As we go forward, we really need the eyes and ears of Afghans: Sopko
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, explains in an exclusive interview with Pajhwok Afghan News how Afghans could have more benefitted from about $110 billion American money spent since 2001 to rebuild Afghanistan.
The amount is bigger than the Marshal Plan to rebuild a devastated Europe after World War II, but Sopko says Afghanistan and then Europe could not be compared because at that time the war had ended in Europe but it continues in Afghanistan.
He admits billions of dollars have been wasted and looted in Afghanistan and talks about his agency’s relations with the new Afghan government and how the Afghans can help prevent aid money from being wasted.
Pajhwok: SIGAR is called Special Inspector General for Afghanistan. What makes you “special”?
John Sopko: Well, this is probably a term of art in the United States. “Special” because we are a temporary agency, but we are also special in a way because we are very unique. Unlike other inspectors general we are not housed in any one agency of the government. We look at all reconstruction spent by any US government agency. So we have an inspector general in the department of energy, department of state, defense and they only look at the money that they spend. We look at all US money spent here in Afghanistan for reconstruction. The other reason we are special I think is because we have the largest US law enforcement presence here in Afghanistan. We have more law enforcement as well as more auditors than any other oversight agency so we’re pretty special about that. And our people are special because we stay a long time. Many of our people have a wealth of experience unlike a lot of people who come from the US for short-term of duty.
Pajhwok: Why are you called “bad news” in some circles in Washington?
Sopko: I don’t know if we are bad news, I actually think we’re good news. Some people do think because they don’t like oversight and some people are not used to oversight in my government. But the White House, the secretary of state, the secretary of defence and people know about good government oversight like what we are doing. In the congress which is the entity that funds our reconstruction work here likes our report so the bad news aspect is only because my job is to find and report on fraud waste and abuse so by definition I’m usually giving bad news that’s my job.
Pajhwok: SIGAR has a hotline to report corruption. How much complaints you have received from Afghan citizens?
Sopko: Well it’s a very important tool for us (email@example.com). The Afghans help us a lot. 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 the Afghan people lose. As we go forward we really need the eyes and ears of the Afghan people to help us, help the national unity government protect that money. So we are partners with the Afghan people, we hope they use that hotline more. We have received thousands of complaints from Afghans as well as Americans. We have Afghan staff who review those and translate it and then follow up on it. We have done hundreds of investigations based on complaints by honest Afghan citizens and businessmen about things they have seen and concerns they have about fraud waste and abuse.
Pajhwok: Can you specify how much was used properly and how much wasted and abused?
Sopko: I can’t give you an exact figure because my office wasn’t founded until 2008. That is 8 years after reconstruction started here. And we would be spending a lot of time trying to figure out going back and coming up with that figure. I can just say billions of dollars have been wasted and stolen. 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. So I look at what I can do now to stop it and not spend too much time looking at what is already been wasted. A lot of money is gone and we are never going to get it back. Now if we find a place, a bank account, property that was purchased and we can prove it was related to fraud we will track that money down even if that money was stolen five or seven years ago. But we are mainly focusing on looking forward.
Pajhwok: In fraud or money waste, do you have figures how many Afghans were involved or they were only US contractors?
Sopko: I don’t think we have broken it down on how much money was defrauded by Afghans or others, we don’t break it down. The thing to keep in mind is up to last few years, the money has been spent by US contractors here in Afghanistan. For example they purchased fuel, bullets, guns and actually contracted directly to build roads, schools and clinics.
It would help the Afghan government if the money went directly to Afghan government and then they would learn how to budget and spend the money. As we go forward we are gonna be putting more money what they call on direct budget to Afghans direct assistance. Why is this important for you and your audience because when the money is spent by an American contractor, I have criminal jurisdiction over him/her. If they defraud the US government, I can indict them, charge them and arrest them and put them in jail in the United States. When the money goes directly to the (Afghan) ministry of finance and then it goes to let’s say to MoI to buy boots or guns, I lose criminal jurisdiction over it.
If we find fraud or corruption or waste, I then have to go to the Afghan government and report it and then help them prosecute those Afghans in the Afghan judicial system. We have had problems with the Afghan judicial system in the past. I think many Afghans had problems with the Afghan judicial system in the past. So that’s why we are working so closely with the unity government, with President Ghani and CEO Abdullah on trying to help build up the capabilities of the prosecutors and investigators to follow through. That’s why it’s so important that Afghan people report to us, we will help work on those cases with the govt. So this is why it’s more important as we go forward to have the eyes and ears of Afghan people helping us because if you help us, you help Afghan government and Afghan people.
Pajhwok: How much do you support President Ghani’s plan of directly spending foreign aid?
