SIGAR’s first priority is to promote SIGAR and the Obama Administration. SIGAR stands for the “Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.” Since last year, the Inspector General has been John F. Sopko. Mr. Sopko was a partner with Akin Gump, an influential American lawfirm. He came to his current post as a Washington, D.C. political insider and one who will never “rock the boat,” to use an American expression. Since his appointment, Mr. Sopko has excelled at making speeches that promote SIGAR and the Obama Administration. He cites to statistics of progress in the $80+ billion reconstruction effort. Upon closer examination, his statistics are just window dressing. There have been a small number of minor officials prosecuted for corruption and a number of small companies that have been debarred from further Afghan aid contracts. That is basically it. SIGAR’s goal is to promote the appearance of accountability and reform, while protecting Obama Administration officials from any actual responsibility for their colossal and historic failures in Afghan reconstruction.
In auditing the auditors, the Kabul Press examined just one recent SIGAR audit, which was of the $70 million per year Afghan National Army vehicle maintenance contract administered by the U.S. Army Contracting Command (ACC). SIGAR found that for the period January - December 2012, ACC was required to prepare 453 site inspection reports and that it only prepared 170 of those. The remaining audits were conducted by E-mail or after telephone calls to the contractor, or simply were not prepared at all. Officially, ACC claims that it conducted all 453 inspections. It achieves this by inventing deceptive terms. If an ACC contracting officer telephones the contractor, that is considered a “desk audit.” If no audit at all is performed, that is still considered an audit, it is called an “alibi audit” because the contracting officer creates an excuse (or alibi) for the lack of audit. In ACC-speak, doing nothing is still an audit!
SIGAR, to its discredit, found all of this to be understandable. It accepted all the ACC excuses of “logistics constraints” and “security concerns” (even when raised regarding non-inspections of relatively safe areas such as the city of Mazar-e Sharif). The superficial SIGAR audits never ask the hard questions, such as, “Why are contracts being awarded where the agency lacks the resources to oversee the work?” “If there is no oversight, how does ACC know that the taxpayer funds are not simply being stolen?” “How are these poorly managed contracts impacting the war effort?” “What specific U.S. military officials in Afghanistan are not providing support to ACC and what is their explanation?” “Who are the ACC procurement officials, contracting officers and technical representatives involved who are not properly overseeing these expenditures of taxpayer dollars?” SIGAR auditors should be confronting problems and challenging head on, those culpable military officials. They should be kicking butts and publicizing names. There should be demanding prompt accountability from those who are mismanaging U.S. reconstruction aid.
At the core of the problem is that SIGAR was created to mollify critics in Congress. The idea was to pretend that oversight was being conducted. SIGAR was never intended to be effective. SIGAR’s Internet site claims that its “Headquarters” is in Arlington, Virginia, but that it maintains an “office” somewhere in Afghanistan (the address of which is apparently classified). The first question is, “Why does it need a Headquarters?” The second question is, “Why are 90% of its staff not in Afghanistan?” Last week, in his stock speech, Mr. Sopko boasted that he travels four times a year to Afghanistan. He apparently considers this to be an impressive statistic, however it begs the question as to why he does not work out of Afghanistan and travel four times a year to Washington, D.C.?
SIGAR has a senior staff that is accustomed to a pleasant lifestyle. Its Assistant Inspector General for Investigations (Douglas Dorin) came to SIGAR from defense contractor SAIC where he was a vice-president. Mr. Dorin’s biography highlights the cancer within SIGAR. Dorin was an FBI agent in the 1970’s and then he left to work for SAIC. Dorin eventually was named to oversee SAIC’s contracts with the FBI and the Justice Department. This revolving door practice was one of the ethical abuses that candidate Barack Obama in 2008 promised to end. Instead the corruption continues.
Other SIGAR officials include its General Counsel John Arlington. Mr. Arlington’s official SIGAR biography is murky to say the least. It simply does not say what his prior jobs were. Such a blatant failure of transparency usually has a reason, and the reason is usually embarrassing to the Administration. Most of the rest of SIGAR’s senior staff were transferred in from another agency called the GAO. The GAO has a history of turning out stale audit reports with few creative recommendations that result in little or no improvement in government operations. There is a whole industry in Washington, D.C. that employs people to review projects and draft bland reports that no one ever reads. They all rotate into each other’s jobs with never any fresh air injected into the process.
Large percentages of Afghanistan’s aid have been awarded to “beltway bandits.” These are consulting firms located within the Washington, D.C. beltway who obtain government contracts due to their political connections. The amount of Afghan aid that is siphoned off and stays within Washington, D.C. is believed to be stunning. These bandits should be the targets of SIGAR, but politics always trumps accountability. The circular process involved is that Afghan aid funds are paid to beltway bandits. They study problems in Afghanistan and hold meetings and generate reports, but little of substance ever gets accomplished. In other instances aid funds are used to build shoddy asphalt roads that quickly begin to disintegrate or to construct substandard buildings that sometimes are never occupied due to poor construction or lack of need. These bandits then make campaign contributions back to the Administration and to friendly members of Congress so the money travels full circle. This is not a slap directed just at the current Administration. Prior Republican Administrations equally profited from these sordid arrangements.
As this is all carefully scripted, none of the core problems within the reconstruction debacle ever appear in SIGAR reports. The reason is that the remedies would be politically embarrassing to Obama Administration officials. Instead, SIGAR plods along. It proceeds forward slowly but deliberately with its audits. The audits find some of the problems and then recommend contracting solutions that will cause no real heartburn to the Administration. Occasionally SIGAR will support the prosecution of a minor Federal employee with no political connections. These pathetic efforts will then be heralded in SIGAR press releases. SIGAR officials understand the importance of selecting suitable scapegoats.
SIGAR is supposed to operate in accordance with its enabling legislation and with the 1978 Inspector General’s Act. That Act requires Inspectors General to ensure accountability. That means that they have to identify the agency officials, contracting officers, procurement officials, technical representatives, and field inspectors who improperly awarded each contract or failed to properly oversee each project. This is how problems are truly remedied, i.e., by holding officials accountable. John Sopko will have none of that. He is a team player. Political loyalty trumps his oath of office.
In the final analysis, when American Government corruption is compared side by side with Afghan Government corruption, the Afghan corruption seems trivial and simplistic. While corruption has existed since the first governments were formed, what makes this reconstruction corruption so inexplicable is that the mismanagement of this $80+ billion has damaged the war effort. Sopko, Dorin, Arlington, USAID chief Rajiv Shah and others would rather risk losing the war than forcing accountability and fixing the problems. As American, NATO and Afghan troops die on the battlefield, the above civilian officials are more concerned about their petty careers and in catering to their White House patrons.
The official perks, invitations to speak and lure of the spotlight are overwhelming to the weak-willed. They will not risk their time in the sun just to act honorably. In the end, the universe is usually not kind to such officials and to such Administrations.