A U.S. government inspector, accompanied by a U.S. Army security detail, inspects work done on an American-funded culvert project in Afghanistan. (SIGAR)
WASHINGTON — The US government-funded watchdog that tracks billions of dollars worth of American development aid to Afghanistan says much of the country is too dangerous for inspectors to check in on US-funded projects. And when NATO forces leave, things will get even worse.
According to a Monday letter from the head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to US government officials, the percentage of the country accessible to US civilian oversight personnel has been quickly shrinking from about 68 percent of the country in 2009 to about 45 percent.
And that area is expected to constrict even further to about 21 percent by the end of 2014, when most US and NATO troops are scheduled to complete their withdrawal, SIGAR chief John Sopko wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Rajiv Shah, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
“We have also been told by State Department officials that this projection may be optimistic,” Sopko warned, “especially if the security situation does not improve.”
Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and the waste and abuse involved in reconstruction projects has been a problem that has proven too widespread for NATO forces and their civilian partners to crack.
Last year, the United Nations predicted that Afghans pay about US $3.9 billion a year in bribes to public officials.
Despite the fact that the United States has allocated more than $96 billion for Afghan aid and reconstruction over the past 12 years, Washington’s anti-corruption activities in Afghanistan “are not guided by a comprehensive US strategy or related guidance that defines clear goals and objectives for US efforts to strengthen the Afghan government’s capability to combat corruption and increase accountability,” SIGAR reported in September.
Sopko’s letter asks the Pentagon and State Department for help in planning oversight missions outside of what he called the “oversight bubbles” that exist around major population centers such as Kabul, Kandahar and Herat where US civilians can operate with some degree of security.
Anything outside of those bubbles is essentially off-limits. American military officials have told the SIGAR staff that they will provide civilian access “only to areas within a one-hour round trip of an advanced medical facility,” Sopko wrote, making any aid projects outside of those bubbles a mystery, even though US dollars continue to be spent on projects there.
The tightening restrictions have already had some real effects. This year, SIGAR inspectors were unable to visit $72 million worth of projects in northern Afghanistan, Sopko wrote.
The oversight chief didn’t merely write his letter to complain, however. He is asking the Pentagon and State Department for help in finding ways to break free from the bubble.
USAID in Afghanistan is already considering using third-party monitors to help in overseeing reconstruction sites around the country, and State Department personnel are mulling ways to expand their oversight access by pushing emergency medical and security teams out to the edge of the oversight zones.
“Even if these alternative means are used to oversee reconstruction sites,” Sopko wrote, “direct oversight of reconstruction programs in much of Afghanistan will become prohibitively hazardous or impossible as US military units are withdrawn, coalition bases are closed, and civilian reconstruction offices in the field are closed.”