WASHINGTON — The inspector general overseeing Afghanistan reconstruction efforts has flagged dozens of Afghan contractors for aiding the Taliban or undermining U.S. security while providing services to the U.S. government — but the Defense Department continues to pay them.
Deputy Inspector General Gene Aloise gave a status update on the activities of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) this week at the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency conference in Alexandria.
The office watches over more than $100 billion allocated to rebuilding the country, including the Afghan National Security Forces. About a quarter of its 200 employees work out of Afghanistan, conducting audits and investigations.
SIGAR, which operates independently of any federal agency, will remain in operation until funding that remains to be disbursed falls below $250 million. Aloise said $16 billion is “still in the reconstruction pipeline.”
“One of our first special projects was investigating and issuing an alert letter on contractors’ failure to install culvert-denial systems to prevent or deter insurgents from planting IEDs under Afghan roads,” Aloise said. “We alerted General Allen and others in his command to this problem, which not only involved fraudulent payments, but lethal threats to U.S. and Coalition personnel. In fact, two U.S. servicemen lost their lives over one of these culverts.”
“Our military took immediate corrective action. In addition, the Afghan contractors involved in this fraud were soon facing criminal charges.”
SIGAR also initiated efforts to recover more than $70 million swiped from the U.S. government by an Afghan trucking contractor. Through asset seizures, about $10 million has been recovered.
“We are also very aggressive in referring poor performers and bad actors to DOD for review and decision for suspension and debarment. As of June 30 this year, SIGAR had made 490 referrals that led to 73 suspensions and 195 finalized debarments of individuals and companies,” Aloise said.
The inspector general has referred 43 cases to the Defense Department where the CENTCOM commander flagged an Afghan contractor as “actively supporting the insurgency” or where the Commerce Department found a contractor to be “engaging in activities contrary to the national security interests of the U.S.”
“Unfortunately, the Army suspension and debarment official decided that these designations were not adequate grounds for suspension or debarment and rejected all 43 cases,” Aloise continued. “We do not understand why the Army permits deadly enemies and their sympathizers to get federal dollars which can be used to buy the means to kill our troops.”
Aloise said SIGAR would “continue to work with Congress on this issue.”
The inspector general has faced other hurdles, as well, in trying to conduct investigations with “serious limitations” on access to needed records and information, as noted in an Aug. 5 letter to congressional oversight committees signed by Inspector General John Sopko.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will be holding a hearing Wednesday on the letter, signed by 47 inspectors general in all.
“We have had our own experiences with agency reluctance or obstructionism, and we share the IG community’s concern that hostile or passive-aggressive responses to legitimate oversight requests are a threat to our ability to produce thorough, independent, and timely products,” Aloise said.
“…Unless a piece of information is legitimately classified or otherwise restricted, it ought to be available, even if disclosure is not technically required. And, when disclosure is legally required, as by the IG Act, then agency refusal to provide timely access to the data is intolerable,” he continued.
“Transparency and openness are vital to good government. Opaque surfaces polished by agency pr staff can conceal problems and provide false assurance that everything is fine. And you don’t have to be particularly suspicious to think that agency heads may not always be inclined to call attention to or take action on unwelcome reports from their house IG.”
Aloise said that the U.S. troop withdrawal by the end of the year presents its own challenges with reconstruction, as the country “remains under assault by insurgents, short of domestic revenue, plagued by corruption, afflicted by criminal elements involved in opium and smuggling, and struggling to execute basic functions of government.”
A winner in Afghanistan’s July presidential runoff still hasn’t been declared as Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani battle over allegations of election fraud.
Because of post-withdrawal security, “We estimate more than 80 percent of the country will be effectively off-limits to U.S. civilian oversight. Like other U.S. agencies, we are looking at options for remote and third-party monitoring outside of Kabul to provide a continuing flow of information from the field,” Aloise said.
The inspector general is “continuing to report on evidence that suggest we have been spending too much, too hurriedly on reconstruction without securing stakeholders buy-in, without ensuring sustainability, and without taking adequate countermeasures against unintended consequences like distortion of Afghan markets for goods and skilled labor as well as aggravating the country’s already staggering dependence on foreign aid.”
“…The Afghanistan reconstruction experience is marred by many sins of commission or omission. A contractor fails to follow requirements, leaving unsafe, unfinished, unusable, or unwanted buildings but yet gets paid in full.”
For example, Aloise said, “someone decides to buy $500 million worth of non-airworthy planes that are later abandoned.”
“Federal contract officials don’t bother to make site visits, fail to keep proper documentation, fail to enforce standards, and fail to ensure work is done before accepting it,” he added. “People, companies, and agencies need to be held seriously accountable for stupid decisions, dereliction of duty, corrupt behavior, and subpar performance. Otherwise, we simply foster the expectation that additional waste, fraud, and abuse will be tolerated in the future.”
Everyone wants the investment in reconstruction “to succeed in creating a stable and sustainable economy and government in Afghanistan,” Aloise stressed.
“But unless we are prepared and resolved to withhold funding when circumstances warrant, it is hard to see how the Afghan government can be adequately incentivized to pursue real reform.”