SIGAR: We built an Afghanistan they can’t afford

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, explains how so much taxpayer money was wasted

The United States has spent about $110 billion on Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction, more than the cost of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt a devastated Europe after World War II. And it’s John Sopko’s job to track where all that money has gone.

As the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, the former prosecutor takes a uniquely aggressive approach to his job. In a candid interview, he pinpoints some of the most egregious examples of waste and abuse of taxpayer money in the United States’ largest-ever reconstruction initiative. He also makes a passionate call for personal accountability in Washington, D.C. 

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sheila MacVicar: When you look into how taxpayer money is spent, what are you looking for?

John Sopko: Fraud, waste and abuse. And most of it has been waste — poor designing, poor implementation of programs. There is quite a bit of fraud, but the majority of it has really been waste.

When you say wasteful spending, what do you mean?

Things that didn’t work; things that the Afghans didn’t know about, didn’t want or can’t use; and things that can’t be sustained. We identified, for example, $400 [million] to 500 million for airplanes that the U.S. purchased for the Afghan air force. The Afghan air force couldn’t use them. They were the wrong planes for that country. They basically had to be destroyed, and we got three cents on the dollar.

‘‘Is this program sustainable?’ You should answer that question before you build it. Before you build schools that have power generation that they cannot afford. Before you build a dam, keep in mind where you are. You are not in Kansas.’

John Sopko

How does it happen that the United States decides to spend half a billion dollars buying planes for Afghanistan that the Afghans can’t use?

Well, we’re trying to find that out. We’re trying to hold somebody accountable.

Why is it so hard to figure out?

It’s hard to find the records. People rotate in and out. In this case, we actually have an ongoing criminal investigation, so I can’t really go into too much detail. But we have a lot of examples like that where we can’t find the people. And if we do find the people, we try to hold them accountable.

I would think if the United States were buying a plane, they would keep the paperwork with somebody’s signature. It doesn’t work that way?

Many times there is somebody’s signature, but they approved [only] a part, and then they rotated out. People rotate out every six months to every year. And we find that the records were maintained in Kabul but now they’ve moved to somewhere else or the bases have closed. That’s one of our biggest problems. We can’t find a lot of the files and records for things.

John Sopko testifying on Capitol Hill in June 2014.
Charles Dharapak/Compass

Should you be able find records, according to the law?

By law, they should be maintained. We just had an instance, not too long ago, where we asked the contractor to justify $130 million in expenses and he didn’t have the records. So we dinged him for $130 million.

So part of your role here is not just tracking the waste, abuse and fraud but it’s also trying to get some of this money back?

Absolutely, and we’ve succeeded at doing that. We’ve brought legal actions, criminal cases. We’ve actually had forfeitures [and] seized money that was stolen and ended up in U.S. banks. We do all of that. We deal with both law enforcement as well as audit capabilities.

We have a trillion-dollar investment [in Afghanistan]. That includes the war fighting, which cost a lot more than the reconstruction. We lost 2,000 Americans, and many more wounded. SIGAR and the other oversight agencies are like insurance polices. We don’t cost that much, but we are the insurance policy for the entire $1 trillion. And if they cut back too much, we could lose it all.

Lose it all — meaning lose Afghanistan?

Lose Afghanistan. The government could collapse. They raise $2 billion a year. It costs $8 [billion] to $10 billion to pay for their military, their police, their schools, highways and all of that.

We’ve built them something they can’t afford to pay for?

That’s correct. “Is this program sustainable?” You should answer that question before you build it. Before you build schools that have power generation that they cannot afford. Before you build a dam, keep in mind where you are. You are not in Kansas.

‘We are there to kick the bad guys out and then to help create an Afghan government that will get the support of their people to keep the bad guys out. You lose that support when you build things that fall down.’

John Sopko

And in instances where money has actually been stolen, how does that work?

