An under-the-radar fight between the Biden administration and an independent Afghanistan inspector general will soon be thrust into the spotlight when Republicans take control of the House in January, with GOP leaders pledging to push back what they say is a systematic “obstruction” by the State Department and other branches of the federal government.
As soon as the next Congress is sworn in, House Republicans have promised to convene new oversight hearings on the widely criticized and rushed US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and its aftermath. Much of the effort will focus on the administration’s handling of the withdrawal and why, as critics argue, no high-ranking officials have been fired as a result.
But Republicans are also focusing on an unusually bitter and public confrontation between the administration and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the government’s main oversight body over Afghanistan and a body that since Its formation in 2008 systematically highlighted apparent waste, fraud and mismanagement of American money during reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
SIGAR’s quarterly reports to Congress have long been a thorn in the side of administrations on both sides, but its supporters say that over the past 16 years they have provided a crucial window into how US money has been spent as Washington sought to rebuild Afghanistan, train its military, and prop up its ill-fated government.
Despite past tensions between SIGAR and multiple administrations, the inspector general’s investigators apparently always had access to the information they sought to make his assessments. But that is no longer the case, SIGAR says, as the Biden administration now refuses to provide detailed accounts of the approximately $1.1 billion in US assistance to Afghanistan since the US withdrawal in August 2021.
SIGAR “for the first time in its history is unable this quarter to provide Congress and the American people with a comprehensive account of this US government spending due to the non-cooperation of several US government agencies,” said the ‘inspector general in his latest quarterly report to Congress, singling out the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for freezing guard dogs.
The controversy seems to arise from different interpretations of what constitutes the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan and, consequently, where the legal authority of SIGAR begins and ends. With the 20-year US military and development mission in Afghanistan concluded, the administration says, the work of SIGAR should also conclude.
“We have been engaged in back-and-forth with SIGAR for some time and fundamentally disagree with their assessment of what constitutes Afghanistan reconstruction,” a State Department spokesman told the Washington Times.
“Our position is that, with the exception of some specific funds, SIGAR’s statutory mandate is limited to funds available ‘for the reconstruction of Afghanistan’. Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the United States has stopped providing assistance to rebuild Afghanistan and is now focusing on easing the immediate humanitarian situation in the country.”
A USAID spokesman echoed this position, saying that US funding for the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan has ended.
“However, the State Department and USAID have provided SIGAR with written answers to dozens of questions, as well as thousands of pages of documents, analyzes and spreadsheets describing dozens of programs that were part of the US government’s reconstruction effort. United States in Afghanistan,” a USAID spokesman said. “We work frequently and regularly with SIGAR within its statutory mandate.”
Bad blood between the watchdog and the departments it oversees is nothing new. In a scathing commentary this week, former Pentagon interim comptroller Elaine McCusker, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called SIGAR an “expensive irrelevance” that should be shut down immediately.
Noting SIGAR’s complaints in its latest quarterly report that USAID, the Treasury Department and the State Department severely limited their cooperation or refused to work with SIGAR investigators at all, Ms. McCusker wrote: I wonder why that would be? Perhaps because the United States no longer has a presence in Afghanistan that allows for the collection of reliable and detailed intelligence. Perhaps because SIGAR has been wasting staff time with requests for information for years, even before the shameful exit of the United States from Afghanistan, with very diminishing results”.
The inspector general, he added, “has repeatedly obscured what gains he has accrued with his accusatory tone and approach to issuing reports that seemed suspiciously geared towards obtaining headlines rather than improving the use and accountability of taxpayer funds.” “.
But SIGAR head John Sopko has long been a critic of what he said was a lack of openness at both the State Department and the Defense Department about the true state of the Afghan conflict and the cost to the taxpayer. American, saying in 2019 that US civilian and military leadership had “incentivized to lie to Congress” about the war.
“The whole incentive is to show success and ignore failure,” he told a House Foreign Affairs committee hearing at the time. “And when there’s too much failure, rate it or don’t report it.”
And the Oversight Bureau has continued to issue new reports and analysis on the US mission in Afghanistan, including one just this month that sharply criticized the long record of the US-backed Afghan government and the efforts of the US and its allies to maintain it. government in power.
“The United States has sought to build stable, democratic, representative, gender-sensitive, and accountable institutions of governance in Afghanistan,” the report said in its conclusion. “It has failed.”
Struggle for oversight
For Republicans, putting Afghanistan back in the spotlight could bring some political gains, though it will also serve as a reminder that it was former President Donald Trump, not President Biden, who signed an initial peace deal with the Taliban at the time. beginning of 2020 that the US withdrawal movement began.
President Biden’s personal approval polls took a major blow in the summer of 2021 as the US-backed Afghan government collapsed and the US and its allies wrought a hasty and ill-organized reconstruction, a blow from which the president he never fully recovered.
“I think the political points Republicans will try to score with this survey will be on the Republican base, as well as putting it back on the radar for some independent voters,” said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at George’s Graduate School of Political Management. Washington University.
“Even if it was also Trump’s plan, they will criticize Biden’s handling of the withdrawal and try to use it to question Biden’s judgment more generally and his suitability to serve as commander in chief,” he said.
The rhetorical dispute between the administration and SIGAR has been on Republicans’ radar for months, but with no scrutiny of either house of Congress, their power to address it has been limited.
This will change in January. Republicans in multiple key committees have signaled they are preparing to push the administration for more information and have suggested they could use Congressional subpoena powers if needed.
Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told the Times they view the lack of cooperation with SIGAR as a “significant problem” and that the Biden administration appears to fear that continued oversight of SIGAR could “uncover information that could be harmful.” for the White House.
Such information could reveal mismanagement, fraud or waste involving $1.1 billion in U.S. humanitarian aid, they said, or at worst, it could show some money is indirectly ending up in the hands of the Taliban or its allies.
Spokesmen for the State Department and USAID insist they are cooperating with other enforcement bodies tracking that money, including congressional committees and inspectors general within both agencies.
Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee are also keeping tabs on the administration’s fight with SIGAR. In a Nov. 7 letter to Mr. Sopko, Republicans on the leadership committee requested a number of documents about SIGAR’s communications with the administration.
“SIGAR is of paramount importance in examining whole-government issues regarding U.S. engagements in Afghanistan,” Republican Representatives James Comer of Kentucky and Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin said in the letter. The two men are the ranking Republicans on the oversight committee and its subcommittee on national security, respectively.
“Historically, [the State Department] and USAID have honored SIGAR’s mission,” they wrote. “Their current lack of cooperation with SIGAR – in the wake of the deadly US withdrawal from Afghanistan – is alarming. Without SIGAR’s oversight, the American people have no answers as to what taxpayer dollars were and what they were like [continue] to be used and what impact the withdrawal has had on our national security.”
The controversy is only one part of a much larger problem. Republicans say they will also push the administration for answers on US withdrawal planning and why military and intelligence assessments have failed so badly to estimate how long the Afghan government would survive when combat forces Americans would have withdrawn.
“There has been a broad pattern of obstruction by the Biden administration every time we’ve tried to get information about the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Congressman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and incoming chair of the Afghan State, told the Times. Foreign Affairs Committee. . “At the next Congress, I can guarantee that our committee will no longer stand by as our Article 1 oversight authority is ignored.”