John Sopko, watchdog for U.S. reconstruction spending in Afghanistan, isn’t looking to make friends


Inspector General John F. Sopko, left, talks with Brig. Gen. Luigi Chiapperini, commander of RC-West, in Afghanistan. (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) )

A year after John Sopko became the chief watchdog for U.S. reconstruction spending in Afghanistan, he has turned a failed agency into the bane of the existence of American bureaucrats scrambling to bring the war to a dignified end.

Mentioning his name to U.S. commanders, diplomats and aid workers invariably elicits eye-
rolling and hushed grumbling. His methodology, they charge, is often flawed, his reports lacking in context. He is overstepping his congressional mandate by looking into areas that are not, strictly speaking, reconstruction projects. And, for crying out loud, does the man have to be so pugnacious?

Sopko, a former federal prosecutor who made history by bringing down an Italian mob family in Cleveland during the 1980s, seems to relish the criticism. As he sees it, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or ­SIGAR, has little time left to correct the course of a massive, wayward ship and to spotlight a flawed wartime appropriations system. To that end, he’s more than happy to name names, bruise egos, chase headlines and, well, go to war with much of Washington.

“I didn’t take this job to be liked at the State Department or USAID or the Department of Defense,” he said in an interview. “We’re the umpire. My job is to call strikes.”

Bureaucratic battles within America’s wars are legion. But none has played out quite this publicly, and all sides agree that the stakes could hardly be higher. To a large extent, the U.S. ability to disengage smoothly from Afghanistan and retain influence after combat troops leave — by the end of 2014 — will depend on the work U.S. agencies are able to accomplish, as well as the amount of political will and confidence in the mission they can engender.

For years, SIGAR was the butt of jokes in the auditing world. Arnold Fields, a retired Marine general, resigned as head of the agency in January 2011 after the Council of Inspectors General issued a critical assessment of ­SIGAR’s audits and said it lacked a clear vision. The White House was unable to get a permanent leader in place until July 2012. On his first day at work, Sopko, 61, sought to rally a demoralized team with what agency employees came to call the “fire in the belly” speech.

“We must be more aggressive,” Sopko told his employees. “We have a limited amount of time.”

They began cranking out reports, public letters and audits at an unprecedented rate. Always eager to deliver a punchy quote and to entice journalists by offering exclusive, embargoed copies of reports, SIGAR has been a steady bearer of bad news about the war effort, which has record-low approval ratings. The agency takes to Twitter, a YouTube channel and a growing mailing list to ring the alarm.

In doing so, SIGAR has painted “a narrative of failure that is grossly inaccurate,” charged David S. Sedney, who recently stepped down as the deputy assistant secretary of defense overseeing Afghanistan policy. “Individual reports always seem to generalize, but they draw false conclusions and fail to understand what’s going on.”

An objective, critical look at the war effort, Sedney argued, would paint a picture of “massive success,” despite the enormous challenges and setbacks. SIGAR’s aggressive media strategy is a “tragic use of resources,” he said, which has turned it “into a political actor in the debate over Afghanistan here and in Kabul.”

Officials at the Pentagon, State Department and USAID echoed Sedney’s views but declined to voice them publicly.

George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said SIGAR has provided “valuable insight” and lessons on how the military can operate “more efficiently and effectively.” USAID, which has submitted lengthy and detailed rebuttals to SIGAR reports, said in a statement that it welcomes strong oversight. It conspicuously did not mention SIGAR.

“We share the concerns of a special inspector general because this is our life’s work, and Secretary [John F.] Kerry comes from a Senate career where he was a well-known investigator and champion of oversight, so he’s particularly sensitive to the importance of accountability,” said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman.

Earlier this year, as SIGAR’s profile soared, some senior U.S. officials urged Sopko to tone it down, he said. Some asked him to use less provocative headlines in SIGAR reports. A general, whom Sopko would not name, told him, “You’re not like the other IGs that I can control,” he added.

In May, Sopko shot back, complaining that bureaucrats were accusing him of “not being a ‘team player’ and undermining ‘our country’s mission in Afghanistan.’ ”

“In their opinion, my reports should be slipped under their doors in the dead of night, never to see the light of day, because these reports could make parts of the U.S. mission look bad or embarrass President [Hamid] Karzai and the Afghan government,” Sopko said during a May 8 speech.

Sopko said he has sought media attention for the agency’s work because “the only way to convince Congress and the administration to do what’s right” is to “garner public interest in the issue and public support.”

Since 2002, Congress has appropriated more than $95 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction.

SIGAR’s work has called attention to thorny policy issues. He sparked a congressional outcry by questioning the wisdom of purchasing Russian helicopters for the Afghan Air Force, despite concerns about the long-term viability of the force. SIGAR got vast publicity for a report on a $34 million state-of-the-art facility the Pentagon built for the Marines in Helmand Province, which the service didn’t want and does not intend to ever use. And it angered Afghan officials with a report about the heavy fines and taxes Kabul is demanding from American government contractors.

Early this year, Sopko demanded that the Pentagon, State Department and USAID draft a list of the 10 most and least successful projects each agency has funded in Afghanistan, an exercise he thought would help the government focus on core, salvageable efforts and abandon doomed ones. They have so far refused, issuing instead letters that highlight broad areas in which officials see significant progress.

“They still can’t give me a list of their 10 top successes,” Sopko scoffed. “Here you are, almost 12 years into this endeavor, and they can’t rank and stack and prioritize their programs.”

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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