Critiquing U.S. Spending in Afghanistan, to Dramatic Effect | The New York Times

Ron Nixon

WASHINGTON — When the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an American government watchdog, requested information in June about health clinics in that country funded by the United States Agency for International Development, the aid agency handed over a database with the locations of more than 600 facilities.


But investigators quickly noticed something strange about the data: Coordinates for 13 of the clinics were not even in Afghanistan, and others were off by miles.


The findings were the latest in a series of reports and letters that the special inspector general has released over the past year and a half that have documented waste, abuse and fraud in government-sponsored programs in that country, often to dramatic effect.


Among them were aircraft bought by the United States that the Afghans cannot fly or maintain, troop rosters that cannot be verified and a $335 million taxpayer-supported electrical plant that is rarely used.


Even as United States spending and military involvement dwindle in Afghanistan, some members of Congress and outside groups say it is as important as ever to have an independent watchdog like the special inspector general. Congress created the unusual cross-agency office in 2008 to determine what exactly the government has bought with the more than $100 billion it has spent on reconstruction, and although Congress has reduced annual appropriations for reconstruction in Afghanistan, there is still a little over $15 billion left to be spent.


“You could make the argument that we need even more oversight than we have in the past,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri and a former state auditor who has been a leading supporter of the special inspector general. “Bad things happen when no one is looking.”


The reports by the special inspector general underscore the inherently chaotic nature of development that relies on private contractors and local agencies. Records disappear, agencies do not measure progress accurately and outright corruption drains government funds, especially in war zones.


It is a problem long recognized by government auditors. Since 1992, the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly listed the Defense Department’s oversight of private contractors as highly vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.


“So the problem is not unique to Afghanistan; it’s contracting in general,” the special inspector general, John F. Sopko, said in an interview. “The contracting officer’s job is to get the money out the door. But the question, then, is what have we and the Afghans really gotten for our 14-year-long, $110 billion investment?”


To be sure, the United States has made substantial progress in rebuilding Afghanistan. There are more schools. Deaths from childbirth and infant mortality are down. People are living longer. And numerous roads, clinics and irrigation facilities have been built.


Still, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest and least developed nations. Corruption is rampant, abetted by weak ministries in a central government whose presence and support in rural areas is often minimal.


Mr. Sopko, 63, works from an office tower in Northern Virginia, a few blocks from the Pentagon, and makes occasional trips to Afghanistan to assess conditions. Equal parts showman and investigator, he has drawn substantial support and criticism.


Government watchdog reports typically have a dry, understated tone. But Mr. Sopko has been blunt in his assessment of waste and fraud, naming individuals in his reports, which other inspector generals rarely do.


His office “is an example of how an inspector general is supposed to operate,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington.


Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, agreed.


“This office gives the Defense Department classic case after case of blatant waste, served up on a silver platter. The audits are plainly written and cut to the heart of wastefulness,” Mr. Grassley said. “It’s unfortunate that the Defense Department usually can’t see through the bureaucratic fog and act on the waste.”


He added that the legacy of Mr. Sopko and his office “will be helping to shift the perception that wasting taxpayer money doesn’t matter.”


“The change is slow-going,” the senator continued, “and we need every bit of it.”


Critics of Mr. Sopko and his work in Afghanistan say that while he does raise legitimate points, his conclusions are not always supported by his facts, and that he too often seems focused on drawing attention to his office.


Michael E. O’Hanlon, a co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, said the special inspector general’s office was often “belaboring the obvious.”


“There are problems inherent in development in a war zone,” he said. “His reports and his testimony before Congress and in the media don’t always convey an appreciation for that situation, holding people to pristine standards.”


Mr. O’Hanlon added: “He’s probably right, but he should offer something more constructive rather than just piling on.”


Officials like Larry Sampler, a senior official at the United States Agency for International Development, which oversees projects in Afghanistan including health facilities and power plants, agree that development can be messy, and that the special inspector general’s reports have been accurate.


“I just disagree with the conclusions,” he said.


For example, Mr. Sampler agrees that the data about the health clinics, which he said the Afghan government had provided to U.S.A.I.D., was flawed. But he said his agency’s staff had verified that the vast majority of clinics were where they were supposed to be. He said his agency had provided updated information to the special inspector general documenting the existence of the clinics.


Mr. Sampler said the $335 million power plant was never meant to be the primary source for Kabul. Rather, it was built to provide power on a temporary basis, until his agency could find a cheaper source.


The plant is powered by diesel fuel and is expensive to run. Kabul now gets most of its power from nearby Uzbekistan. The power plant, Mr. Sampler said, is used as a backup or for emergency power such as when power lines from Uzbekistan go down, which has happened at least once.


The special inspector general said audits had concluded that the “plant was originally intended to serve as a base load plant, providing electrical power to Kabul on a continuous basis,” not as a backup.


Nevertheless, Mr. Sampler said the plant had been a bright spot, helping businesses to grow and drawing Afghans abroad back to Kabul.


“You don’t get that from reading a dry report,” he said.


Critics of Mr. Sopko and his office say other inspectors general at the Defense Department, the State Department and U.S.A.I.D. had overseen programs in Afghanistan without generating the public attention that he had.


Money spent by the United States on future operations will not be overseen by a special inspector general. A new inspector general for the United States military mission in Afghanistan, led by the Defense Department, has been created.


The new inspector general was named because once combat operations ceased last year the mission became a “new and separate overseas contingency operation,” the military said. Mr. Sopko’s office will continue to oversee the more than $100 billion spent so far on the reconstruction. The chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General said the two offices would “cooperate and closely coordinate their current oversight missions.”


But Ms. Brian of the Project on Government Oversight and Senator McCaskill say they regard the appointment of a new inspector general as an attempt to replace Mr. Sopko.


Because of a change by Congress, oversight of missions for future overseas contingency operations will be headed by a lead inspector general who can come only from the Defense Department, State Department or U.S.A.I.D.


“Unfortunately, waste, fraud and abuse have too often been the result when it comes to the billions we’ve spent in Afghanistan,” Ms. McCaskill said. The special inspector general “is needed to ensure that there is independent oversight of the D.O.D., State Department and U.S.A.I.D. contracts so we don’t end up with more planes that can’t fly or $335 million power plants that are little more than generators.”

Critiquing U.S. Spending in Afghanistan, to Dramatic Effect – The New York Times.