US Congress shocked by Afghanistan's missing metrics

    Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko. Photo by: SIGAR / CC BY

    Members of a U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee lashed out Tuesday — first at U.S. oversight officials and then at U.S. agencies involved in the ongoing Afghanistan reconstruction effort.

    Some committee members were indignant over Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko’s inability to estimate what percentage of the $103 billion spent on reconstruction so far has been wasted or lost to corruption. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., questioned the oversight agency’s use of anecdotal evidence to draw overall conclusions about success and failure.

    “The consequences of not being able to answer that question: It says to the public, all of it was wasted,” Connolly said. “If the answer is, ‘I can’t answer that question at all,’ then it suggests to the U.S. taxpayer that that’s $103 billion down the drain.”

    A number of U.S. implementing agencies have likewise argued that SIGAR’s headline-grabbing and self-publicized reports have undermined support for the reconstruction effort while failing to capture and account for the context in which it takes place and the results it seeks to achieve.

    READ: War of words on US aid to Afghanistan

    Sopko responded that arriving at a realistic estimate of overall wasted funds was outside the scope of his mandate, and unrealistic given the information U.S. agencies fail to collect and provide.

    “You cannot give us enough money to answer that question,” he said in response to Connolly.

    Other committee members, like Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., became even more incensed after Sopko explained the reason he could not produce an estimate. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of State and the Department of Defense, he said, have consistently failed to provide the watchdog’s office with adequate performance metrics to judge the success of their projects.

    “If anybody from USAID is here… or you’re watching by camera,” Collins, a member of the Air Force Reserve who served in Iraq, warned before launching into an emotional statement about accountability, “fire-able incompetence,” and suggesting, “Maybe it’s time to cut the funding off.”

    Both Sopko and Charles Johnson, the Government Accountability Office’s representative at the hearing, pressed committee members to support the creation of a project database, shared between all of the agencies implementing reconstruction programs in Afghanistan, to help avoid duplication of projects and improve planning and oversight.

    This biggest impediment to getting that shared database — currently known as “Afghan Info” — online, according to Johnson, is “reluctance on the part of the [Department of Defense]” to disclose information about projects and funding due to security concerns. The Department of Defense has spent approximately 60 percent of the overall $103 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

    Both Sopko and Johnson told committee members they have also experienced “challenges” cooperating with USAID. Johnson noted that USAID had been “previously one of the more cooperative agencies,” but this has changed in the last two years. Sopko suggested that USAID has “over-classified” data in a number of cases, limiting the watchdog agency’s ability to access it.

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    About the author

    • Michael Igoe

      Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.

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