U.S. Money Will Keep Flowing To Afghanistan As Oversight Plummets

How to track the taxpayer money helping rebuild the country is a key question as budget battles begin this week.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. will continue to plough money into reconstruction projects in Afghanistan this year and beyond, as observers of the American project there warn that billions of dollars might be wasted or find their way to insurgents battling the country's U.S.-friendly government.

The Obama administration's proposed budget for the next fiscal year, released earlier this month, earmarks around $6 billion for projects that would help development in Afghanistan, according to a Huffington Post analysis.

That money is spread across agencies. About $2.5 billion would go to the State Department and USAID. The Pentagon would receive more than $3.5 billion, with $140.812 million of that total going toward the military's counter-narcotics work, according to a Pentagon estimate shared with HuffPost by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Another $5 million of the Pentagon's allowance would go to an emergency humanitarian response program in Afghanistan, while $3.4 billion would be spent on Afghan security forces.

Between the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the end of 2015, $113.09 billion in American taxpayer funds was appropriated for reconstruction in the country, the inspector general said in a January report to Congress. Meanwhile, the extremist group that the Bush administration went into Afghanistan to target following 9/11, the Taliban, is now stronger than ever before -- and boasts about being the strongest radical militant organization in the country, dismissing rumors of Islamic State expansion there.

It's become clear that the heavy American investment in Afghanistan has neither ended the insurgency nor brought U.S.-backed Afghan civilian and security forces up to par. Now, with the U.S. presence dwindling, lawmakers and analysts are pointing out another, just as important, issue: Much of this money could be misused.

Concern about poor oversight has grown in recent years as the U.S. capacity to monitor U.S. funds in Afghanistan has winnowed. Both the gradual drawdown of international troops and the growing confidence of the Taliban have made it harder for watchdogs to make it out to American taxpayer-funded projects across the country. And federal lawmakers, whose consent is needed for those funds to flow, are getting increasingly nervous as the latest budget talks begin.

Secretary of State John Kerry is on the Hill this week to talk to lawmakers responsible for appropriations, and they are keen to discuss how much money they should approve for his agency to spend on Afghanistan. A Senate appropriations subcommittee seeing the secretary on Wednesday afternoon specifically requested a statement from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, according to a source involved with the hearing. That's not a requirement for such a hearing -- it's a signal that committee members want to know more about how the funds they're being asked to dole out will be tracked.

SIGAR currently represents the most robust American oversight presence in Afghanistan, making it the best source for finding out whether U.S. taxpayer money is being misspent there. The watchdog is fighting to maintain its presence in the country even as other agencies are cutting back and suggesting it do the same. The inspectors general of the Pentagon, the State Department and USAID have all cut their personnel numbers in Afghanistan in recent years. But with less oversight comes more opportunity for graft.

Some members of Congress have been highlighting the issue of misspent funds in Afghanistan for years. They're expected to become even more vocal as the gap between the funds spent in the country and the American oversight capacity increases. An aide to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said the senator will continue to use her perch on the Senate Armed Services Committee to talk about the problem.

"Claire knows from her oversight experience that when you have money going out the door, but less and less ability to ensure accountability in how that money is spent, it’s a recipe for waste and abuse," the spokesman said. "That’s why she’s worked so hard to put rigorous controls in place over the money America is spending in Afghanistan -- resources much of which she believes would be better spent on roads and bridges here at home -- and why she’ll continue working with the Special Inspector General and aggressively tracking dollars being spent overseas."

The growing gap between the amount of U.S. money earmarked for Afghanistan and what the U.S. knows about that money's use is striking, as charts from SIGAR show:

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Even though President Barack Obama has given up on his plan to completely cut the American military presence in Afghanistan by 2017, troop numbers will still be falling. As they do, the mismatch between U.S. money spent and what the U.S. can know about it will likely become more stark. More than $11 billion was already in the pipeline before the announcement of the new budget request, as the charts demonstrate.

In the event that the Obama administration's full 2017 budget is approved, and accounting for $1 billion in Pentagon funding that sources say expires this year, the U.S. will have $16 billion to spend on reconstruction in Afghanistan next year. This is unlikely, of course, and other changes could occur -- Congress could renew that Pentagon funding, or the agencies working on reconstruction could begin to spend more rapidly. But there's very little prospect of reducing the gap between funding and U.S. officials who can track it.

Recognizing that disparity has made Congress closely attuned to any talk of further military drawdown for now, one congressional aide told HuffPost.

"A lot of the Hill people would hope that those numbers wouldn't go down. When the president made the announcement of 9,800 [U.S. troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2016], universally, Republican or Democrat, breathed a sigh of relief that it was not down further," the aide said.

The Hill source added that those in Congress who are watching what happens in Afghanistan are aware that U.S. presence in the country cannot be sustained at high levels forever. But before the drawdown, they want to see better cooperation between the various agencies working on reconstruction there, in order to make better use of the funds the Obama administration is asking for.

Pressuring USAID to make smarter calls on long-term development projects would be one step, the aide argued, suggesting that the Pentagon has forced many projects through for short-term tactical benefits against the insurgency in certain parts of the country, yielding little long-term benefit. SIGAR has also suggested employing trusted Afghans to monitor projects in places where American officials cannot safely go.

Lawmakers and SIGAR have particularly criticized the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, a now-shuttered Pentagon program. Its best-known misstep was building a gas station to the tune of $43 million, according to the congressional watchdog. A similar gas station would cost $500,000 in neighboring Pakistan, and there's only been spotty confirmation of whether the Afghanistan station is still even functioning.

Presidential candidates like Republican frontrunner and noted bigot Donald J. Trump have trotted out the gas station story, but the reality later proved to be more complicated than SIGAR originally reported in November, in large part because of confusion over Pentagon-provided numbers. A full estimate of the station's cost has yet to be determined.

But the fact that the story spread like wildfire shows how touchy the issue of spending in Afghanistan has become, particularly at a time when voters are sick of American involvement abroad. Neil Gordon of the Project On Government Oversight told HuffPost via email that he believed government audits, congressional hearings and press reports have made the public attuned to what's happening in the country. He called SIGAR "the linchpin in keeping this issue alive in the public eye."

Some reporting on where U.S. taxpayer dollars have gone, including work done by SIGAR, is significantly exaggerated, according to Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the East-West Institute who spent December embedded with Afghan security forces. The watchdog has its own incentive in budget season to prove to Congress that it's worth continuing to fund it. Still, Gady told HuffPost he saw the current development situation in Afghanistan as akin to arguing about interior decoration for a home whose cement has yet to dry.

"Americans are rarely leaving their base now. What do they now is mostly perimeter patrols, so everything that falls within that defensive perimeter, they can look at pretty well, but everything on the outside ... it's not no man's land, but it's pretty close to it," Gady said. "They fly to places, they check out stuff. It's trying to plug holes in a leaking ship, serving different leaks without really having the capacity to plug the leaks. It's not hopeless or anything, but it's still very, very difficult."

To Gady, the key to withdrawing from Afghanistan without letting it becoming an extremist haven again is to make the central government and army strong enough to have serious negotiations with the Taliban and reach a deal fast, before targeted killings of top Taliban commanders lead to the movement being headed by younger, more radical militants.

"One thing that won't work is bombing them to the negotiating table," Gady said.

Peace talks between the government and Taliban are set to resume next week in Pakistan.

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