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U.S. Officials growl back at watchdog for Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan » After months of quietly simmering tension, officials from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have begun publicly airing their grievances about the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, the government watchdog charged with auditing their work here.

The inspector general’s office is run by John F. Sopko, a former prosecutor with a flair for publicity. Appointed by the White House last year, Sopko and his team have aggressively chronicled the waste and mismanagement in the American campaign to rebuild Afghanistan. Their prolific stream of reports has included criticism of a $34 million military headquarters that will never be used, USAID programs that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars yet accomplished little, and many other topics.

As the inspection reports and Sopko’s aggressive style have gained more coverage in the news media, usually tight-lipped officials from the State Department and USAID have begun pursuing a pressure campaign of their own. They complain that his reports are sometimes inaccurate and often highlight problems that the agencies are already correcting or ignore feedback that would correct the misimpressions.

Beyond that, they say that responding to Sopko’s reports chews up countless hours, and that the inspector general’s work ultimately undermines the effort to build stronger civilian institutions here by creating the impression that the United States is simply pouring money down the well.

However, Sopko’s defenders, including some in the international community in Kabul, say many of his reports are on target, even if he has perhaps been overly publicity hungry. And Sopko and his team insist that their work is thorough, fact-based and performed in the open, and they characterize their critics as officials who would prefer that problems not be publicized.

The spat resonates with an increasingly pervasive worry among the international community in Afghanistan that after a dozen years of war, the effort here may be more a failure than not.

On the military front, progress has been uneven, and the Taliban remain a credible threat. And on the civilian side, years of ambitious goals — for improved human rights, justice, financial services and democracy — have basically been pared down to one last hope: that the coming national elections will not abjectly fail. Meanwhile, the billions of dollars in aid meant to prop up and develop the nation’s institutions and people has been viewed as only marginally effective.

And now comes Sopko and his team, whose work over the past year has felt like salt in the wounds for some officials here.

"What it does is that it starts to generate an incomplete and unjustified loss of credibility and trust in what the international community is trying to do on the development side," one senior U.S. Embassy official said.

Others at the embassy are less civil — and often quite profane — when it comes to discussing the inspector general and his staff members, about 50 of whom are based in Afghanistan. But that grousing has usually occurred in private meetings and casual conversations.

The beginning of a more public and official pushback seemed to focus on the latest audit, released last week. The report focuses on money spent on public health projects in the country, noting that USAID had grants totaling more than $200 million destined for the Afghan Ministry of Public Health. Yet the ministry has been found by USAID to suffer from at least 55 deficiencies, including in the areas of budgeting, accounting and procurement.

While the report does not outline specific instances of waste, it asserts that the shortcomings in the ministry leave American taxpayer dollars at high risk of waste, abuse and fraud, especially since there is no formal system to vet whether the work being paid for is actually done.

In response, William Hammink, the new director for USAID in Afghanistan, said, "That is simply not true." In recent days, his agency fired off a salvo of news releases criticizing the report.

For starters, he said, the agency does not give any money directly to the health ministry. It is all funneled directly to the nongovernmental organizations that do the work, from a separate account held by the Afghan Ministry of Finance.

Officials also take issue with the characterization that there is no oversight — there is a unit within the ministry that is financed and staffed by donors whose sole mission is to vet all contracted work before any payment is processed.

USAID officials outlined their concerns in feedback to Sopko before a final draft of the report was released, but they say they made little headway in convincing the inspector general that the report was flawed.

Gene Aloise, the deputy special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, dismissed the criticism, suggesting that the agency had spent more effort criticizing the report in the news media than proving their point to inspectors.

"Nothing USAID has presented in its press releases that we have seen, and we’ve gone over them pretty carefully, changes any of the facts as we know them," Aloise said.

He went on to walk through the report’s findings that the program was direct assistance, with money flowing directly to the Afghan government. USAID says it does not work that way in practice.

According to the official embassy and USAID responses that accompany inspector’s reports, they disagreed with Sopko’s recommendations 64 percent of the time from October to August, as compared with a 9 percent disagreement rate with his predecessor from July 2011 to July 2012.

American officials held that difference up as proof that something was wrong.

Sopko’s office begged to differ, again. Aloise said that complaining about the auditor’s findings, as opposed to fixing things, was hardly the best use of time or taxpayers’ money.

"You don’t sweep this stuff under the rug," he said. "We’re here to point out the problems so that these programs work better. We’re not against the programs."

And so the back-and-forth goes, though one side can maneuver more freely in public than the other.

While Sopko has given his team his blessing to speak on the record most of the time, such permission is rare within the State Department and USAID. Officials in those agencies have a deeply reinforced tradition of speaking only on the condition of anonymity, in part because higher-ups within the bureaucracy and the Obama administration prefer to keep the leash tight.

As a result, staff members at the inspector general’s office can speak at length and in detail about the issues they investigate, while the State Department typically holds briefings in which the speaker can be referred to only as a senior U.S. official.

"If they’re not willing to put their name on it, it could just be anybody talking," Aloise said.

His idea for remedying that problem? "Tell them to man up," he said.

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