Since former prosecutor John Sopko took over last year as the top watchdog probing U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, the organization has honed a pugnacious style that has irked military commanders, grabbed national news headlines and exposed embarrassing lapses in oversight that have cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Now, Sopko's team faces a new challenge: An internal review of how it will do business as the U.S. war in Afghanistan continues to wind down, and how long the organization will exist at all.
The examination of the Office of the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction's future already is underway, several senior staff members with the agency said. It was established by Congress in 2008 to expose waste, fraud and abuse in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, with a primary emphasis on development projects that have cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the last decade. Sopko took the reins at SIGAR in July 2012, jump-starting an organization that had a reputation for being inept and poorly managed.
"We are a very aggressive IG shop, probably the most aggressive IG shop in town," said Gene Aloise, the deputy inspector general for SIGAR. "We all know we have a very small window to get a lot done. We're a temporary agency. They're drawing down troops now; we don't know what the picture is going to be like beyond 2014. We know we have a limited window to do a lot of good work for the American taxpayer."
SIGAR's future is tied directly to the ongoing stalemate between the United States and Afghanistan on whether a bilateral security agreement between the two nations will be signed, and when. Hundreds of billions of dollars already have been spent in Afghanistan, and about $18 billion more remains "in the pipeline" promised to various programs, Aloise said. An additional $12 billion is set aside for Afghanistan in the fiscal 2014 defense spending bill.
SIGAR was established with the idea that it would exist until there is $250 million left set aside for Afghanistan, Aloise said. Depending on whether the bilateral security agreement is signed, that could be soon or sometime after 2020, the latter of which mean would mean billions more dollars need oversight.
With the future uncertain, the 194-person agency has established an internal task force that is reviewing its future size and scope as the agency waits for indications on how the tense political situation between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and senior U.S. officials plays out. The United States wants the Afghan president to sign the agreement between the two countries as soon as possible, outlining U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after 2014. Karzai has refused to do so until after Afghanistan's elections next year, however, giving him leverage of the U.S. government -- but also raising the possibility that the United States could pull out of the country completely after more than a dozen years of war.
The uncertainty comes as SIGAR is rapidly losing access to the projects on which they're supposed to be checking up due to the drawdown in U.S. forces and the security they provide. The watchdog sent Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a letter in October warning that it is "likely that no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible to U.S. civilian oversight personnel" by the end of 2014, when the U.S. formally ends combat operations there.
In February, SIGAR will hold a meeting with officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, private think tanks and nongovernmental organizations to brainstorm how the United States can continue monitoring projects despite that reality, Aloise said. Options include contracting the work out to private companies and reviewing items remotely and monitoring remotely through technology, including geospatial imagery in some cases.
With the U.S. drawdown well underway, SIGAR has adopted a frenetic pace, pumping out reports, letters and audits and cultivating a close relationship with the press to make sure they get noticed. They also established a special projects group about a year ago that is able to sidestep the plodding pace of typical audits by running smaller investigations and reporting to Congress on them, frequently within days. The changes are no accident, said Aloise, who worked for 38 years in Congress' investigative agency, the Government Accountability Office. With SIGAR's compressed timely, officials there wanted to make sure the work they do resonates quickly.
"It doesn't do you any good if you issue a report and nobody reads it," Aloise said. "Even when I was at GAO, we followed this as well, but not as aggressively. But the idea is once we issue the report, the press needs to know about it because that's how you affect change. You put pressure on the agencies, and they respond to that. If they see negative headlines and more people read those reports, and [Capitol] Hill sees them, that's how you affect change."
That has made some enemies in the State Department, Pentagon and Kabul, where the International Security Assistance Force managing the war is based. In August, the Washington Post and the New York Times both ran profiles of Sopko that characterized him as open to conflict and willing to embarrass fellow U.S. officials at times. David Sedney, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan policy, told the Post that SIGAR has perpetuated "a narrative of failure that is grossly inaccurate."
"Individual reports always seem to generalize, but they draw false conclusions and fail to understand what's going on," Sedney told the Post.
Aloise acknowledged there are disagreements over some reports, but said SIGAR has been fair in its assessments.
"The agencies are always defending their programs, defending their turf, criticizing a report as unfair or unbalanced," he said. "We try to eliminate that as much as we possibly can by developing better relations with them. We're totally transparent. There is not a report or special project that goes out that hasn't been reviewed thoroughly by the agency."
The temporary nature of SIGAR also has created problems within. Long hours and pressure to perform have created a legacy of people leaving the organization, both by choice and through termination. "In the back of our minds, it's always, 'How long are you staying?'" Aloise said.
Still, SIGAR officials point with pride at a variety of their projects that have saved the United States money and exposed corruption in the process. In one example, the watchdog focused on the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan not knowing how many Afghan forces are living in barracks paid for by the United States, despite plans existing to build more. It marked the second time SIGAR focused on the issue -- and the coalition cut $2 billion from planned construction in between.
"That's for us a huge accomplishment and something that's good for everybody," said Elizabeth Field, an assistant inspector general for SIGAR. "And that makes us feel good about doing this work."
How long that work will continue, though, is still anybody's guess.
Courtesy Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.