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Commentary: Close but no SIGAR -- yet

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   Feb. 8, 2013 at 5:34 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- He's a composite of Perry Mason, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes and Jules Maigret from the Golden Age of detective fiction. John F. Sopko is a formidable detective who stalks the halls of power in Washington -- and, for the past seven months, Kabul, Afghanistan.

Very little double-dealing in government, and where Congress has appropriated hundreds of billions of dollars nine time zones away in Afghanistan, escapes Sopko's eagle eyes.

A former state and federal prosecutor, Sopko has done it all -- from complex weapons systems to the threatened spread of weapons of mass destruction, illegal export of dual-use technologies, international drug interdiction, government procurement fraud, cybersecurity, health insurance scams and union infiltration by organized crime.

Sopko was the lead attorney in the first successful federal RICO prosecution of the entire leadership of the Cosa Nostra crime family.

He has racked up 30 years of experience in congressional oversight, half of that time with U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., on the Permanent Subcommittee for Investigations and the other half with what he calls "that great master of modern congressional oversight, Chairman John Dingell."

Sopko is now SIGAR -- Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction -- in a war-torn country where billions of dollars have gone to hospitals and schools that were paid for but never built (because the area was considered too vulnerable to Taliban guerrilla attacks).

And billions more into the numbered accounts of Afghan politicians who left the country on official trips never to return.

The Afghan war dossier is replete with chicanery and skullduggery. Sopko told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that he had carte blanche "to recruit and retain highly skilled individuals for one of the most dangerous oversight jobs in the U.S. government."

Fresh from his second investigation trip in half a year, Sopko is focused on "the difficult task of transferring security responsibilities to the Afghans by the end of 2014 and, secondly, strengthening (their) government's ability to manage the country's continued reconstruction during the transition and beyond."

The success or failure of the entire Afghan war effort, said Sopko, "is teetering on whether these two interrelated and ambitious goals can be met."

Sopko poses seven key questions -- audacious in their simplicity -- that he says are simple but "often ignored."

1. Does the project or program make a clear and identifiable contribution to our national interest or strategic objectives?

2. Do the Afghans want it and need it?

3. Has it been coordinated with other implementing agencies, with the Afghan government and with other international donors?

4. Do security conditions permit effective implementation and oversight?

5. Does it have adequate safeguards to detect, deter and mitigate corruption?

6. Do the Afghans have the financial resources, technical capacity and political will to sustain it?

7. Have implementing partners established meaningful, measurable metrics for determining success?

Questions often ignored because nobody wants the goose that lays the golden eggs to take fright when it hears what Sopko already knows: No, seven times.

Sopko says he has "found instances in which reconstruction programs have failed to achieve (their objectives and) may have actually resulted in adverse effects."

In case after case, programs didn't meet the "primary goal of extending the legitimacy of the Afghan government."

"Nor had it brought the government closer to the people, nor fostered stability. In fact, my auditors found that each of the eight provinces with the most Local Governance and Community Development activity experienced dramatic increases in the level of violence between 2006 and 2010," he said.

Typical of what SIGAR is uncovering is "an inspection report on a $7.3 million border police facility in Kunduz province. (Inspectors) found that it was sitting unused.

"Built to house 173 people, there were only 12 Afghan personnel on site and no one was sure if anyone was planning on using it."

Adding insult to injury, SIGAR's inspectors couldn't even access the buildings because they were locked and the border police personnel present didn't have the keys.

Implementation and oversight of U.S.-funded projects and programs that "can be monitored and overseen by U.S. personnel" is shrinking constantly.

As U.S. personnel shrinks so does security. One of Sopko's inspection teams was told that a location in northern Afghanistan was beyond the security "bubble" and "therefore deemed too unsafe to visit.''

"As a result," said Sopko, "we are unable to inspect 38 facilities worth approximately $72 million."

Even in Kabul, Sopko complained, "we're finding that we cannot always get the protection we need to conduct our work" even though Kabul is within the security "bubble."

With shrinking U.S. military personnel, it is "becoming increasingly difficult to support requests "for movements by U.S. employees to conduct their business in Kabul."

As the security "bubble" is constantly reduced, Sopko "fears many of our programs will be exposed to increased risk of theft and misuse -- especially if we increase direct or 'on budget' assistance to the Afghan government without first imposing strict pre-conditions ... to permit effective oversight of these funds by U.S. personnel."

On top of all that, there is the biggest problem of all -- endemic corruption, "Deep-rooted and widespread ... estimates of cash taken out of Afghanistan in a given year are as high as $4.5 billion."

And "even worse, those identified by the Afghan government as VIPs are allowed to bypass key controls, raising the risk of money laundering and bulk cash smuggling."

"Especially troubling" to Sopko is that he has been told "that some agencies in Afghanistan are poised to obligate as much money as they can as soon as they can before the final troop drawdown takes place. If this happens without our first answering these (seven) questions in the affirmative, we are likely to waste billions."

At the expense of the U.S. taxpayer.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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