KABUL (Reuters) - The United States must learn from expensive mistakes it has made trying to rebuild Afghanistan, where it has spent more than anywhere else, and tighten up conditions for aid and oversight or risk losing much more, the head of a watchdog agency said.
John Sopko, a pugnacious former prosecutor who took on the mafia in the United States, has earned notoriety in Kabul and Washington for denouncing how much of the $107 billion the United States has spent rebuilding Afghanistan since 2001 has been frittered away.
Among the examples of woeful waste he has documented were a multi-million dollar project for solar-powered bus stops and more than $200 million on an unfinished road.
Sopko, head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), says the U.S. government has to change the way it operates and must set more strict conditions on its help and keep a much closer eye on the money.
“We do run the risk of it being wasted if we don’t do conditionality, if we don’t do oversight, if we don’t take into consideration the Afghan situation,” Sopko in an interview deep in the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Kabul.
The U.S. congress set up SIGAR in 2008 to provide independent oversight and audits of how U.S. funds are spent in Afghanistan.
It released its latest findings on Thursday, highlighting $20 million the U.S. military spent on waste incinerators it never used.
SIGAR has hired experts to write “lessons learned” reports on how to do better nation-building - covering issues including narcotics, corruption and planning, Sopko said.
“We spent more money than we’ve spent in any country in the history of the United States, more money than the Marshall Plan, so it’s big bucks,” he said.
“What does this tell us, so the next time we do this, maybe we can do a better job? So I actually think of all the things we do, that may be the legacy that I want to leave.”
The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended in December after 13 years but billions more aid and defense dollars are earmarked for Afghanistan over the next few years.
Sopko said the advice he and other experts give to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) is often not taken on board.
He said he was particularly worried that the withdrawal of most foreign troops and the deteriorating security in Afghanistan would make it hard to monitor the use of $216 million pledged in November by USAID for women’s empowerment.
“I am not really certain that it has been thought out. I hope it will be. I hope all my concerns are fruitless,” he said of the USAID’s largest women’s empowerment project, called Promote.
The project was unveiled in November and will run for five years.
Sopko said he was not the first U.S. official to try to pass on lessons learned from mistakes.
He said he unearthed a USAID manuscript dating back to the 1980s, that cataloged many of the errors that had been repeated in Afghanistan. He said he ran around the embassy showing the document off.
“I couldn’t find anybody who had read it,” he said.
Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Robert Birsel