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 over the House in January, with GOP leaders pledging to push back on what they say is systematic “obstruction” by the State Department and other arms of the federal government.
As soon as the next Congress is sworn in, House Republicans have vowed to call new oversight hearings into the widely criticized, rushed U.S. 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 contend, no high-ranking officials were fired as a result.
But Republicans are also zeroing in on an unusually bitter and public clash between the administration and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the government’s top Afghanistan watchdog and a body that since its formation in 2008 has routinely 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 of both parties, but its supporters say that over the past 16 years it has provided a crucial window into how U.S. money was spent as Washington tried 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 seemingly always had access to the information they sought to make its assessments. But that’s no longer the case, SIGAR claims, as the Biden administration is now refusing to provide detailed accountings of the roughly $1.1 billion in U.S. assistance to Afghanistan since the August 2021 U.S. withdrawal.
SIGAR “for the first time in its history is unable this quarter to provide Congress and the American people with a full accounting of this U.S. government spending due to the noncooperation of several U.S. government agencies,” the inspector general said in its most recent quarterly report to Congress, singling out the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for freezing out the watchdogs.
The dispute seems to stem from different interpretations of what constitutes the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan, and as a result, where SIGAR’s legal authority begins and ends. With the 20-year U.S. military and development mission in Afghanistan over, the administration says, SIGAR’s work should be wrapping up, too.
“We have been engaged in a back and forth for some time now with SIGAR and fundamentally disagree with their assessment of what constitutes Afghanistan reconstruction,” a State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times.
“Our position is that except for certain 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 for the purpose of the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and now focuses on alleviating the immediate humanitarian situation in the country.”
A USAID spokesperson echoed that stance, arguing that U.S. financing of the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan has ended.
“Nonetheless, the Department of State and USAID have provided SIGAR written responses to dozens of questions, as well as thousands of pages of responsive documents, analyses, and spreadsheets describing dozens of programs that were part of the U.S. government’s reconstruction effort in Afghanistan,” a USAID spokesperson said. “We are frequently, regularly working with SIGAR within the scope of its statutory mandate.”
Bad blood between the watchdog and the departments it monitors is nothing new. In a scorching commentary this week, former Pentagon acting comptroller Elaine McCusker, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called SIGAR a “costly irrelevancy” that should be shuttered immediately.
Noting SIGAR’s complaints in its latest quarterly report that USAID, the Treasury Department and the State Department sharply limited their cooperation or refused to work with SIGAR investigators altogether, Ms. McCusker wrote: “I wonder why that would be the case? Maybe because the U.S. no longer has a presence in Afghanistan enabling the collection of reliable detailed information. Maybe because SIGAR has been wasting the time of staff with requests for information for years, even before the disgraceful exit of the US from Afghanistan, with greatly diminishing outcomes.”
The inspector general, she added, “has repeatedly obscured what benefits it accumulated with its prosecutorial tone and approach to releasing reports that seemed suspiciously geared toward obtaining headlines rather than improving use of and accountability for taxpayer funds.”
But SIGAR chief John Sopko has long been a critic of what he has said is a lack of openness at both the State Department and Defense Department regarding the true state of the Afghan conflict and the cost to the American taxpayer, claiming in 2019 that the U.S. civilian and military leadership had “incentivized lying to Congress” about the war.
“The whole incentive is to show success and to ignore the failures,” he told a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing then. “And when there’s too much failure — classify it or don’t report it.”
And the watchdog office has continued to issue new reports and analyses of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, including one just this month that sharply criticized the long record of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and of the efforts of the U.S. and its allies to keep that government in power.
“The United States sought to build stable, democratic, representative, gender-sensitive, and accountable Afghan governance institutions,” the report said in its conclusion. “It failed.”
For Republicans, bringing Afghanistan back into the spotlight could carry some political benefits — 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 in early 2020 that set in motion the U.S. withdrawal.
President Biden’s own personal approval polls took a sharp hit in the summer of 2021 as the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed and the U.S. and its allies beat a hasty, ill-organized retread, a hit from which the president has never fully recovered.
“I think the political points the Republicans will be trying to score with this investigation will be with regard to 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 Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
“Even though it was also Trump’s plan, they will criticize Biden’s management of the withdrawal and attempt to use it to question Biden’s judgment more generally and his fitness to serve as commander in chief,” he said.
The rhetorical wrangling between the administration and SIGAR has been on Republicans’ radar for months, but without control of either chamber of Congress, their power to address it has been limited.
That will change in January. Republicans on multiple key committees have signaled that they’re preparing to push the administration for more information and they suggested they may use congressional subpoena powers if necessary.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans told The Times that they view the lack of cooperation with SIGAR as a “significant problem,” and that the Biden administration seems to be afraid that continued SIGAR oversight may “uncover information that could be damaging” to the White House.
That information could reveal mismanagement, fraud or waste involving the $1.1 billion in U.S. humanitarian aid, they said, or in a worst-case scenario, it may show that some money is indirectly ending up in the hands of the Taliban or its allies.
State Department and USAID spokespersons insist that they’re cooperating with other oversight bodies tracking that money, including congressional committees and inspectors general within both agencies.
Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform also have an eye on the administration’s fight with SIGAR. In a Nov. 7 letter to Mr. Sopko, leading committee Republicans requested a trove of documents about SIGAR’s communications with the administration.
“SIGAR is critically important in examining the whole-of-government issues regarding U.S. engagements in Afghanistan,” Republican Reps. 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 United States’ deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan — is alarming. Without SIGAR’s oversight, the American people lack answers on how taxpayer dollars were and [continue] to be used and what impact the withdrawal has had on our national security.”
The dispute is just one piece of a much larger issue. Republicans say they’ll also push the administration for answers on the planning of the U.S. withdrawal and why military and intelligence assessments failed so badly in estimating how long the Afghan government would survive as the American combat forces pulled back.
“There has been an extensive pattern of obstruction on the part of the Biden administration whenever we have attempted to get information about the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and incoming Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, told The Times. “Next Congress, I can guarantee our committee is no longer going to stand by while our Article 1 oversight authority is ignored.”