“Nobody’s Been Held Accountable” for Wasteful Spending in Afghanistan, says U.S. Watchdog

In this photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, Afghan security forces and volunteer militias rest on their way to Kunduz, Afghanistan to fight against Taliban fighters.

In this photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, Afghan security forces and volunteer militias rest on their way to Kunduz, Afghanistan to fight against Taliban fighters. (AP Photos/Naim Rahimi)

October 9, 2015

The war in Afghanistan marked a grim milestone this week — its 14th anniversary — making it America’s longest war by nearly half a decade. And it’s back in the spotlight for the wrong reasons: a resurgent Taliban seized a major Afghan city for the first time in 14 years in late September, and a U.S. airstrike coming to the aid of Afghan forces hit a hospital run by the aid group Doctors Without Borders, killing 22 patients and doctors, and leaving 24 missing and feared dead.

Afghan security forces have struggled to maintain any gains they’ve made in retaking the city of Kunduz, with territory changing hands daily. And with international aid organizations now gone from the city in the aftermath of the hospital bombing, civilians who are caught in the crossfire have nowhere to turn for help.

Meanwhile the U.S. reconstruction effort — which has cost taxpayers $110 billion since the war began — continues to be hampered by allegations of waste, fraud and mismanagement. In just one of the war’s numerous examples, a $500,000 training center for Afghan police began “melting” within four months of completion.

To take stock of the United States’ costly reconstruction efforts, FRONTLINE spoke recently with John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Since Sopko took the job in 2012, he and his team at SIGAR have called attention to repeated missteps in the reconstruction, leading to high-profile coverage of waste in Afghanistan, and fueling criticism for their aggressive approach from the departments they audit. Sopko now warns that the few gains the U.S. and its Afghan partners have made may be lost.

This is the edited transcript of a conversation that took place on Oct. 1, 2015. 

The deterioration we’ve seen in recent days in Kunduz — is that on us? Is that on U.S. troops not being able to prepare Afghan forces well, and is it a symptom of how our reconstruction efforts have gone in Afghanistan?

It’s more than a symptom, it’s the old canary in the coalmine. We’ve been warning the administration and Congress about this since before I got here in 2012. In 2010, I think we did our first audit on the kind of tools we use to assess the capabilities [of the Afghan forces]. And we’ve been warning them that our military keeps changing the goal posts, keeps dumbing down the assessments in the hopes that the Afghan military and police will meet them. But they don’t. There are serious problems, and Kunduz is just a glaring example of what’s happening.

We’ve now spent $110 billion on Afghan reconstruction. Overall, how well spent has that money been?

I can’t give you the definitive answer you probably want, because it’s never totally black and white. There have been some great successes, but overall we’ve wasted billions of dollars. Overall, we have serious concerns that what successes we have made — in health, in education, in women’s rights — could be lost because the Afghan security situation is deteriorating quickly. And number two, even assuming that the Afghans can hold their own, they can’t sustain the infrastructure we gave them, the ministries we gave them and all of the other good stuff that we did.

On the one hand, it’s a very precarious situation, but on the other hand, I’m cautiously optimistic because the new unity government really cares.

That’s interesting. Could you say more about the current government and what they’re doing in terms of not just talking the talk but following through?

The best example I’d like to mention has to do with how they’re trying to address corruption. Shortly after the unity government started, we identified a criminal scheme to defraud the Afghan government as well as the U.S. taxpayer to the tune of $200 million on a billion dollar contract to buy fuel for the [Afghan] Ministry of Defense. We identified the criminals. We identified where they met and what was discussed — they basically fixed the price, all the bidders were putting in phony bids to jack the price up to the tune of over $200 million.

Our investigators went over to the Ministry of Defense. We initially didn’t get a good response, so we took it to the palace.

“There have been some great successes, but overall we’ve wasted billions of dollars.”