Sopko: I think that is probably the way it should go and but we have to be certain and I think President Ghani agrees with this that the Afghan government is responsible and has the capabilities to handle that money responsibly. And that’s what we are trying to work with him and I know USAID and DoD are working with them to make certain that they can responsibly handle that money because if the money gets lost and it doesn’t matter if it gets lost by fraud by an American or by fraud by an Afghan minister, it is lost. That money is not going to help the children or the police or clinics. So it doesn’t matter. His concern is same as our concerns. It’s gotta be done with a good system in place that protects the money. Because that money whether it is an American dollar or an Afghani currency it’s still money that could have gone to a better use and it gets lost somewhere else. So I think we are both on the same wavelength.
Pajhwok: How SIGAR’s work has been in the last seven years and how do you evaluate it? How long will SIGAR be in Afghanistan?
Sopko: I think we have been very effective. We started work in 2008. I took over in 2012, my predecessor was forced to resign because he wasn’t aggressive enough. We had some problems ourselves and we admit that. The US Senate investigated my agency and said they weren’t aggressive enough and they didn’t help enough so the President appointed me in 2012. I have only been here for three years but in those three years we have increased the number of reports, increased criminal investigations, increased the number of outreach to the Afghan government and approximately 80 percent of our recommendations are accepted by the US government agencies. And we have collected close to a billion dollars in fines, seizures so that’s money we brought back to US taxpayers that could be used appropriately for Afghans. And then we have identified billions of dollars of money that could have been wasted and we have recommended better ways to do it. So, we have actually been very effective for the size of our 200 people 30-40 here in Afghanistan. Very cost-effective for the amount of money that we have spent.
Pajhwok: How the US and Afghan governments’ reactions have been to your reports?
Sopko: As I said over 80 percent of our recommendation are accepted and adopted by the US government. We don’t specifically make recommendations to the Afghan government that’s not my job. We know the Afghan government reviews our reports. I have actually sat down and talked to the Afghan President and CEO, they have read our reports. We have had a very positive reaction from the president and ceo and positive reaction from some ministers of the unity government.
Pajhwok: How do you compare your relation with the current government and previous administration of Hamid Karzai?
Sopko: We have a far better relationship with the new national unity government than we did with President Karzai’s regime.
Pajhwok: In what way the NUG has been more cooperative?
Sopko: 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 Ministry of Finance and then was moved over to the ministry of defence. We identified a cabal, a conspiracy of some contractors to jack up the price, to inflate the price, to fix the price that was price fixing. They did not give the Afghan government an honest price they gave an inflated price. It was a billion contract by over 200 million dollars. That’s 200 million dollars that would have been lost to the Afghan people. We uncovered this. We took that information to Gen. Campbell, we went to the palace we briefed the President and CEO Abdullah then immediately canceled the contract that was by the Afghan govt. Brought in the people involved, removed some general and some stuff then conducted their own investigations. We don’t have the result of that investigation but we understand it has been done and is sitting with the president, which is appropriate. The Afghans should do an investigation themselves. We think that is a great response because the contact was stopped then the president has instituted a new policy on procurement as a result of our work. We are helping him and advising him along with other. We think that’s a good response very effective response and we are working closely with his investigative group.
Pajhwok: So, you have better relations with the national unity government than the previous administration, but are they doing enough? Are you satisfied with unity government’s anti-corruption efforts?
Sopko: Well, we have to be honest. Your government faces many many challenges. The security challenge, the 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. But it is difficulty. It is a real difficult situation for them too. We are ready and able to help the national unity government in many areas whether it’s trying to track down crooks, trying to track down stolen money like money from Kabul Bank. We are willing to help your new government on doing that. But they are trying as hard as they can.
Pajhwok: How you see the now cancelled Afghan government’s deal with Khalil Ferozi, the former CEO of Kabul Bank, who is serving a jail term, to build a township and make money?
Sopko: I don’t know all the details. I’m a bit confused and don’t quite understand what happened. It’s odd based on our experience in the US. In the US I can cite an example we had a recent case of Bernard L. Madoff who stole almost a billion dollars from innocent investors. In our country somebody like Madoff we investigated him, we indicted him, sent him to jail. He is sitting in jail for a life sentence, he is never gonna get out. We then seized all his assets and every investment he had. We then set up a special group to further investigate wherever the assets were and we took money that was ill-gotten by some of his family members and friends and we are still recovering money from Madoff to give back to the widows and orphans and other investors who lost millions of dollars.
It was horrible, the victims included synagogues and churches and mosques and poor elderly who lost all their life savings to Madoff. We didn’t put him on work release. That’s not the way the US government does. So I come from bad background, I don’t understand Afghan laws. But it’s troubling to hear this particularly because I’ve heard from international community and some businessmen that they are kind of troubled by this. Remember rule of law is important and particularly at this time that you want to get more foreign investors. I’m worried that this may hurt foreign investment at a time that you really need foreign investment. I look forward to talking to NUG and people to prosecutor’s office to know the details.
