John F. Sopko became the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2012, after more than 37 years of accountability work with government and the private sector. He inherited a dispirited agency that was struggling with retention and had a reputation for ineffectiveness.
SIGAR oversees the development work of U.S. agencies in Afghanistan, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Defense Department, the State Department and the Agency for International Development.
We talked with Sopko about a range of issues, including his attempts to turn around SIGAR, the security problems associated with dwindling troop numbers and the move toward “direct assistance,” which allows the Afghan government to distribute U.S. money on its own.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview:
What are the oversight challenges you see as the U.S. military continues its withdrawal from Afghanistan?
The withdrawal is continuing. The numbers I hear range from zero to 10,000 U.S. troops and about 2,000 to 6,000 coalition troops. Whatever the number is, there are going to be fewer U.S. and coalition troops and fewer locations where those troops are located. Accordingly, it’s going to be less secure.
That’s why, more than ever, I think the need for a SIGAR and the need for other oversight is even more important. We’ve made a commitment to continue funding reconstruction, even with a smaller footprint over there. We have to ensure that there are safeguards and protections put in place. We’re just going to have to think harder about how to do monitoring — remote monitoring or third-party monitoring of all these reconstruction facilities that we built.
A big challenge is going to be direct assistance and making certain that Afghan government ministries that get the money are able to handle it, and it won’t get stolen or misused. AID and State and DOD have got to put safeguards in there before we go to direct assistance.
How much U.S. assistance is now direct assistance?
We promised 50 percent, and we’re slowly getting there. Most of that direct assistance now is going through various trust funds. There’s a big trust fund set up to pay the salaries of the Afghan National Army, and there’s another trust fund that’s run by the U.N. to pay the salaries of the police, and there’s a trust fund set up by the World Bank to support some of the Afghan ministries.
What problems have you discovered with those programs?
We just uncovered some allegations about the Afghan National Police, that there are certain funds or monies taken out of the police salaries every month that we don’t know where the money went, nor do our allies.
And then there’s another fund of about 5 percent that was supposed to go toward retirement, and we don’t know where that money is. And then we heard about generals who apparently are not listed in the police force, but their salaries are being paid. So we picked up a number of allegations that we’re looking into.
Is overseeing Afghanistan reconstruction anything like combatting organized crime?
Yes and no. What I’m dealing with mostly is mismanagement — less criminality and more mismanagement.
Now there’s a lot of fraud, and actually there’s probably more fraud, and it’s more difficult in Afghanistan than even in Iraq, because in Iraq you were mainly dealing with U.S. contractors.
In Afghanistan, we have a policy of Afghan first, to try to encourage Afghan companies. So you’re using a lot of Afghan contractors and subcontractors. We have no treaty to extradite. We have a very poorly run and corrupt Ministry of Justice, attorney general’s office and judiciary [in Afghanistan]. So it’s very difficult for us to reach out and grab a contractor or subcontractor.
We’re dealing with a very corrupt country. You’re dealing with a country in which you have limited capability to prosecute or sue contractors and subcontractors, so you need to put protections into the contracts.
How can the United States oversee reconstruction efforts without U.S. troops protecting the monitors?
The answer is setting up some type of third-party monitoring system. This isn’t rocket science. This has been done before. What we’re saying is: U.S. government, get your act together and develop a system. It’s not our job to tell you how to develop it. You’ve done this before in Somalia or Iraq or Pakistan or wherever else. But get it in place. And why haven’t you put it in place three years ago? You knew this is where we were going. Only now are they starting to let contracts for third-party monitoring.
But you’ve said third-party monitors have misled the United States in the past.
Maybe you have to use two or three different ones.
We started talking to [U.S. agencies], we started talking to the U.N., we talked to the World Bank, the Brits, the Canadians, and said, ‘How do you do it?’ Everyone had a different model, a different way of doing it. So we held a symposium . . . and said come in and let’s talk about third-party monitoring in Afghanistan. Let’s share best practices. Part of this was to get the U.S. government agencies to talk to each other and talk to the Europeans and the U.N. and share, because they’re the ones that have to do this.
What was SIGAR like when you inherited the agency?
We inherited a 60 percent rate of departure. It’s basically because morale was bad.
I had an office that nobody respected on the Hill, in the Embassy or in the government in general. It was known to be weak. It was known to be ineffectual. There was no fire in the belly.
One of my predecessors criticized my auditors because we were being too hard on the Afghans and we embarrassed the Afghans. So we had auditors who quit because “we can’t embarrass the Afghans.” I had a predecessor who said, “You shouldn’t criticize the generals.” Well, if we can’t criticize the Afghans and we can’t criticize the generals, what are we going to do?
How did you change the environment?
[Congress] gave me tremendous authorities that even other IGs don’t have. I can hire and fire at will. I can offer benefits that many of my compatriots in other IG jobs can’t.
The reason Congress did that is because we’re a temporary agency. How are you going to attract somebody? A young kid isn’t going to come, because there’s no future there. So you need to hit the ground running and you need some really smart people who have done this for 20 years. Well those are retirees, and they’re not going to give up their retirement to come here.
So, what I can offer them is: You keep your retirement plus I pay you a new salary. So I’m attracting a lot of very skilled people who are dedicated.