John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), is none too popular with the State Department right now. A former prosecutor with a savvy for publicity, Sopko has been airing his grievances about the United States’ reconstruction efforts for Afghanistan for months now, claiming that America is flushing hundreds of millions of dollars down the drain, with little to show for it and no end in site. It’s a problem of accountability, Sopko says, and his organization has released these maps to prove it. They show the few areas in Afghanistan where SIGAR is allowed to travel. The point? You can’t oversee how your money gets spent without access to the regions where you’re spending money.
Right now, the United States is pumping more money into Afghanistan than any other country. Sopko himself pegged the amount the United States has spent in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2012 as being in the ballpark of $100 billion, which is more than America has ever spent rebuilding any other country. And the number continues to rise in 2013.
Unfortunately, that money hasn’t accomplished much, says the NGO watchdog International Crisis Group. “Despite billions of dollars in aid, state institutions remain fragile and unable to provide good governance, deliver basic services to the majority of the population or guarantee human security,” the organization writes.
A common refrain in Sopko’s criticisms of the reconstruction effort is that American taxpayer dollars are at high risk of waste, abuse, and fraud, largely because there isn’t a formal system to vet whether the work being paid for in Afghanistan is actually getting done. Partly, this is a matter of access: SIGAR personnel are not allowed into more than half the country, severely limiting their ability to audit spending.
In these maps, SIGAR highlights in blue the areas of Afghanistan where it has oversight. These oversight bubbles essentially indicate the parts of the country that SIGAR can physically access while being adequately secure. But security isn’t enough: oversight bubbles are also defined by how quickly emergency medical support can be provided to civilians: if medical support is more than 30 minutes away, the area is considered outside an oversight bubble.
If a location is outside an oversight bubble, the U.S. military won’t let SIGAR visit it to make sure that money invested in the area is actually being spent correctly. For example, earlier this year, Sopko says that SIGAR was unable to check up on a $72 million infrastructure program in northern Afghanistan because it fell outside of an oversight bubble. As far as SIGAR knows, there might be nothing there except a bunch of contractors drinking champagne in Jacuzzis on the taxpayer’s dime.
And as the U.S. and coalition military leaves Afghanistan, the problem’s only getting worse. In 2009, SIGAR had oversight of 68% of Afghanistan. Two years later, that number was down to 59%. In 2013, it was only 45%. And next year, Sopko believes that this number will shrink to just 21%.
U.S. officials have blasted Sopko for blowing the issue of oversight out of proportion. The State Department, for example, is quick to point out that despite the fact that many projects fall outside of SIGAR’s oversight bubbles, there is a unit that vets all contracted work before payment is processed.
But Sopko’s point is that without being given access to these areas by the military, SIGAR’s only got the State Department’s word that money spent in 79% of Afghanistan in 2014 will be money well-spent. Given the little bang for our buck we’ve gotten in Afghanistan so far, is that word really enough?
Sopko’s letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about SIGAR’s oversight problems can be viewed in its entirety here].