President [Ashraf] Ghani himself got involved, Abdullah Abdullah, [the Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan], got involved. They started firing generals, civil servants who were implicated, and stopped the contracting. Then they started working with our team and Gen. [John] Campbell’s team, and said, “Do you have any other contracts you’re suspicious of?” And we said, “Oh yeah, we do.” A number of other contracts, which were very suspicious, we brought to their attention. And again, President Ghani and Abdullah themselves got involved and they set up a new procurement system where they review every contract, they listen to us, they have their own team they set up to investigate these contracts, and they’re slowly weeding their way through the contracts to try and clean out the bad ones and build a process.

The reason I mention this is the prior government — they wouldn’t have responded at all to this. They would have just ignored it. And they did ignore it. This government is taking it seriously. I’m cautiously optimistic. I know the problems this new unity government faces, and you can’t turn around everything overnight. He’s juggling while on a tight rope, while being shot at. But he’s an honest and honorable patriot, and so is Abdullah, and I think although they have their own differences of opinion, they’re trying to do the best for their country.

What’s the biggest instance of mismanagement or waste you’ve encountered?

In money spent, our entire counternarcotics effort, which amounted to $8 billion, has been a total failure. The bottom line is production and exports are at an all time high, the money available to corrupt the government is at an all time high, the money that goes to the insurgents — because they collect a tax they’re actually becoming drug lords like we’ve seen in Colombia — that’s at an all time high, and addiction inside Afghanistan is at an all time high. Using all the indicators that anybody in law enforcement or counternarcotics would look at, it’s a failure, but nobody in our government’s been held accountable, nobody’s lost a pay raise, nobody’s lost a promotion. That’s a problem.

Individual programs? We spent almost half a billion dollars and bought a plane called the G222 that couldn’t fly, couldn’t be used by the Afghans. We bought 20-something planes and ultimately we had to scrap them. We had to turn them into penny- and nickel-sized pieces of scrap. That is what the U.S. taxpayer got out of that. Over half a billion dollars totally wasted, and nobody’s been held accountable.

In past SIGAR reports, there are mentions of training facilities, hospitals, etc., that are either poorly constructed or not needed or used. When in the process of them being built do things start to go wrong? Is it commissioning them in the first place? The construction? Lack of oversight?

I hate to say it’s “yes” to all of them. I got my team together and we asked, “Can we draw some commonality from these failures?” That’s how we came up with seven questions.

A lot of them are questions like, “Did this program or process meet our objectives?” If it didn’t meet our strategic objectives in Afghanistan, more than likely it’s not going to succeed. “Did we talk to the Afghans? Did they want it? Did they need the program?”

“That’s the cruelest joke we have played on these poor Afghan citizens in some of these communities. We give them a brand new hospital, school or clinic and there’s no doctors, no medicine or no electricity.”

“Did we actually consider sustainability?” Why build something if we know from the beginning that the Afghans will never be able to sustain or maintain it. That’s the cruelest joke we have played on these poor Afghan citizens in some of these communities. We give them a brand new hospital, school or clinic and there’s no doctors, no medicine or no electricity. Other than our instantaneous gratification — and nothing is instantaneous in Afghanistan — what have we accomplished?

It basically boils down to the planning, reaching out and including Afghans in the community, and monitoring and overseeing the program.

One other thing, which is really key: We never really held ourselves to specific, accountable goals. That’s why we could spend $8 billion on counternarcotics and have nothing for it. We’re working in Afghanistan. Realistically, we’ve got to know where we are and build to that. I’m not saying dumb it down and give them second-class infrastructure. But we have to be realistic with what we’re doing, and part of that is building in understandable goals. What did we want to accomplish? It really is tragic, it’s almost like what we wanted to accomplish was spending a lot of money fast. And we did succeed. We spent a heckuva lot of money real fast, in a really poor country, and never really considered the unintended consequence of spending so much money so fast. We totally distorted the economy, we totally distorted the value system of some people.

Why is there so much mismanagement and waste?

Well, first of all, it’s a war zone. Second, Afghanistan is a very tough place. Thirdly, a lot of the problems we’re identifying are problems with the way the United States government operates.

