John F. Sopko
Remarks Prepared for Delivery
Association of Former Senate Aides
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Good afternoon. It is a privilege to be here today. Being with you today reminds me how important it is to maintain the friendships we formed when all of us served in the Senate as staffers.
When I first came to Washington in 1982 to work for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and met some of you, I thought I would stay for only a year, or perhaps a year and a half. However, I fell in love with Washington, with working alongside some of the great leaders in congress – leaders such as Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, Senator John Glenn of Ohio, Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, and Senator Bill Roth of Delaware. I also built friendships with staffers from both sides of the aisle. It is that common bond and devotion that all of us developed for the institution of the Senate which brings us together through the ex-sobs.
President Obama asked me to lead the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction – or SIGAR – last summer. Congress created SIGAR in 2008 to provide independent and objective oversight of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. It is the job of SIGAR’s nearly 200 auditors, investigators, inspectors, and other professionals to ensure that this unprecedented investment of U.S. taxpayer money is protected from fraud, waste, and abuse.
Like any inspector general, we issue reports highlighting the problems we find, make recommendations wherever we can, and arrest criminals who steal from the U.S. government. Unlike other inspectors general, we are not housed inside a single department or agency. We have the ability to look at any federal agency involved in reconstruction work in Afghanistan.
This allows us to examine multijurisdictional programs. This is significant because in a conflict zone like Afghanistan, federal agencies must work together to tackle key problems. SIGAR can assess these cross-jurisdictional efforts and make recommendations to all of the agencies involved.
SIGAR is also unique in that we have more employees on the ground in Afghanistan than any other inspector general. We have 60 people permanently stationed in Afghanistan and send the rest on regular trips to the country to root out fraud, waste, and abuse.
We conduct this critical work in an “office” that is truly unique. Many SIGAR employees live on the heavily guarded embassy grounds in Kabul, but some live alongside U.S. troops at large military bases very close to ongoing combat missions. Every SIGAR employee in Afghanistan is issued body armor, and our criminal investigators not only carry pistols - but also M6 assault rifles. SIGAR employees ride in armored military trucks escorted by U.S. soldiers and marines, and they fly on helicopters through Afghanistan’s high mountain passes to visit reconstruction sites.
In the roughly ten months I have led SIGAR, I have learned a lot about the challenges our nation faces in Afghanistan and the challenges of conducting oversight within the executive branch as an inspector general. Today, I would like to give you a taste of what I have learned.
I’ll begin with the challenges facing the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. This massive undertaking has become the most costly reconstruction of a single country in U.S. history. To date, Congress has provided over $90 billion to this effort.
This is more assistance than the U.S. gave to any single country during the Marshall Plan after World War II. And, Afghanistan currently receives almost twice as much as Congress made available last fiscal year for the next four largest foreign assistance beneficiaries — combined.
To help protect these funds, SIGAR’s highly skilled auditors, analysts, and investigators are focusing on what we think are the most critical issues and problems in the reconstruction as the U.S. accelerates the military drawdown in Afghanistan. We have boiled it down to five distinct but inter-related problems:
- Inadequate planning,
- Poor quality assurance,
- Questionable sustainability,
- Corruption, and
- Poor security.
Many of these issues are not surprising to any of you who conducted oversight work while working in the senate. But SIGAR strongly believes that the failure to address these five basic problems is putting the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan at risk. Let me walk you through each of these problems.
First, inadequate planning
. The United States is at risk of wasting billions of dollars if the agencies charged with implementing new programs and constructing new facilities do not first answer some basic questions such as:
- Are these programs and buildings needed?
- Are they in the right place?
- Are they designed to meet the needs of those who will use them?
Unfortunately, when SIGAR asks these basic questions, we often find that the agencies and departments working in Afghanistan have inadequately addressed these basic planning issues.
Second, poor quality assurance
. It is SIGAR’s job to conduct oversight of the reconstruction effort. But it’s also the responsibility of the implementing agencies to monitor the progress and quality of their programs and projects. Sadly, we often find that agencies often fail to fully implement their quality assurance programs.
