KABUL -- More than 11 years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Wednesday's quarterly report from a key government oversight agency paints a grim picture of reconstruction efforts in the country as military operations wind down ahead of the 2014 deadline for international combat troops to head home.
On a recent trip to Kabul, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko sat down for an interview with Stars and Stripes. He said his staff, including nearly 50 Afghanistan-based auditors and investigators, is working feverishly to finish audits and investigations ahead of a drawdown set to be completed in less than two years.
The office has had a rocky past, with former SIGAR Arnold Fields resigning at the end of 2011 amid infighting within the agency and congressional furor over Fields' perceived lack of efficiency.
Sopko is A former federal prosecutor who once prosecuted the Cosa Nostra crime family and spent years as an investigator on Capitol Hill. He was appointed in July, and said he is trying to make up for lax oversight in the past.
"(SIGAR) had not been as aggressive as I think we should have been," Sopko said.
His office's quarterly report includes one audit that sharply criticizes the U.S. military for lackluster oversight, including missing records of fuel purchases that cost more than $1 billion since 2007 and are expected to cost another $3.1 billion over the next six years.
The report also notes the lack of controls on the source of fuel; officials cannot show that none of the fuel being purchased is coming from Iran, which would be a violation of long-standing U.S. trade sanctions.
Other notable audits include a finding that $12.8 million in equipment purchased for Afghanistan's electrical grid sits unused in a warehouse because the national utility is unable to install it, and a $17.7 million National Police headquarters in Kunduz province built with no plan to train Afghans how to maintain it.
"While there has been major progress in Afghanistan, SIGAR's work since 2009 has repeatedly identified problems in every area of the reconstruction effort -- from inadequate planning, insufficient coordination and poor execution, to lack of meaningful metrics to measure progress," the report reads. "We have found delays, cost overruns and poor construction of infrastructure projects. We have also found U.S.-funded facilities that are not being used for their intended purposes."
Sopko also pointed to an investigation that found an Afghan contractor had improperly installed or not installed culvert grates aimed at preventing bomb emplacement in volatile Ghazni province. Sopko recommended the company be banned from doing business with the U.S. government.
"Those are the good success stories because they actually deal with people's lives," he said. "Bad contracting is not just a waste of money, it can actually kill people here."
Highlights of the interview with Sopko:
Is there a stepped up pace right now and some urgency with 2014 looming?
It's an urgency because of the drawdown. This mission is critically important with the amount of money here in Afghanistan, the cost of lives and treasury we've already spent. The [inspector general] was set up a number of years ago, and it got a slow start. I don't want to dwell too much on my predecessors, but part of the reason I think I was appointed by the White House was to energize [the office].
If we're going to help you spend this money, we've got to go out here and tell you now. Two years from now isn't going to help.
What are some of your most significant investigations?
[W]e're focusing on a number of key issues, [including] sustainability. Much of the work is not sustainable, so why are we spending the money if the Afghans can't take over when we depart?
We are also looking at coordination issues. Programs that are well-coordinated are more likely to succeed.
We're also focusing on programs to make sure Afghans want them and need them. Some of our work has highlighted the problem that we are building roads or designing buildings or programs … we never told the Afghans we were doing and they are surprised and no wonder they have problems sustaining it.
Reconstruction has come under a lot of scrutiny, with a lot of criticism that money has been wasted in Afghanistan. Overall, how is the U.S. doing on reconstruction efforts?
I think everybody here in the embassy and everybody in the agencies wants to do good and it's a very difficult environment to do work. That said, we have a lot of problems. I can't say it's getting better and I can't say it's getting worse. We are hoping because of the work we are doing and that our sister IGs are doing … that it will be better. Again, I think everyone has a limited amount of time, not just me, but (USAID), the Department of Defense. We are hoping that we are asking the right questions.
I learned under some great masters: (former Sen.) Sam Nunn, (U.S. Rep.) John Dingell. They kind of taught me that (inspectors general) really are supposed to be asking the tough questions and, to paraphrase what President Truman said, "If you want a friend and you're an (inspector general), go buy yourself a dog."
I'm not supposed to make friends. I have a very prickly relationship -- and I think by statute that's what is should be -- with everybody because I'm supposed to be independent and I'm the guy who comes in and says you've got a problem and you've got to fix it and nobody wants to hear that.
How is current oversight of reconstruction in Afghanistan?
Too much money has gone (out) too quickly in too many places without the management side looking closely and considering the environment they're working in. We're not contracting in Kansas, so we should be designing programs with that in mind. I hate to pick on the Afghan government, but it has been identified by other people as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
That's really the front line (the U.S. government development agencies). By the time we get there, no matter how good we are at our job, it will be too little, too late.
It seems like when we see reports of things that have gone wrong, a lot of these contractors get paid even if they haven't fulfilled their part of the deal. What are you doing on that front and what more needs to be done to hold contractors accountable?
The way to hold people accountable is if they don't do the job, and if they don't do the job because they stole money, we need to pursue them criminally. Ultimately, if they don't do the job and they don't do it well, they shouldn't get paid and the contracts should be written in such a way that we don't pay them.
Your team has to carry out investigations in some pretty rough spots. How do you deal with security?
I don't know how many auditors go to their site in an MRAP, wearing a helmet and flak jacket, surrounded by 10 burly Marines with high-caliber guns, but we have to do that. We're supported in other areas by the great security forces of the embassy.
That's an important issue and one of the reasons I'm here this time, because as the drawdown occurs, that will have an impact on not only the capacity of the embassy to perform their function, but (USAID) and any other U.S. government agency here … and also the oversight agencies.
Some areas you can't get to at all. It's not like doing mob investigations in Cleveland or Youngstown.
How responsive is the government and different agencies to your findings?
They are responsive. They might not like what I find, but I'm not here to make friends.
We are very reliant on not only the embassy here and the ambassador for care, feeding and protection, but also the military. Some of the commanders in the field have gone out of their way to find space for us and give us tools for our wo