plans and costs, and we are moving forward at a time when the war lacks the support of the American people.”

It lacks the support of the citizens of US-allied countries as well, Sopko points out in his SIGAR report. Foreign aid to Afghanistan has been falling since 2010, “and history suggests it will fall even more sharply after US and coalition troops are withdrawn. Government budget shortfalls could severely undermine the central government and overall political stability.”

In his congressionally mandated report, Sopko says that although SIGAR works to provide guidance through its inspections throughout Afghanistan, “large areas of the country – larger even than SIGAR anticipated last year – will soon be off limits to personnel due to base closures and troop withdrawals.” 

At the same time, Sopko expresses his frustration with the US Army’s “refusal to suspend or debar supporters of the insurgency from receiving government contracts because the information supporting these recommendations is classified.” 

This decision “is not only legally wrong,” but “contrary to sound policy and national security goals. It is troubling that our government can and does use classified information to arrest, detain, and even kill individuals linked to the insurgency in Afghanistan,” he adds, “but apparently the same classified information cannot be used to deny these same individuals their rights to contract work with the US government.”

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