The U.S. still needs the Afghanistan watchdog organization despite recent Biden administration efforts to thwart ongoing investigations into the White House’s military withdrawal and ongoing assistance to the country, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The watchdog’s latest quarterly report alleged the Biden administration agencies refused to comply with requests for information, threatening to nullify the organization’s mission to provide oversight of past and ongoing reconstruction projects.
However, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, will remain vital until the U.S. ceases sending aid to the Taliban-controlled country, experts told the DCNF.
“The Biden administration is attempting to bypass SIGAR, without a doubt,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Bill Roggio told the DCNF, adding that Biden’s ongoing push to reengage with Afghanistan is “politically unpopular, so it’s tempting to hide.”
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The administration is “invested in continuing to cover up the true costs of their disastrous withdrawal last year. This could be an important stepping off point for hearings and investigations by the new Congress,” Simone Ledeen, former senior U.S. Treasury representative to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said to the DCNF.
Executive agencies, particularly the Treasury Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), refused to provide requested documents related to $1.1 billion in humanitarian aid distributed to Afghanistan since the Biden administration’s withdrawal in Aug. 2021, SIGAR claimed in the report. The State Department complied with a limited number of requests, concealing key details.
Congress authorized SIGAR in 2008 to account for waste, fraud and abuse relating to millions in aid sent to rebuild Afghan society during the U.S.’ 20-year war against the Taliban.
The executive agencies’ decision to obstruct the desired information release violates SIGAR’s congressional mandate and undermines the American people’s interests, watchdog head John Sopko said in the preface to the report.
The agencies are “only going to release information that makes them look good, and they’re going to hide information that they don’t like,” Daniel Davis, a researcher at Defense Priorities who served in Afghanistan and blew the whistle on senior military leaders’ misrepresentation of the war’s progress, told the DCNF. “No matter what the reality was, the message to all the American people would get would be, ‘This is great, it’s going good, everything’s working and it’s a success,’ and we’ll have no way to independently verify that.”
Top Republican lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee on Monday called on SIGAR to shed further light on State Department and USAID obstruction efforts in a letter. Among other things, the lawmakers requested SIGAR come forth with comments it claimed to have received from a State Department official that the agency prohibited staff from communicating with investigators without approval from the State Department’s legal advisers.
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“The Biden Administration is seeking to avoid transparency, and therefore, accountability for its deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Ranking Member James Comer and National Security Subcommittee head Glenn Grothman wrote in the letter.
“The Biden Administration’s ongoing obstruction is unacceptable and potentially illegal,” the lawmakers added.
SIGAR is complying with the requests made in the letter, a SIGAR spokesperson told the DCNF.
“Treasury has complied with all legal requirements and shared information with SIGAR,” a Treasury Department spokesperson told the DCNF.
A USAID spokesperson argued that any donations since fall outside the realm of “reconstruction” assistance SIGAR was stood up to monitor.
“Nonetheless, since August, USAID has continued to cooperate and provide information to SIGAR, with upwards of 25 evaluations, audits and other engagements,” the spokesperson said.
As part of the 2022 budget process, SIGAR requested an expansion of its mandate from “reconstruction” to “reconstruction, humanitarian, and other development assistance” for Afghanistan, a State Department spokesperson told the DCNF.
“That expansion has not been enacted into law and, as such, activities involving humanitarian and development assistance remain outside SIGAR’s current mandate,” the spokesperson said.
Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft who served in Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine, told the DCNF he did not believe the Biden administration had pressed on an organized campaign to nullify SIGAR; however, “the bottom line is that institutions don’t like to be held accountable, but the American people deserve oversight.”
“I’m sure you can keep working and find productive ways to spend the taxpayer dollar and find out about the stuff and put it on paper for a long time to come. The problem is not so much [Sopko] or the statute or his mission; it’s the fact that nobody really cares,” Gil Barndollar, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities who also deployed to Afghanistan as a Marine, told the DCNF.
Barndollar said he harbored concerns the Republicans in Congress, particularly if they achieve a majority in either house, will wield SIGAR’s post-withdrawal findings to stir up opposition to the Biden administration.
Congress also created the Afghanistan War Commission in 2021, a bipartisan coalition tasked to review the decisions in the 20 years leading up to the Afghanistan withdrawal, legislated through the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
However, SIGAR should continue to hold the administration accountable as long as the U.S. is contributing financially to Afghanistan, multiple experts told the DCNF.
“I think there is still a lot for SIGAR to dig into,” said Weinstein. “Shutting it down now would be akin to sweeping a lot of waste, incompetence, and corruption under the rug. Furthermore, it is still looking into current events.”
The Biden administration plans to return billions in frozen assets through a special Swiss-based “Afghan Fund” for eventual transfer to the Afghan Central Bank, according to a joint statement from the U.S. Treasury Department and State Department. Officials have expressed concern the Taliban would seize the funds the U.S. says belong to the Afghan people.
SIGAR is “vitally important because that’s our only advocate, if you will, to find out what the hell’s going on” with U.S. aid to Afghanistan, said Davis.
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