How Has Congressional Oversight Failed in Afghanistan Reconstruction?

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Whenever the U.S. government puts money toward a project, there’s always the potential for mismanagement or poor implementation. In fact, there has been a great deal of fiscal misconduct and miscalculation just in the past year. When you consider the Department of Veterans Affairs’ recent investigation and audit, for example, it’s clear that the funds allocated to that department hardly resulted in the best management or outcome. The VA is not the only body to face harsh criticisms this year, though.

On Monday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released an audit reviewing the $300-million-per-year funds spent paying salaries for Afghan National Police employees. The results of the audit were quite negative, and as a result, it’s worth outlining what SIGAR is as an organization, who heads the effort, and what interests are at play. A negative report released by an objective source holds a considerable amount of weight. There’s a reason analysts tend to roll their eyes and shrug when Republicans critique President Barack Obama, for example.

What is SIGAR and who heads the organization?

SIGAR is a creation of Congress meant to “provide independent and objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects and activities” and to help avoid “waste, fraud, and abuse.” The inspector general in charge is John F. Sopko, and he was appointed to the position by Obama in 2012. He has 30 years of experience in oversight and investigations. Sopko expressed interest in working with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) over misappropriated USAID funds, according to The Washington Times.

His appointment led to a considerable increase in oversight, and he has significant experience in the field. Perhaps the only criticism is that Sopko may err on the side of empathy or drama, even if his concerns are valid. The New York Times described him in 2013 as a “former prosecutor with a flair for publicity.”

What does the most recent audit tell us about efforts in Afghanistan?

According to the January report, there are major concerns about how funds have been distributed and monitored; even the data that launched these concerns is being questioned for its accuracy. “Despite 13 years and several billions of dollars in salary assistance to the Afghan government for the ANP [Afghan National Police], there is still no assurance that personnel and payroll data are accurate,” reads the report.

In an email release, SIGAR Director of Public Affairs Alex Bronstein-Moffly outlined some of the report’s main takeaways, including how this monitoring problem will only get worse as American forces leave Afghanistan and the “U.S. government will have increasingly limited visibility over ANP data collection.”

Much of the monitoring that is taking place shows concerning discrepancies — for example, “there are almost twice as many ANP identification cards in circulation as there are active police personnel.” And despite nine years of trying to set up an electronic human resources system, efforts have thus far failed to create the intended structure.

Some police are shown to have received more than the appropriate pay, while “20% of ANP personnel are at risk of not receiving their full salaries because they are paid in cash by an MOI-appointed trusted agent”; this means that “as much as half of these payments are possibly diverted.” As a result, the U.S. government is likely unintentionally funding unknown activities, and a “large portion” of the $300 million might be “wasted or abused.” Improved oversight is therefore a necessity.

What is the outcome of these efforts?

It’s worth considering that pointing out these failings doesn’t necessarily mean the efforts being implemented in Afghanistan are not worthwhile. To a degree, it’s naïve to expect absolutely no waste or mismanagement. Even a degree of corruption must be expected — though not accepted — when new systems are replacing old habits in an unstable landscape.

But the concerns expressed in the audit point out that it’s not merely America’s pocketbook being considered: It’s the individual employees working in the ANP who may be mistreated and ignored. Failure to properly pay and appreciate workers only leads to greater corruption down the line, making it even more important for the success of the program that money be appropriately used.

Follow Anthea on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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