Military Members Stole Millions in Afghan Rebuilding Effort

SIGAR officials visit the construction site of a damaged road in Mahmood Raqi, Afghanistan, on Aug. 12, 2009. (US Army photo/Teddy Wade)
SIGAR officials visit the construction site of a damaged road in Mahmood Raqi, Afghanistan, on Aug. 12, 2009. (US Army photo/Teddy Wade)

When the U.S. government spends $117 billion to rebuild a war-torn country, some of it is bound to get stolen or misspent. And that's what happened in Afghanistan, according to the man responsible for helping find the waste, fraud and abuse.

John Sopko, head of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said Thursday evening in a speech at Duke University that his team identified nearly $1 billion in questionable costs and funds that could be put to better use. An additional $1 billion has been recovered for U.S. taxpayers in fines, restitution, recoveries and cost savings.

The money was recovered through 105 SIGAR arrests that led to 144 criminal indictments and charges and 109 convictions and guilty pleas. Of that $1 billion, $27.7 million has been recovered through investigations in North Carolina, Sopko said.

To date, the U.S. has spent more than $117 billion for the Afghanistan reconstruction effort and has promised another $5 billion to $6 billion per year through 2020. That figure, more than the U.S. spent on the entire Marshall Plan after World War II, doesn't include any cost of fighting the war, Sopko said.

One of Sopko's agents is stationed at Fort Bragg and works with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh. That partnership has resulted in the convictions of 12 military members based in North Carolina on charges including bribery, conspiracy, theft and bulk cash smuggling. Sentences for those convicted have ranged from 10 months to 15 years in prison.

Expensive schemes

The arrests include the discovery of four military members responsible for creating 114 false requests for fuel supply missions and selling the gas on the black market, racking up about $10 million in losses, according to documents provided by SIGAR spokeswoman Jennifer George-Nichol.

SIGAR investigators also revealed two Special Forces members skimmed nearly $215,000 by inflating construction bids and altering receipts between November 2009 and December 2010. The men would take the extra money and send it in postal money orders to their spouses in the U.S., documents show.

With all of the U.S. spending, its efficacy in Afghanistan remains unclear, Sopko said in his prepared remarks.

"While we know we built a lot of schools and hospitals, it's less clear whether and how they're currently being used," he said.

Natural gas and goats

Sopko took over the job in 2012. He's a former state and federal prosecutor and congressional investigator.

Sopko asked top officials to report their 10 most successful projects in Afghanistan. But none of them chose to do so, saying they "couldn't really measure success between their various programs and projects."

"That should tell you a lot about how government works," he said.

Sopko thinks that the massive influx of U.S. aid, contractors and military funding with "too little oversight" significantly compounded already severe corruption in Afghanistan.

The U.S. already has provided more than $70 billion to build up security forces in Afghanistan, including billions to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Army, police and air force. U.S. taxpayers not only fund the salaries of Afghan security forces, but also pay for their equipment, training, food, fuel, weapons and base infrastructure.

There have been major failures in Afghanistan that have cost U.S. taxpayers billions, Sopko said.

The failures include spending $8.5 billion to combat opium production, he said. Fifteen years later production is near all-time highs. The U.S. spent $400 million to buy and retrofit 20 Italian cargo planes for the Afghan Air Force, which turned out to be "death traps," he said. Scrapping the planes cost an additional $100,000 each.

A $43 million compressed natural gas filling station was built, even though no cars in Afghanistan ran on natural gas. And $6 million was spent to transport and support rare Italian goats to breed with Afghan goats in an attempt to improve Afghanistan's cashmere quality. Many of the goats died, and the project director quit in frustration, Sopko said.

(c)2017 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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