“Just because the troops are leaving, that doesn’t mean that reconstruction is over,” Special Inspector General John Sopko told Defense One. “Now more than ever you really need to oversight over there … otherwise, you’re just going to be pouring money in and not knowing what happens to it.”
(Related: After $18M, US Halts Work on Half-Renovated Prison in Afghanistan)
When Congress returns to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 12, it will have to decide whether to pass another stop-gap measure and simply extend the level of funding, or, more likely, tuck all of the appropriations bills—including the Overseas Contingency Operation’s budget request, which funds the war in Afghanistan—into a giant, $1 trillion-plus omnibus bill to fund the government through the fiscal year until the end of next September.
Given budget constraints and the spate of foreign policy crises outside of Afghanistan, despite the worrying conclusions of the SIGAR report, there is little urgency on the Hill to address the issue of oversight on existing funding.
A group of Democratic senators is calling for sustained funding for reconstruction, but with a greater proportion of the money tied to conditions to the Afghan government, now led by newly elected President Ashraf Ghani. “Up to now we haven’t done much conditionality at all—because you’re not rewarded for conditionality, you’re not rewarded on withholding money, but on spending money,” Sopko said, “most of it has been a carrot and not a stick. Sometimes, we have to risk saying no to the Afghans.”
Others members of Congress have cautioned against perpetuating a status quo that shows no real progress.
The problem is not insufficient funding—it’s inefficient funding.
This is the Afghanistan we are leaving behind, according to SIGAR:
Opium production, which funds the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, is at an all-time high, using U.S.-sponsored irrigation projects and providing 411,000 full-time jobs—more than the Afghan National Security Forces—despite $7.8 billion spent to eradicate it.
Infrastructure projects, such as the renovation of Afghanistan’s largest prison, continue to be riddled by corruption. The renovation remains incomplete, leaving roughly 7,400 prisoners to be held in a facility with defective workmanship—some in the hallways, due to overcrowding—despite $18.5 million paid out by the State Department.
Afghanistan also remains dangerously dependent on foreign aid. According to reports, in September the Ministry of Finance was forced to ask donors for $537 million to cover government salaries until the year’s end, despite over a decade of massive foreign and American investment.
The Afghan government has estimated it will need $3.9 billion a year in development aid until 2020. Sopko says the U.S. plans to spend closer to $5 to 8 billion on Afghanistan reconstruction over the next several years in order to preserve fragile gains—with substantially less U.S. troops and personnel to oversee the spending.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chairs a subcommittee on contracting oversight, said that funding going forward should be limited to areas that can be audited, which after this year will be increasingly difficult to do.
“She’s already raised concerns about the fact that many projects will be unreachable by government oversight officials after the withdrawal, which will only further drive up the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse—which is why she’s proposed that money for those projects outside the areas of possible oversight be limited,” spokeswoman Sarah Feldman said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Budget Committee, said, “In light of the call to further help the new Afghan government with U.S. taxpayer dollars, it’s important to note how much money already has been squandered.”
“Thanks to the aggressive oversight we’ve had on Afghanistan spending, we have some idea of how much money has been wasted, although we’ll probably never know the extent of it because the problems have been so rampant,” he said. “The waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan spending should give anyone pause before spending more money on aid and reconstruction.”
But given competing priorities, there is little to indicate that Congress will use this crucial moment of transition for both Afghanistan and the U.S. role there as an opportunity to mandate enforcement of oversight on the billions of dollars left to be spent.
The Democratic majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee echoed many of SIGAR’s concerns in its own report, released Monday.
“As we enter this new phase, it is critical that the United States re-examine its presence in Afghanistan to ensure that assistance is provided in the most efficient, cost effective, and sustainable manner possible,” Foreign Relations Committee Chair Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., wrote in his introduction.
Titled “Afghanistan in Transition: U.S. Civilian Presence and Assistance Post-2014,” the report calls for renewed political attention—and sustained financial support—for Afghanistan, as well as increasing the portion of that support dependent upon the Afghan government meeting certain conditions on governance and human rights, revenue generation and collection, and development.
U.S. political support for assistance to Afghanistan has diminished in recent years, even though precipitous cuts in funding could have a destabilizing effect on the country.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s report, “Afghanistan in Transition: U.S. Civilian Presence and Assistance Post-2014”
“U.S. political support for assistance to Afghanistan has diminished in recent years, even though precipitous cuts in funding could have a destabilizing effect on the country. To maintain support for future funding, key accountability measures must be strengthened,” the report states.
If there is not a clear plan to keep the Afghan government accountable, it should not be implemented, according to the Democratic senators. If funding cannot be sufficiently monitored, it should be terminated. The tough talk reflects the increasing challenges of oversight in Afghanistan moving forward.
As the report cautions, “With the military drawdown, it will be more difficult to monitor development projects.”
(Read More: Will Afghanistan Become the ‘Forgotten War’ Again?)
Officials and members of Congress expected the OCO to come down significantly with the drawdown in Afghanistan—the Obama administration requested $65.8 billion for fiscal year 2015, roughly a third less than the prior fiscal year. But unexpected flare-ups with the Islamic State, Russia and even the Ebola fight have prompted a reconsideration of easing the U.S. government’s reliance on OCO funding. Some lawmakers have suggested that the U.S. withdrew too quickly from Iraq, giving rise to the Islamic State, and that the administration should rethink its timeline for the drawdown in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration requested $5.8 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction efforts for FY2015, the current fiscal year, with roughly $4 billion for supporting ANSF alone. The FY2015 request is a decrease from the $6.2 billion appropriated in FY2014, but the continuing resolution funded the OCO—and thus, Afghanistan reconstruction—at last year’s higher spending levels.
By many measures, Afghanistan has made progress, according to the senators’ report. The Afghan government reports 7.3 million students are attending school—with one-third of them girls—compared only 1 million in 2001, most of who were male. Life expectancy has increased by 20 years to 60 years old, and maternal mortality rates have been halved. Since 2001, Afghanistan’s GDP has increased from $2.4 billion to more than $20 billion.”
Photo Credit and John Sopko Biography: http://www.sigar.mil/about/leadership/ig-sigar.html