SIGAR: Quarterly Report for the United States Congress – July 30, 2021

Report released by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John F. Sopko

I am pleased to submit to Congress, the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the American people, SIGAR’s 52nd quarterly report on the status of reconstruction in Afghanistan.

This quarter, the United States and its allies withdrew nearly all of their troops from Afghanistan after almost 20 years of war. Fewer than a thousand U.S. military personnel remain there, compared to 110,000 a decade ago. President Joseph R. Biden has said that the United States will continue to provide support for Afghanistan, including for its military and police. The President’s proposed FY 2022 budget includes $3.33 billion for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) as well as $364 million in civilian assistance. If appropriated by Congress, these funds would come in addition to the approximately $6.68 billion already appropriated, but yet to be disbursed for Afghanistan.

The news coming out of Afghanistan this quarter has been bleak. The Taliban offensive that began early in the quarter accelerated in June and July. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified on June 23 that the Taliban controlled about 81 districts. Less than a month later, on July 21, he told reporters the group now controlled about half of Afghanistan’s 419 districts, or more than twice as many as before. According to media reporting, the Taliban also controlled large stretches of multiple major highways, and at least six international border crossings as this report went to press. The ANDSF has retaken some districts and the Afghan government still controls all 34 provincial capitals, including Kabul, but from public reporting, the ANDSF appeared surprised and unready, and is now on its back foot. Civilian casualties hit a record high in May and June, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. The overall trend is clearly unfavorable to the Afghan government, which could face an existential crisis if it isn’t addressed and reversed.

SIGAR’s oversight mission has become both more consequential and more challenging in the absence of a major U.S. troop presence, and in light of the growing insurgent pressure on the Afghan government. Despite repeated reductions in American staff at the U.S. embassy, SIGAR remains the only U.S. oversight agency on the ground in Afghanistan, so maximizing the reach and impact of our statutory duty takes on increased importance. SIGAR issued a letter this quarter to the Administration and Congress proposing four changes that we believe, based on our 13 years of experience, would enhance the protection of continued U.S. taxpayer assistance to Afghanistan. SIGAR’s recommendations and its plans for continued oversight are discussed on page 18 of this report.

A lessons-learned report released this quarter—The Risk of Doing the Wrong Thing Perfectly: Monitoring and Evaluation of Reconstruction Contracting in Afghanistan— explores the now two-decade-long challenge of how to properly assess the effectiveness of reconstruction. The report’s key finding is that, as implemented, monitoring and evaluation (M&E) created the risk of doing the wrong thing perfectly. That is, programs could be deemed “successful” even if they had not achieved or contributed to broader, more important goals—such as creating an effective Afghan security force and a stable Afghanistan. Closely related to this finding is one of the report’s central themes: the pervasiveness of overoptimism. Overall, M&E displayed a tendency to elevate good news and anecdotes over data suggesting a lack of progress. To that extent, the report is especially useful for policymakers and practitioners seeking to understand why the Afghan security forces have continued to struggle despite the U.S. assertions of success that have been hallmarks of reconstruction.

On a more positive note, the report found that agencies generally have developed over the last 20 years relatively robust M&E or M&E-like—policies. Key aspects of these policies have the potential to improve both programmatic and strategic outcomes, provided that they are meaningfully implemented. We believe the lessons and recommendations presented in the report are relevant not only to Afghanistan, but also to U.S. efforts to promote stability elsewhere around the world.

This lessons-learned report was one of 12 products SIGAR issued this quarter. SIGAR work to date has identified approximately $3.84 billion in savings for the U.S. taxpayer.

SIGAR issued three evaluation reports this quarter. One evaluation reviewed the status of 467 recommendations from SIGAR’s nine-year financial audit program. It found that the Departments of Defense and State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture had closed or implemented 376, or 81% of these recommendations, as of December 31, 2020. SIGAR’s reports also called into question the allowability of $494 million in costs incurred by these agencies. The second evaluation examined USAID’s $10 million Goldozi job-creation project and the reasons it has not achieved its goals. The third evaluation assessed the transition of ANDSF fuel-management responsibilities to the Afghan government, and CSTC-A’s lack of implementation of prior SIGAR recommendations regarding ANDSF fuel.

SIGAR completed seven financial audits of U.S.-funded projects to rebuild Afghanistan that identified $739,105 in questioned costs as a result of internal-control deficiencies and noncompliance issues. These financial audits covered a range of topics including USAID’s Civic Engagement Program, the State Department’s Legal Aid through Legal Education Program, and the U.S. Air Force’s support for operation and maintenance of the Afghan Air Force’s A-29 ground-attack aircraft.

During the reporting period, SIGAR criminal investigations resulted in two criminal informations (a prosecutor’s allegation of a crime, as distinct from a grand-jury indictment), two guilty pleas, one sentencing, $179,708 in restitutions, and an impressive $11.9 million in civil settlements.

As the situation in Afghanistan changes, SIGAR is adapting to the new reality. My colleagues and I look forward to working together with Congress and the Administration to continue to protect U.S. taxpayer funds in Afghanistan from waste, fraud, and abuse, and to improve the overall operations of the U.S. government in overseas contingency operations.