There are many ways of stealing money from the U.S. government. It’s limited only by the ingenuity of the individual. They create ghost workers. That’s a common problem. We don’t know how many police and how many military there are. We just had an announcement by the new minister of education in Afghanistan saying that his predecessor falsified all of the records. So we don’t know how many teachers there are and how many schools were built.

How do you get paid for building a school if the school doesn't get built?

Well, that’s called fraud. Our biggest problem [is] we do not have proper oversight. And now because of the security situation, the Americans cannot go out and check. And I’m not talking just about my staff. I’m talking about the [Defense Department] staff, the USAID staff, the State Department staff, the U.S. Department of Agriculture staff.

Many times, the staff didn’t do their jobs. They’d just sign the paperwork. They never checked to see if the construction was actually done the proper way. We found schools that were falling down. We found a clinic where the electricity didn’t work and the buildings were falling down. We found one building where it actually was melting because it was poor construction. When it rained, the building melted.

I’ve been taken aback to see the number of times where contractors have been paid in full for work that is repeatedly marked, by your staff, as incomplete, incomplete, incomplete. How is it that contractors end up getting their checks if they don’t do the work?

It’s a bigger problem than just Afghanistan. It’s a problem of U.S. government contracting and procurement. It’s only worse when you’re in a war zone. We don’t have personal accountability. People make mistakes. Contracting officers don’t do their job. But they don’t get rated on that. They get rated on how fast and how much money they put on contract before they go home. No one is held accountable.

So performance doesn’t matter.

Performance does not matter in many of the situations. And that’s what we find. The whole idea is you’re there for a year, sign the contracts, get the money out, get rewarded for that. I’ve had a number of contracting officers in all of the agencies —[the Defense Department], the State [Department] and USAID — say, “I get my promotion on how much money I put on contract, period.” Not whether the contract accomplishing anything. 

What impact does it have in the minds of Afghans when the United States said it would build a health clinic but then the health clinic doesn’t materialize?

It leaves a bitter taste in their mouths. Particularly if the contractor who did the job is somehow connected with a local warlord or a local government official, which we find in many cases.

We have to remember why we are there in Afghanistan. We are there to kick the bad guys out and then to help create an Afghan government that will get the support of their people to keep the bad guys out. You lose that support when you build things that fall down.

For the $110 billion that U.S. taxpayers have spent in Afghanistan, are they getting value for money in terms of hearts and minds?

No, they’re not. We’ve done some good things. And I don’t want to denigrate the work of a lot of our people out there. But we could have gotten more bang for our buck.

The new unity government is very willing and very interested in fighting corruption and doing a lot. You have to have a willing partner. You can’t just do it alone. I think our prior Afghan government wasn’t that willing.

Why is it important that the United States and its taxpayers invest in electricity for Afghanistan?

Electricity is key to a developing the economy. Electricity is key to industry. In Kandahar, in particular, because that was a hotbed of terrorist activity, we wanted to win over the hearts and minds of the people.

So we tried to develop a power strategy by rebuilding the Kajaki Dam, which was initially built by the United States in the 1950s. Because it was taking too long to rebuild the Kajaki Dam, we started building diesel generators. The problem with the diesel generators is that they are very expensive and not sustainable. Now the lights are going to go off in Kandahar because the Afghans can no longer afford to keep the generators operating and the Kajaki Dam is not complete.

I bet in a town like Washington, D.C., holding people accountable is a hard message to send.

When I took this job, I thought of President [Harry] Truman. He once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, buy yourself a dog.” Well, if you want to be a good inspector general and speak truth to power, then hire yourself a dog. That’s not my job, to be a cheerleader. President [Barack] Obama appointed me to point out problems and to make recommendations. That’s what I took an oath for, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.

Instead of saying this is a thing that will take time, why couldn’t there be executive action?

It’s more than just the president issuing an executive order. I think it’s really up to the American people to carry this further through Congress. We can only take it so far.

Edited by Elizabeth Wilcox

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