WASHINGTON -- As coalition forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, it will be increasingly difficult to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars intended for reconstruction projects in the country aren't being wasted. And according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the lead watchdog for this effort, programs affecting women and girls are likely to be among those not getting the necessary oversight.
More than 40,000 troops are set to leave, and dozen of bases will close in the next year. As the Washington Post reported on Saturday, without that "protective umbrella," only about 20 percent of the country will be accessible for oversight.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on Tuesday, SIGAR John Sopko outlined the challenges he expects to face, including in the area of women's rights.
"[T]here will be fewer opportunities for contracting officers, their technical representatives and other oversight personnel to observe and assess the extent to which female beneficiaries of reconstruction programs are receiving services, protected from the many dangers they face, and consulted in the design and implementation of programs intended to meet their needs," said Sopko, according to prepared remarks.
Similarly, Human Rights Watch states on its website, "Many Afghans feel enormous anxiety as the 2014 deadline for withdrawing international combat forces from Afghanistan looms and warlords and other powerbrokers jockey for position. ... The Afghan government's failure to tackle discrimination and respond effectively to violence against women undermines the already perilous state of women's rights."
In a new report, the International Crisis Group also notes that as the April 2014 Afghan presidential election approaches, many Afghan women "are concerned that the hard-won political, economic and social gains achieved since the U.S.-led intervention in 2001 may be rolled back or conceded in negotiations with the insurgents."
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who previously served as her state's auditor, has made improving oversight of contracts one of her top issues. She told The Huffington Post that Sopko's findings underscore the difficulty that the government will have in keeping watch over contracts moving forward.
"Whether it's a contract to improve women's educational opportunities or build a power plant, we need to act on the hard-learned lessons of the past decade -- that without strong oversight, American dollars will be wasted," she said. "Programs that lack adequate oversight usually fail, and that's not in the best interest of our troops, our mission or the Afghan people we're trying to help.”
The legal status of women in Afghanistan has improved since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. Women now make up 27 percent of Parliament, and girls comprise 40 percent of schoolchildren. Gender equality is enshrined in the constitution, and rape is illegal. But the implementation of these laws is far from perfect, and women and girls still regularly face threats.
"Since the formal transfer of the security lead to the [Afghan National Security Forces] in mid-2013, insurgent threats to women have increased," concludes ICG in its report. "Their rights are also under attack from yesterday's warlords, now powerbrokers both within and outside government. Rearming their militias as a hedge against what may happen in the 2014 elections or after the transition and attempting to consolidate their electoral base, including by demonstrating independence from the West, they could undo women's fragile gains."
As an example of a program that could falter as troops pull out, Sopko highlighted the Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs initiative. It's designed to increase education, training and promotion of women in Afghan society. USAID plans to commit $200 million to the program, which is set to begin in the middle of 2014, toward the end of the withdrawal of troops.
USAID has said that PROMOTE is meant to work within existing Afghan structures and won't be dependent on a U.S. troop presence. But Sopko is worried that USAID's ability to oversee the program will be "limited" because the agency must rely on outside contractors to monitor progress.
While third-party monitoring is common, Sopko is skeptical of how well it can work in Afghanistan.
"SIGAR plans to hold an expert panel on this issue in the coming months and will also initiate an audit next year on USAID's use of third-party monitors in Afghanistan," he told the subcommittee on Tuesday.
Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote in August that "the frontline fighters for women's rights in Afghanistan since 2001 have been brave, resilient Afghan women who don't have the luxury of ending their struggle next year."
Sopko said his office will focus on "how the military withdrawal, the decline in donor resources, and the transition to Afghan governance and control of the ANSF will affect reconstruction, including efforts aimed at women and girls."
From fiscal years 2003 through 2010, Congress approved $627 million for the Department of State and USAID to support activities specifically for Afghan women and girls.
According to the Washington Post, at least 15 major reconstruction projects, set to cost more than $1 billion, will likely be beyond the reach of U.S. personnel next year.