July 30 (Bloomberg) -- Supporters of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan have been getting U.S. military contracts, and American officials are citing “due process rights” as a reason not to cancel the agreements, according to an independent agency monitoring spending.
The U.S. Army Suspension and Debarment Office has declined to act in 43 such cases, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said today in a letter accompanying a quarterly report to Congress.
“I am deeply troubled that the U.S. military can pursue, attack, and even kill terrorists and their supporters, but that some in the U.S. government believe we cannot prevent these same people from receiving a government contract,” Sopko said.
The 236-page report and Sopko’s summary provide one of the watchdog agency’s most critical appraisals of U.S. performance in helping to build a stable Afghanistan as the Pentagon prepares to withdraw combat troops by the end of next year.
“There appears to be a growing gap between the policy objectives of Washington and the reality of achieving them in Afghanistan, especially when the government must hire and oversee contractors to perform its mission,” said Sopko, whose post was mandated by Congress.
The Pentagon is scheduled to deliver its own Afghanistan status report to Congress today. Its appraisal, which is months late, will outline progress from October 2012 through March and concerns that deal with handing over security operations to the Afghan military.
The U.S. has 60,000 troops in Afghanistan, with plans to reduce the number to 34,000 by February. President Barack Obama hasn’t decided how many to keep in the country after 2014 to train Afghan forces and engage in anti-terrorist missions.
Sopko expressed pessimism that the U.S. can maintain effective oversight of billions of dollars in reconstruction spending as forces are withdrawn. The Obama administration has requested $10.7 billion in such funding for fiscal 2014 to cover projects from improving local government to building roads and schools.
“Unless the U.S. government improves its contract-oversight policies and practices, far too much will be wasted,” Sopko wrote.
According to the report, Sopko’s agency “has found it impossible to confirm” the number of contracts awarded in a $32 million program to install barricades, bars or gratings in culverts at about 2,500 Afghan locations to prevent insurgents from placing roadside bombs. The explosives are the biggest killer of U.S. and Afghan troops.
The policy to create an effective Afghan Army, which has 185,287 troops, “will remain hollow unless Washington pays equal attention to proper contracting and procurement activities to sustain those forces,” Sopko said.
He said that he is “well aware of the wartime environment in which contractors are operating in Afghanistan, but this can neither explain the disconnect nor excuse the failure.”
As of May 31, the U.S. had committed $30 billion for contracts to build, train and sustain the Afghan army.
Sopko said he has witnessed the failings personally during his first year as inspector general, including 50 meetings he and his staff attended during his last trip to Afghanistan.
As of March, 40,315 of the personnel working under Pentagon contracts in Afghanistan, or about 37 percent, were Afghan locals, according to the report.
Regarding the 43 cases of contractors with militant connections, Sopko said the Army should “enforce the rule of common sense” in its suspension and debarment program. “They may be enemies of the United States but that is not enough to keep them from getting government contracts,” according to the agency’s report.
The Army’s procurement-fraud branch reviewed the 43 cases late last year, Matthew Bourke, a service spokesman, said in a statement. The reviewers “did not include enough supporting evidence to initiate suspension and debarment under federal acquisition regulations,” he said.
George Wright, another Army spokesman, said by e-mail that cutting off the contracts based only on information from Sopko’s office “would fail to meet due-process requirements and would likely be deemed arbitrary if challenged in court.”
Sopko said the Army “appears to believe that suspension or debarment of these individuals and companies would be a violation of their due-process rights if based on classified information” or on Commerce Department reports.
In a report issued yesterday, Sopko said $47 million that the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent on a program to stabilize Afghanistan hasn’t dealt with the sources of instability.
An audit showed that after 16 months, none of the agency’s essential program objectives have been reached and the money spent has mostly financed workshops and training sessions. The project is aimed at bolstering Afghanistan’s government before troop withdrawals planned for next year.
“It’s troubling that after 16 months, this program has not issued its first community grant,” Sopko said. “Rather, it has spent almost $50 million, about a quarter of the total program budget, on conferences, overhead and workshops.”
The failure of the State Department agency to use the money for grants has left local Afghan communities disappointed and may feed greater instability, according to the audit.
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