How The U.S. Can Control Its Financial Presence In Afghanistan When Troops Leave

Jun 15, 2021
Originally published on June 15, 2021 6:39 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. will pull all troops out of Afghanistan in the coming weeks but will continue its financial presence in the country with about $7.5 billion already set aside so far and another 3 billion in President Biden's 2021 budget proposal. That raises the question, how do we keep track of how these U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent from afar? The Office of Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction recently issued a document that calls on Congress and the White House for more oversight. John Sopko is the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. He joins us now.

JOHN SOPKO: It's a pleasure to be talking to you today.

CORNISH: So I understand that the money that the U.S. will be spending in Afghanistan is actually going to increase. So even though troops will be gone, the money will not. What are the priorities for where that money should be spent?

SOPKO: The priorities - obviously, the security issue is paramount. So most of this money will be going to supplying the Afghan military and their police. You have to remember that over 80% of the Afghan budget is supplied by international donors, the bulk of it coming from the United States. So without us, the Afghan government would collapse financially.

CORNISH: So those are high stakes, right? You're calling for strict conditions on the funding. And you're also talking about the idea of, in order to know where the money is going, keep track of the money, having the Afghan government kind of grant the U.S. your office access to their records, to their ministries. Is that likely? I mean, does the U.S. have any leverage to ask for something like that if it is pulling out?

SOPKO: Well, I would argue they have more leverage now than they probably did in the past because the Afghan government is probably more desperate for financial assistance. In the past, the security situation was that it was bleak. It has gotten worse, ironically, since the withdrawal agreement was signed a couple years ago. So I think we do have leverage.

CORNISH: And what would that look like? Would essentially the U.S. be saying, you'll get this money, but you have to do - what? Give me an example.

SOPKO: Well, one example would be - you're going to - we're going to give you assistance, but we need to see where the money is being spent. So you should give us access - by us meaning the oversight agencies - access to the internal books and records.

CORNISH: Right. I mean, in the past, you've talked about the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, which...

SOPKO: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Was this group that had a number of high-ranking officials, including H.R. McMaster, the former U.S. national security adviser. And this is a group that was supposed to track and deal with corruption. It didn't really accomplish that much. How does this process need to operate differently than the past in order to make a difference? - because you've chronicled the loss of money in the past.

SOPKO: The ATFC, the shortened version of the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, did actually accomplish quite a bit for the time it was in existence. Now, unfortunately, it went out of existence in 2014. And what this would do is try to follow the money and follow the networks of either corrupt officials - I think terrorist groups would be included - to try to follow the money.

CORNISH: I want to talk about another aspect of this within Afghanistan, which is that the Taliban has made gains there, right? And is there a concern that there could be a situation where there's power-sharing with the Taliban and the new government and a scenario where U.S. taxpayer money is supporting a Taliban-run, you know, department or U.S. taxpayer money is, in effect, being directed by the Taliban?

SOPKO: Well, we may not have any control over whether they have access to U.S. dollars because the peace negotiation, which will be won by the Afghans for the Afghans - and we support them. So there may be a role for the Taliban. But, you know, although the Taliban have said they want to be responsible, they want reconstruction aid, they want to be recognized as international players, we've never dealt with them on a financial level. But one thing for certain - if the money continues to flow, we definitely have learned our lesson, I hope, that we need to strictly monitor, evaluate and oversee how that money is being spent in Afghanistan.

CORNISH: There's a lot of talk about what needs to be done. When you sit down with a lawmaker, what do they tell you about why, in the past, they haven't been aggressive about conditions or restrictions and - that makes you think about how things can operate now?

SOPKO: Well, I think the real question is not so much is there a condition put on the money, but do we enforce those conditions?

CORNISH: Because just to give an example, we had been hearing about, for instance, ghost soldiers, the idea of - you can have local commanders, Afghan commanders who say, we have this many soldiers around, this many people on the payroll, when in reality they may have half that amount and they're pocketing the rest. But, again, you talk about enforcement. Like, what is the deal here?

SOPKO: Well, that's actually a good example of where conditions actually worked. And I think by highlighting the problem, we got the DOD in particular to put some conditions on funding for salaries. It's not perfect, but it has worked. But the government - the U.S. government has to be willing to say no.

CORNISH: I guess that's why I'm pressing you so hard - because I just...

SOPKO: Oh, no problem.

CORNISH: It seems like there has been so much money lost. There's been money put towards reconstruction, et cetera. But there's been a lot of money that has been lost to corruption, and it's not clear how that changes in this scenario in which the U.S. does not have a real presence on the ground. It actually seems harder to do.

SOPKO: Oh, I agree with you totally, Audie. And we recognize that this is not going to be easy. So that's why, in a way, this protects the mission going forward. And you substitute for our ability and our other colleagues and other IG offices' ability to get around in Afghanistan. You substitute these conditions. And I think we should learn from the lessons of the last 20 years that we have to do this.

CORNISH: That's John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Thank you so much for your time.

SOPKO: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.