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Accountability in War - and Peace | Commentary

As we withdraw our troops, but not our tax dollars, from Afghanistan, we are poised to repeat some of the mistakes we made in Iraq. In honor of already too-steep sacrifice made in Afghanistan, it is time to pay attention to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, who acts, as it were, as a smoke alarm installed on behalf of American taxpayers.

Your right to know where your money goes, and what your government does in your name, often depends on champions within government. In Afghanistan, the role of that champion is played by John Sopko, appointed as SIGAR by the president in July 2012 to be the public’s eyes on the ground.

As described in testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, the SIGAR’s job is to make sure American money — the nearly $93 billion appropriated to Afghanistan reconstruction since 2002 — isn’t misused.

The SIGAR’s audits are responsible for uncovering possible fraud that left U.S. troops more vulnerable to improvised explosive devices on the side of roads, a lack of oversight to make sure the United States was not purchasing oil from Iran, and more. A SIGAR report published in April warned that sloppy contracting regulations could very well lead to the United States inadvertently giving resources to terrorists and insurgents.

The ability of the SIGAR’s inspectors to carry out its mission relies on military protection and transport to reach reconstruction projects far flung from Kabul. As the number of troops we have in the country declines, the SIGAR’s ability to conduct such investigations is becoming increasingly harder. The need for such investigations, however, only increases as we begin to ramp up the amount of U.S. tax dollars spent on reconstruction.

According to the SIGAR’s April 2013 testimony before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, it is already seeing the effects of the withdrawal of U.S. troops: SIGAR was not able to inspect 38 buildings worth approximately $72 million located in a part of Afghanistan deemed “unsafe” to visit, and the office has been notified that its ability to move securely around Kabul will be reduced.

Examples like these are likely to accumulate. In his Oct. 29 testimony, Sopko noted that “it is likely that less than a quarter of Afghanistan — mostly areas around cities and major bases — will be accessible to U.S. civilian oversight personnel by the end of the transition.”

The answer to making sure U.S. taxpayer dollars are not wasted, clearly, is not to leave large numbers of troops there forever. In testimony, the SIGAR describes as “helpful, but not perfect” some of the tools, such as using local staff for inspections and utilizing geospatial imagery, it is trying to put in place to ensure there is still accountability once the eyes are no longer on the ground.

The smoke alarm is going off, but the batteries are rapidly losing power and we don’t seem to have a plan to respond, nor a plan to learn from the problems identified by the SIGAR, or, indeed the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen.

One of the lessons he pointed out in his March 2013 final report is that we need to “plan in advance, plan comprehensively and in an integrated fashion, and have backup plans ready to go.”

So far, there is no indication that we are doing any of that, even though accountability to the American public is at stake.

The American public has the right to know what is done in its name and with its tax dollars. We must ensure that the SIGAR and future special inspectors general can prevent waste, fraud and corruption. The alarm is going off. Will we support oversight before the smoke leads to fire with no one there to extinguish it? Will we draw the lessons that oversight and accountability can’t be withdrawn with our troops and plan for the inevitable next time?

The president and Congress must support the SIGAR and the public in facing this challenge to oversight capabilities. It is beyond time to finally have a comprehensive plan for oversight and accountability not just for the war, but for the peace. Investing resources in oversight prevents new crises from occurring and supports the public’s right to know what is done in their name. Effective oversight and open government go hand in hand. As Sopko said in February, “At the end of the day, the American people need to know what the U.S. reconstruction effort has accomplished in Afghanistan.” We couldn’t agree more.

Patrice McDermott is executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, and author of “Who Needs to Know? The State of Public Access to Federal Government Information.”

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