For example, SIGAR’s investigators recently arrested Afghans who failed to follow the terms of a contract for installing culvert denial systems – a fancy Defense Department phrase for metal grates on road culverts.
U.S. military personnel concluded that failing to install these grates allowed insurgents to plant improvised explosive devices – or IEDS – along a critical stretch of the highway in Ghazni province and led to the death of two American soldiers. Incidents like this make it clear how important oversight is in a conflict zone.
Third, questionable sustainability
. Do the Afghans have the financial resources, technical capacity and political will to operate and maintain the facilities we've built for them and the other programs and initiatives we've instituted to strengthen their country?
At the macro level, the numbers tell the story on sustainability: the Afghan government brings in only $2 billion in total annual revenues. It will cost approximately $4 billion just to sustain the Afghan security forces – and that's a conservative estimate that assumes a smaller force. The total cost for sustaining everything could be $10 billion a year.
There is obviously a large financial shortfall that the international community must address or watch the things we have built over the last decade fall apart.
. Everyone knows that corruption is a serious problem in Afghanistan but it may be worse than you think.
According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is perceived as having the worst public corruption in the world – tied for last with North Korea and Somalia. And according to the United Nations, half of the Afghan population pays a bribe when requesting a public service. Some experts have even described Afghanistan as a vertically integrated criminal patronage network stretching from the lowest civil servant to the highest levels of the government.
But corruption is not just an Afghan problem. Through our investigative work, we’ve uncovered schemes by contractors and U.S. officials to engage in bribery, theft and other forms of fraud.
We need to acknowledge the role corruption plays in undermining reconstruction – and then build internal controls to fight it.
. Without adequate security, reconstruction comes to a halt or proceeds without proper, or perhaps any, oversight.
As you know, the United States is drawing down its combat presence. Major U.S. combat forces will be gone by the end of 2014. Less combat power means more security risks, and this has a direct impact on our operations. SIGAR and other oversight agencies depend in part on military transport and protection in regions outside Kabul. So with the drawdown, our range of motion—our ability to move throughout the country and do our job—is becoming constricted.
Addressing these five challenges – inadequate planning, poor quality assurance, poor security, questionable sustainability, and corruption – will not be easy. Despite everyone’s best efforts in Afghanistan, SIGAR will undoubtedly find problems that must be addressed. And many will not be happy with what SIGAR writes in its audit reports.
Thankfully, there are many in our government who do understand the role of an inspector general and why the taxpayers need SIGAR to conduct robust oversight.
The White House gets it; the president appointed me to fix an agency that had not been effective so it could conduct better oversight in Afghanistan. And since then, I have been allowed to do my job without any interference from them. And despite what you may have recently read in the papers, I have never been muzzled by anyone.
Likewise, I’ve never had any problem with the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or top military leaders in Afghanistan. They, and many of the senior officials who work for them, understand the need for effective, independent oversight. No one has
stopped SIGAR from issuing its reports.
Although we may report bad news, I actually do support our mission – that is why I accepted the appointment when President Obama offered it to me. We must defeat the terrorists hiding in Afghanistan
build up an Afghan government capable of ensuring that Afghanistan will never again become a safe haven for those who want to harm us.
But, I also believe passionately that for the mission to succeed, we must conduct independent and robust oversight. Oversight that will bring about needed change and improvements. Oversight that gets the attention of the American people and the congress. Oversight that will ensure that the problems we identify are addressed and not swept under the rug and ignored.
I’m a watchdog – it’s my job to point out what isn’t working, so it can be fixed. To do it any other way is to just muddle along. And then nothing will change.
Too many Americans have been killed and wounded in Afghanistan, and too much taxpayer money has been spent there, to simply accept the status quo.
So I can assure you today that SIGAR will continue to conduct robust oversight and work in a transparent manner to ensure that the truth is heard before it is too late to fix our mistakes. We don’t have decades to get it right in Afghanistan – we only have a few years.
Thank you for having me. I’m happy to take your questions…
Wednesday, May 15, 2013