Afghanistan Watchdog: ‘You’re Gonna See Pilferage’ of US Aid to Ukraine

Posted on 04/23/23
By Connor Echols | Via Responsible Statecraft
SIGAR Inspector General John Sopko. (Photo courtesy C-SPAN screenshot)
In the past year, Congress has allocated roughly $113 billion in support of Ukraine’s efforts to beat back Russia’s brutal invasion. More or less overnight, Kyiv became far and away the largest single recipient of U.S. military and economic support.

In order to track all that spending, government watchdogs have taken some notable steps to expand oversight. The inspectors general for the Pentagon, State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development launched a joint oversight plan in January, earning plaudits from some in Congress.

But others argue that such an approach still falls short. Last month, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) proposed legislation that would have created a special inspector general for Ukraine aid, which would have broad authority to track U.S. aid across all agencies involved in helping Ukraine. The effort failed in a 26-68 vote.

According to Hawley, his proposal drew inspiration from the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which Congress set up in 2008. As of 2021, SIGAR’s oversight of $146 billion in U.S. aid to Afghanistan had led to 160 criminal convictions and $3.8 billion in savings for the United States. Perhaps most importantly, it helped reveal that multiple administrations had misled the U.SAfghanistan, P{. public with cheery statements about our progress in Afghanistan despite the fact that many officials privately saw things going in the wrong direction.

To better understand the arguments about Ukraine aid oversight, I spoke with Inspector General John Sopko. A veteran of the oversight community, Sopko spent two decades working in various watchdog roles on Capitol Hill before taking over as SIGAR in 2012. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


RS: Let’s dive into questions around Ukraine. Do you support calls to create a separate special inspector general for Ukraine?

Sopko: Yes. This is my personal opinion; this isn’t SIGAR’s opinion. I’ve run one of these special IG shops for almost 11 years, and I think it’s the perfect way to approach a situation like Ukraine, where you just have tons and tons of money going into one country for one particular purpose. You create a special IG that has “whole of government” — and that’s the key — authority to come in and keep track of all the money being spent and how it’s being used or abused and make recommendations.

RS: I’d be curious to hear more about that. The Inspector General of DoD, State and USAID have all argued against creating a special inspector general for Ukraine and said they’re already conducting very robust oversight of the aid. What are they potentially missing, in your view?

Sopko: What they’re missing is that no one can really do “whole of government.” See, the DoD IG and the State IG and the AID IG are the three you’re talking about. They operate in Afghanistan, and we had a very good relationship with them. We coordinated our work so it didn’t overlap.

You got to look at why SIGIR — which was the special IG in Iraq — and SIGAR were created. Congress realized that there was so much money being spent so quickly, you needed one organization that could look at all of the players and how they all were spending money, and more importantly, how they all interacted with each other, because this is a whole of government approach — and whole of governments.

This is the problem of the three IGs. They can come up with a way to coordinate their work, but the DoD IG cannot look at State programs. The State IG cannot look at AID programs. The DoD IG, State IG, and AID IG cannot look at the coordination or how the programs are being run by the UN, or the World Bank, or the European Union, or NATO.

God bless State, AID, and DOD. They’re going to try their best, but I think there’s something like 14 or 17 separate U.S. oversight bodies. So you got 17 of those, plus you have like 50-some countries involved, and each one of them has an oversight body. I mean, this is like herding cats.

One lesson we learned from Afghanistan is that you got to coordinate them all. Not only who’s giving the money out but also all of the various auditing agencies. I don’t see that being fixed [in Ukraine].

Now here’s the other problem. The State IG and the AID IG are not confirmed IGs. They’re acting. The DoD IG just became the IG over there three months ago. Again, this isn’t criticism, but I know darn well that if you’re an “acting” in the government, you got no authority. You got no power, particularly if the agency you’re working for is dangling in front of your face the opportunity to become the permanent IG. Now this isn’t to say anybody is corrupt, but that is just a horrible position to be put in. You’re basically asking these acting IGs to be saints.

RS: One thing you didn’t touch on that I’ve heard some people talk about is this idea that aggressive oversight of Ukraine aid could slow down that aid and thus hurt Ukraine’s war effort. What do you think about that claim?

Sopko: I think it’s baloney. Anytime there’s an aggressive IG, everybody says, “Oh, you’re slowing [us] down.” That’s not true. You can do effective oversight. You force the agencies to ask the right questions, and you’re focusing them on doing the right thing rather than just throwing money at the problem.

