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PublishDate: Saturday, April 27, 2013 11:40

The U.S. is still spending billions in

Afghanistan, according to Transparency International, is the most corrupt country except North Korea and Somalia

Hard-fought gains in Afghanistan over the last decade are at risk of being squandered – unless immediate action is taken to determine the fate of tens of billions of dollars in questionable reconstruction projects, the chief of the Afghan audit agency said. 

In an exclusive interview with The Fiscal Times, John F. Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said that the Pentagon, aid agencies and the State Department must quickly evaluate these projects to determine whether the billions being spent in Afghanistan right now will yield the desired results or not. 

Many projects are simply not sustainable, he said – and continuing to spend money on them results not just in a wasted fortune, but very real risks to nearly 70,000 American soldiers who are still there. 

“They have not thought about sustainability,” Sopko said, referring to the military, aid agencies and the State Department. “If you don’t think about that, you’re going to build a bridge and give it to the Afghans who can’t sustain it.”
 
He added, “There’s pervasive corruption throughout the country.”

These warnings from Sopko – who was appointed to his post last summer by President Obama – come as lawmakers, the public, and the policy community in D.C. have largely turned their attention away from the war and from the soldiers still fighting and dying there. Despite spending some $500 billion to fight in Afghanistan, the war is becoming invisible. Sopko and his team at SIGAR are among the few voices reminding the country about financial mismanagement, corruption and the continuing threat to American lives.

“I believe in the mission in Afghanistan,” he said. “We lost too many lives and we’ve spent too much money” to ignore it. 

DOLLARS TO THE TALIBAN
In recent months, SIGAR has been especially busy identifying waste, fraud and abuse. Earlier this month, it found that a $53 million USAID project meant to supply power to Kandahar was unsustainable.

It also found that millions of contracting dollars have ultimately ended up in the hands of the Taliban. As The Fiscal Times recently reported, the Pentagon did not have the required protocols in place to prevent 80 percent of all contracts from getting into the hands of the enemy. 

A quarterly report issued by SIGAR in January said that the United States has spent more than half of the nearly $100 billion in Afghan reconstruction funds on developing the country’s police and security forces. But numerous reports have found that the Afghan forces are not ready to take over security responsibilities. 

Two recent SIGAR reports also found that police and Army buildings built by the United States for $26 million in two key strategic provinces were underutilized or sat empty. One was even being used as a chicken coop. 

All of this is especially troubling in the wake of a February 2013 GAO report that determined Afghanistan would essentially collapse without extensive U.S. financial support. Sopko painted a picture of a country with intractable corruption, a U.S. military that had not properly planned or executed countless projects, and an aid apparatus that has failed to acknowledge realities on the ground. 

“We found systemic problems almost everywhere we looked,” Sopko said. “I think we have some really hard choices to make, and we’ve got to think anew about how we handle some of the assistance and reconstruction programs.” 

POOR PLANNING, QUALITY CONTROL

Unlike other inspector generals who work for the agency they’re inspecting, Sopko is independent. He has the power to audit any program related to Afghanistan reconstruction, whether the projects are implemented by DOD, State or USAID. In his tens months on the job, Sopko, a veteran investigator and attorney with more than 30 years in oversight work, has discovered that corruption within the Afghan government is the primary obstacle to effective reconstruction.&nb

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