We have a lousy procurement system in the government. We reward people not for the ultimate outcome but for outputs. So what I mean by that — and I’ve been told by numerous contractors and contracting officers in AID [United States Agency for International Development] and State [Department] and DOD [Department of Defense] — is that they got their rewards not based on what was the ultimate outcome of the project, but how fast they put money on a contract. So, if you’re rewarding somebody for spending money even if it doesn’t accomplish anything, why are we surprised 14 years later that we spent a lot of money and nothing was built? I mean we can’t condemn these people. That’s how they’re rewarded.

“We also don’t appreciate and enforce personal accountability in the U.S. government. It takes a hell of a lot of screw-ups for someone to get fired.”

We send people over for short terms of duty — whether you’re in the military or AID or State. I’ve only been there for three years, but I’ve had three different ambassadors. I’ve had three or four different commanders of our NATO and U.S. troops. I think I’ve gone through six or eight generals who ran what they call CSTC-A, which is the Combined Security Transition Command — Afghanistan. Those are the guys who spend the money. I’m going to go back to Afghanistan in another two weeks and I’m going to meet a new command of CSTC-A. I just said goodbye to the last one and said hello to him three months before that. How can you have any continuity when you’re changing generals almost as often as you change underwear? But that is not the generals’ problem. They didn’t create that. That is the tool we gave them — this crazy rotation system that the military has, as well as the ambassadors.

We also don’t appreciate and enforce personal accountability in the U.S. government. It takes a hell of a lot of screw-ups for someone to get fired. And I dare anybody to show me somebody who’s gotten fired in Afghanistan for wasting $100 million dollars, $300 million dollars, or failing to accomplish a program he or she was given. Again, it’s not a criticism of a lot of brave and hard-working people out there — it’s the tools we gave them.

You touched on this earlier, but what’s your response to critics in government who say that the standards you are holding people to are unrealistic or unattainable?

My answer is they’re the ones that came up with them. I don’t impose the rules. We’re using their goals, their metrics. Now, sometimes they don’t even have metrics and that’s the worst.

I sent a letter two years ago to the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and the head of AID and said, “Give me your 10 most successful projects or programs in Afghanistan and your metrics for rating success for all of them,” figuring hey, that can help me understand what works and what doesn’t work, and how do we apply metrics. I’m still waiting for an answer.

What they did was they came back and said, “Afghans are living longer, the military’s doing better, women are living longer, more kids are going to school.” Well, I know that. We all know that. We kicked the Taliban out. They stopped shooting. So as soon as the Taliban left, more kids started going to school, but which of your programs contributed to that? Which of your programs actually helped healthcare or childcare or maternity care? Because you’ve got to rack and stack programs, you can’t just say things are better. What did you do to accomplish that? And they haven’t been able to give me any metrics.

In that case, are there success stories that can be pointed to as a result of your work?

Well we do audits and most of our recommendations — about 70 to 80 percent — are actually implemented by all of the agencies. Fines that we’ve gotten from criminal prosecutions, I think they’re over about a billion dollars right now — recoveries and fines from our criminal investigations alone.

“It really is tragic, it’s almost like what we wanted to accomplish was spending a lot of money fast. And we did succeed.”

There’s something else that I think is equally important, and that is we have changed the thinking of a lot of midlevel and high-level managers in all these agencies. We have heard of internal meetings in various agencies where they’ve said, “Hold it, what will SIGAR say if we do this?” And that may be our most important legacy. We’re getting people to start thinking, “How is this going to be viewed if it appears on NPR, or PBS, on in The New York Times, or The Washington Post?” And that’s the reason why we publicize everything we do — It’s changing people’s attitude. This is not your money this is taxpayer’s money. Let’s do it better.

We’re slowly trying to change these [agencies], these big ships. We’re yelling and screaming that there’s an iceberg ahead. But it takes a while to turn a big ship like the Department of Defense or the State Department or USAID. These are agencies that have been around a long time, but we’re slowly doing it. That may be the most important legacy of our little agency.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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