Right now, we’re throwing money at the problem. We’re throwing munitions at the problems. But I don’t know if sending 17 different types of tanks is a good idea for the Ukrainians. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to not really care too much about the ability of the Ukrainians to maintain or sustain any of the equipment. So an IG can say, “Hold on, this is a good idea. You got to give them tanks, you got to give them howitzers. But let’s think in terms of the long haul.”

Too many times before we got started [in Afghanistan], [the U.S.] made mistakes, and then we had to live with them. And that’s one reason why we issued these reports that said, basically, the collapse of Afghanistan was baked in because you had 10 years of screwed-up mistakes because you didn’t have somebody like us there saying, “hey, DoD, you got a major problem of corruption. What are you doing about it?”

I remember sitting down again with [then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Joe Dunford when he was out in Kabul. And I was saying, “Look, you got a problem. You’re closing down bases while you’re still spending money to add more buildings to it. One of these days, we’re going to come across a base you have where you got bulldozers knocking down half of it coming across a crew building half of it. They’re gonna meet in the middle.” I said, “this is silly.” And he said, “you’re right.” So he stopped all new construction for any facility that he knew was in his plan to end. It saved $500 million or $600 million. That’s what a good IG can do.

So I don’t buy that [argument about oversight impeding aid]. I totally disagree with those statements. Those are statements made by corrupt contractors, corrupt politicians, or politicians and contractors who don’t know anything about effective oversight.

RS: On the question of timing: why would it be important to set up the office of special inspector general for Ukrainian aid sooner rather than later? What difference would it have made for SIGAR if y’all had been able to start your work in 2001?

Sopko: We could have stopped some of the excesses. Just look at the amount of money we’re spending [in Ukraine]. It’s about $113 billion. At that rate, this summer we will surpass all of the money we spent for reconstruction — which was the train, advise and assist mission in Afghanistan — for 20 years. This summer, we will surpass all the money we spent for a Marshall Plan to rebuild all of Europe [after World War II]. That money is flowing like manna from the sky. If you don’t get in there soon, you’re gonna see pilferage.

God bless the Ukrainians. I hope they win, and I hope they win fast and they kick the Russians out. But boy, when you pour that much money in, even if it’s the most noble cause in the world, you can’t help but waste a lot.

Again, Ukraine is not the same as Afghanistan, and thank goodness for that because I think that means the Ukrainians have a better chance to succeed. And I think they understand the corruption, and they want to do something about it. But there’s still going to be problems. You just can’t spend that much money that fast without having money being diverted and weapons being diverted. We are naive if we think just because it’s a noble cause there won’t be corruption.

RS: When it comes to questions about oversight in Ukraine, most of the attention has focused on military aid, but I know that you’ve tried to sound the alarm a bit on questions of economic aid as well. What are the different challenges with those different types of support?

Sopko: With the military assistance, DoD is basically running the show. But then you get USAID and money going to the UN that we’re paying. We’ve always had more problems with AID. In Afghanistan, my experience with them is they have not been a very well run organization. This isn’t to criticize the current AID administrator. It’s the four administrations that I looked at, and the State Department is even worse. State couldn’t contract their way out of a paper bag if their lives depended on it.

The real crisis is going to happen once the shooting stops, and they start laying concrete, and they start rebuilding things. Coordination is going to be a big problem. USAID and State, and now 50-some countries are involved, that’s got to be coordinated. Otherwise, we’re going to be building three schools in one block. We’re going to be buying horribly overpriced steel and cement and other products.

The second problem is, right now, we’re paying the salaries of all the Ukrainian civil servants, or most of them. And who’s paying them? USAID. And USAID is pumping money in, giving it to the Ukrainians to pay the salaries. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad idea, maybe they should do it. But in Afghanistan, DoD was involved in paying the salaries and, over 20 years, it could not come up with a system to guarantee that we were paying salaries of real Afghans. Well, have you heard anybody saying, “what’s the system they have in place to ensure that they’re not paying ghost Ukrainian civil servants, ghost Ukrainian police, ghost Ukrainian soldiers?”

That’s my concern, especially when we give money on budget, which means we don’t contract it, to buy a weapon or shoes or food. We actually give the money to the Ukrainians, and then it goes into the Ukrainian financial system, the Ukrainian agencies, and then they buy. And that’s my big concern because USAID overall has had a poor track record on ghosts and on oversight. State Department is even worse.

And then you have all these European countries involved. This is like herding cats. I feel sorry for the Ukrainians.

This article first appeared in Responsible Statecraft. Click here to go to the original.

RELATED VIDEO (Courtesy C-SPAN)

 

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