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Shining spotlight on multi-billion waste in Afghanistan

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko speaks during an interview with Agence France-Presse on July 24, 2014 at his office in Arlington, Virginia. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN

WASHINGTON: Speedboats for a landlocked nation, a soybean planting program in a country that eats wheat, airplanes rusting on the tarmac – there has been a litany of waste from the $103 billion spent by the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Putting it into context, blunt-speaking independent watchdog John Sopko says by the end of this year the United States will have spent since 2001 “more money on reconstruction in Afghanistan than we did on the entire Marshall Plan” which was put into action after World War II to rebuild European economies.

Since becoming Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction two years ago, Sopko and his 200-strong team have been skewering U.S. agencies for pouring money down the drain, as well as shining a light on Afghan and U.S. officials for shameless corruption.

“A lot of the money’s been spent wisely, but a lot has not ... It’s probably billions of dollars that have been wasted,” Sopko told AFP in an interview. “We’ve built schools that have fallen down, clinics that there are no doctors for, we’ve built roads that are falling apart. It’s massive.”

“We spent too much money, too fast, in too small a country with little oversight.”

The $34.4 million spent on a project to grow soybeans is for Sopko symptomatic of such waste and an overbearing U.S. attitude that “we know what’s best for Afghans.”

“We came up with a brilliant idea, but we never talked to the Afghans. The Afghans don’t grow it, they don’t like it, they don’t eat it, there’s no market for it.”

The fear is now that as international troops leave by late 2016 there will be even less oversight of U.S. spending despite Washington’s pledge to keep up support to help rebuild the nation wracked by decades of war.

With another $20 billion still in the pipeline, some $6 billion to $8 billion is expected to flood annually into the country for the foreseeable future.

Speaking passionately about his mission from his office with stunning views over Capitol Hill and the White House, Sopko says that he’s not out to cut funds to the Afghan people.

Indeed he is warning U.S. lawmakers not to go “cold Turkey.”

“If we stop the reconstruction suddenly, we run some really grave risk because the Afghans can’t afford the government we’ve provided for them,” he said.

“They cannot currently pay for their police, pay for their military, pay for their hospitals, pay for the roads, pay the salaries ... So if we suddenly end this, our intentions, our initial reason for going in there, could be really put at risk.”

But as U.S. troops withdraw, so will the 40 SIGAR staff based around Afghanistan as they cannot be left without protection amid the deadly ongoing Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency.

All U.S. government agencies should already be putting into place contingencies for keeping eyes on the funds, Sopko said, voicing surprise at the lack of urgency he has detected.

Oversight has “got to be mission critical, it’s got to be built into your program,” he said, adding “it can’t just be a blackhole.”

However, he voiced optimism that despite the audit of disputed presidential elections, a new government could emerge willing to crackdown on corruption as well as the opium trade.

The U.S. counter-narcotics program inside Afghanistan “has been a failure,” said Sopko, a former prosecutor.

Since the U.S. invasion in 2001 “there’s more hectares under cultivation, the production of opium has gone up, you look at the numbers on exports, that has gone up. You look at drug usage in Afghanistan that has gone up.”

“As a result, you have a growing cancer inside Afghanistan. In many areas there’s a rival to the government, and it’s not the insurgency, it’s the narco-traffickers.”

Experts estimate that as much as 90 percent of the world’s global opium supply comes from Afghan poppy fields.

And Sopko brushes off criticism that he is overzealous, saying it is not his job to be “a cheerleader” for U.S. programs in Afghanistan, but to protect both tax-payer dollars and the Afghan people. “The Afghan people know exactly how the money is being spent or not being spent. And that is the real shame of this. It’s almost like a dirty trick ... The people who really hurt are the people we are supposed to be helping.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 26, 2014, on page 8.

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Summary

Speedboats for a landlocked nation, a soybean planting program in a country that eats wheat, airplanes rusting on the tarmac – there has been a litany of waste from the $103 billion spent by the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Since becoming Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction two years ago, Sopko and his 200-strong team have been skewering U.S. agencies for pouring money down the drain, as well as shining a light on Afghan and U.S. officials for shameless corruption.

As U.S. troops withdraw, so will the 40 SIGAR staff based around Afghanistan as they cannot be left without protection amid the deadly ongoing Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency.

All U.S. government agencies should already be putting into place contingencies for keeping eyes on the funds, Sopko said, voicing surprise at the lack of urgency he has detected.

Sopko brushes off criticism that he is overzealous, saying it is not his job to be "a cheerleader" for U.S. programs in Afghanistan, but to protect both tax-payer dollars and the Afghan people.


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