Oodles of money wasted in Afghanistan, admits Sopko
KABUL (Pajhwok): Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko acknowledges billions of dollars in US aid for rebuilding the war-torn country have been wasted and stolen.
Sworn in as SIGAR on July 2, 2012, he was appointed to the post by President Barack Obama. He has more than 30 years of experience in oversight and investigations as a prosecutor and federal government advisor.
“I can’t give you the exact figure. The real answer is too much money has been stolen and wasted. Money that could have gone to help Afghans a lot more and my job is to try to stop that going forward,” Sopko said.
During an exclusive interview with Pajhwok Afghan News, he said: “So I look at what I can do now to stop it and not spend too much time looking at what is already wasted.”
Also a former congressional counsel, Sopko can demand documents, take depositions and refer cases to the Department of Justice for prosecution. He has secured many convictions because of in-depth investigations.
“A lot of money is gone and we are never going to get it back. Now if we find a place, a bank account or property that was purchased and we can prove it was related to fraud, we will track that money down even if that was stolen five or seven years ago,” he said.
But he is focused on looking forward.Since 2002, US taxpayers have spent close to $110 billion on reconstructing Afghanistan. He said the decision that the aid should directly go to the Afghan government was made some time ago. He believed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was a big supporter of the move.
“It would help the Afghan government if the money goes directly to it and they (Afghans) would learn how to budget and spend money. As we go forward, we are going to be putting more money on direct budget to Afghans, direct assistance.”
However, he explained they had to be certain. “I think President Ghani agrees that the Afghan government is responsible and has the capabilities to handle this money responsibly. Because if the money gets lost, and it doesn’t matter if it is lost by fraud by an American or by an Afghan minister, it is still lost. That money is not going to help the kids or police or clinics.”
About SIGAR’s hotline (firstname.lastname@example.org), Sopko said it was a very important tool, whereby the Afghans helped them a lot in protecting money from being wasted.
“It’s even more important now that the Afghan people help us protect that money because you probably need it more now than ever and every dollar that we lose to fraud, waste and abuse is a dollar that Afghan people lose.”
The IG remarked as they went forward, they really needed the eyes and ears of Afghan people to help them and the unity government to protect the money. “So we are partners with the Afghan people, we hope they use that hotline more frequently.”
Sopko acknowledged receiving thousands of complaints from Afghans as well as Americans. “We have done hundreds of investigations based on complaints from honest Afghan citizens and businessmen about things they have seen and concerns they have about fraud, waste and abuse.”
Approximately 80 percent of SIGAR recommendationshave been accepted by US government agencies. He claimed collecting close to a billion dollars in fines and seizures --- the money they brought back to US taxpayers and that could be used appropriately for the Afghans. “And we have identified billions of dollars that could have been wasted and we have recommended better ways out.”
About SIGAR’s working relationship with the incumbent administration in Kabul, Sopko said they had a far better rapport with the new government than former president Hamid Karzai.
“I think a good example is we identified a case dealing with fuel gasoline that was to be purchased by the Afghan Ministry of Defence. Now the money came from American taxpayers went to the Ministry of Finance and then to the defence ministry.”
He said they had unearthed a conspiracy of some contractors to jack up the price of a billion dollars deal and 200 million of which would have been lost by the Afghans.
“We uncovered this. We took that information to Gen. Campbell (NATO and US forces commander in Afghanistan), we went to the Presidential Palace, briefed the president and CEO Abdullah and they immediately canceled the contract.”
He added they brought in the people involved, removed some and then conducted their own investigations. “We think that is a great response because the contact was stopped; then the president instituted a new policy on procurement as a result of our work.”
Asked if the national unity government had done enough, Sopko replied: “Well, we have to be honest. Your government faces many, many challenges. The security challenge, corruption, the economy. Of course, we’d love to see them do more and work more but they are trying and I think your government is trying as hard as they can on fighting corruption.”
To the question if the US taxpayers’ money could have been spent in a better way in Afghanistan, he replied with a big yes. “I think we could have done a better job. But part of this is also having a willing partner,” the IG pointed out.
He admitted to some mistakes. “I think the Afghan government has made some mistakes. And so we have to not dwell on the mistakes, we have to learn from them and do better.” But he is impressed with the unity government’s willing to accept mistakes and try to go forward.
About Afghan security forces, Sopko said: “(The fall of) Kunduz obviously was a wakeup call of how good and how better prepared theyare. Overall, throughout the country it has been Afghan soldiers and police who have been bearing the brunt of this battle. So I would say Kunduz is serious. The Afghan government is taking it seriously, we take it seriously.”
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