Pajhwok: Almost everybody was unhappy with this decision. So you are worried too?
Sopko: It causes concerns but I don’t know the facts yet. I can only base it upon my experience from the US. I was a former prosecutor and a defence attorney too. And I was advisor to many large international companies when I was in private practice. And I know they probably would be concerned as to what this means about rule of law in Afghanistan. And remember investors take some risks but there are some risks they don’t wanna take. And one is they got to have a working judicial system and it’s got to be transparent so that is something I know large corporations will be looking at some very closely.
Pajhwok: The US spent around 110 billion in Afghanistan more than Marshal Plan. Why isn’t Afghanistan even close to a European country? What went wrong?
Sopko: I don’t know if it means something went wrong. The reason we draw that comparison is the average Afghan must be like the average American. It’s hard to figure money. You get numbers that are so high you don’t understand how you comprehend 110 billion dollars. So we were looking for something in reconstruction area that compared to and the Marshal plan was the closest.
Now it’s not an exact comparison because Europe in 1945 war had ended the fighting, had stopped the shooting, the security situation was far better. Here in Afghanistan, the security situation is very precarious. So a lot of the money in Afghanistan has gone to building the military and in supporting the military and police in doing the fighting, so it’s not an exact comparison you can’t compare the two. And it’s where the countries were starting from. Your country has experience decades of war, Europe had very advanced industrialized countries that only had four or five years of war. It’s not direct and exact comparison. It’s just a way to comprehend the amount of money we spent.
Pajhwok: But do you think 110 billion dollars spent in the last 15 years should have brought better changes than what we see today in terms of security and economy?
Sopko: Yes, I think we could have done a better job. But part of this is also having a willing partner. We have made some mistakes, but I think the Afghan government has made some mistakes. And so we have to not dwell on the mistakes, we have to learn from the mistakes and do better. And I think right now that’s why I’m so impressed by the national unity government that they are willing to accept that there are mistakes and they’re trying to go forward with them.
Gen. Campbell and his people recognize mistakes have been made in the past and they are working their way through them learning from that. That’s the important things we don’t dwell on the mistakes we learn from the mistakes we do better and that’s what my job is.
Pajhwok: SIGAR has reported on ghost schools and ghost teachers, your comment on that?
Sopko: We are concerned about that. And actually the issue has been raised by the Afghan government and ministers, the Presidential Palace and the parliament raised those concerns. We’re trying to follow up on that. We think there are. Again this is a mistake we maybe and maybe it’s a mistake on the Afghan side that we didn’t keep a close watch on the schools, the teachers and clinics. That’s a terrible waste of money if people took money to build a school and because it’s far away from watching eyes. They didn’t build the school and we’re not using the school and they just steal the money or they steal the money for the teachers. This is why it’s so important for the Afghan people to help us, help the new unity government because they can tell us. I can’t get out to these districts anymore USAID and US military officials can’t get out to these districts. Sometimes even Afghan officials can’t get out to these districts so it’s got to be the community because the community should know what was supposed to be built in their areas then they can report back to the Palace and the government. We should be able to tell each village, each province, district what did we build there, what did we give money for then let the community report back to us and government about .. that’s where we need the eyes and ears of Afghan citizens.
Pajhwok: The fall of Kunduz 2 -3 months back took everybody by surprise and was a major setback for Afghan government and the international community. In your view how much corruption played a role in the fall of the city? You have reported on ghost soldiers, how much did that play a part? The US government has been a prime sponsor of creating Afghan Local Police (ALP). There have been reports of their abuse and people’s dissatisfaction with them, so how much these factors played a role in the fall of the northern city?
Sopko: Very good questions. I don’t have an answer to any of them. We will be following that and will look into it. I know your government is concerned and has done a report which I believe is being briefed to the president which may I hope touch on those. We’ll follow up on all of those issues. Because we don’t know if the troops that were there were at the level they should have been or were they what we call “paper unit.”Were they capable, did they have the material, the weaponry, we don’t know that yet but we would be following on that. We don’t know whether there was corruption involved.
Pajhwok: Do you think Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) will stand on their own given the fall of Kunduz?
Sopko: I think they have been standing on their own. Kunduz obviously was a wakeup call of how good they are and how better prepared. Overall throughout the whole country it has been Afghan soldiers and police who have been bearing the brunt of this battle. So I would say Kunduz is serious. I think the Afghan government is taking it seriously, we take it seriously. I don’t look at military tactics so I can’t talk about that. I look at reconstruction, I look at training advising and assisting and whether we have done a good job on it. But I think the Afghan military and police have already been standing up on their own. This season was the test. This is the first time that we weren’t really here except in extraordinary instances to help the Afghan government that way. So I think they already stood up and have passed the test.
Download “Pajhwok” mobile App, on your smartphone to read and access latest news, features, interviews, videos and photos about Afghanistan.