It’s time to sunset SIGAR
After 9/11, the Bush Administration as well, as both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, knew we would be in Afghanistan for a long time. The United States has since maintained a significant military presence in the country for 18 years, and will continue to remain in Afghanistan in a variety of ways for an extended period of time. The Bush Administration and the Congress set up the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to conduct audits of projects, inspections and generally to prevent abuse, corruption, and fraud. SIGAR was meant to operate as an independent agency even though the State Department, USAID and the Department of Defense each have very large Inspectors General operations. Given the major reduction in the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan, now would be the time to wind down SIGAR and let the very large and very able Inspectors General of the relevant departments take over existing SIGAR assignments. Other functions could be given to the General Accounting Office.
Given the duplication of effort, SIGAR is a massive waste of taxpayer money and a major source of duplication of effort. Now would be the time to sunset SIGAR.
Over the last five years, the U.S. government has radically decreased its civilian spending and military footprint in Afghanistan. By contrast, SIGAR has not wound down. It has maintained spending at the same amount, in spite of dramatic decreases in U.S. assistance. SIGAR’s operating budget is $54.9 million for one country — Afghanistan. USAID’s Inspector General for the entire world has a budget of $72.8 million.
In addition to its operating costs, SIGAR has maintained the same number of staff since its inception, even as the U.S. has drastically cuts its footprint of soldiers, diplomats and development workers. The U.S. direct hires at SIGAR rarely, if ever, physically see projects in the field for audits and findings because they are restricted to the U.S. embassy or the Green Zone in Kabul. SIGAR’s overly large presence impacts the U.S. embassy security posture. SIGAR personnel cannot be reduced by the U.S. ambassador even though the U.S. ambassador is being asked to reduce the number of U.S. direct employees as part of drawing down civilian personnel.
Strategically, the Trump Administration is looking to reduce the U.S presence in Afghanistan even further in the year ahead, by as much as 50 percent by 2020. This reduction in presence and funding is another reason the U.S. Congress and OMB should zero out SIGAR.
The Department of Defense, Department of State, and USAID all have capable Inspectors General who are charged with preventing and detecting waste, fraud, and abuse. These IGs have seen their remit undermined for more than a decade by such a large and unwieldy SIGAR operation. Much of SIGAR’s role could also be easily replaced by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is tasked with overseeing auditing and various investigative projects for Congress.
Existing Inspectors General at State and USAID can easily manage that important and prospective oversight role for civilian programs in Afghanistan. It is important to recognize that the US government is spending large amounts of American tax payer dollars on important U.S. foreign policy and national security priorities in Jordan, Nigeria, Kenya, and Egypt, yet we don’t have a “Special Inspector General” established for those countries.
In 2018, we provided more than $1 billion in foreign aid Jordan, $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel, and $1.3 billion to Egypt, and none of these countries have “Special Inspectors General.” There is no reason for the U.S. to be spending $54 million a year on SIGAR any longer.
We should look to Iraq as an example of how to sunset SIGAR. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) wound down in 2013 after the $52 billion reconstruction program in Iraq was wound down. SIGAR should follow the example of SIGIR, spending the last year of its operations producing a conclusive final report for U.S. legislators.
As I’ve written before, we should be on a downward but responsible glide path in Afghanistan assistance. We are hopeful for a possible peace deal with the Taliban, but should that arise there will be limited new U.S. funding required — and already obligated assistance funds could be repurposed to support a peace deal. We would burden share with the Afghan government and our allies to pay for the peace. Challenges to political and security stability will continue, and smart repurposing of funds will ensure U.S. interests are protected in Afghanistan.
Republicans in Congress often talk about the need for things to sunset — one of the most difficult things to accomplish in government. It is time to “sunset” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. We should thank John Sopko for his service and move expeditiously to “zero out” SIGAR’s funding by the end of FY 2019.
Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.