The head of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has condemned the US agency’s lack of transparency, which he says makes it impossible to determine whether aid allocated to the Afghan people is “currently funding the Taliban”.
In heated testimony before the U.S. House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, special inspector John Sopko accused the State Department and other agencies of failing to provide the information required by law to allow regulators to carry out their oversight duties.
SIGAR oversees approximately $8 billion that the US “provides or otherwise provides” to the Afghan people.
U.S. officials said the funds were intended to evade the Taliban, which Washington still considers a “terrorist organization.” The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan weeks before the US completes its full withdrawal in August 2021.
“I cannot report to this committee or the American people on the extent to which our government may be funding the Taliban and other nefarious groups with American taxpayer dollars,” Sopko said in a prepared opening statement.
“We simply don’t know because the State Department, USAID, the United Nations and others refuse to give us the basic information that we or any other watchdog needs to ensure the safe management of tax dollars.”
He further accused the State Department of “obfuscation and delay,” saying the lack of cooperation was “unprecedented” during his 12 years in the job.
White House spokeswoman Karin Jean-Pierre disputed that claim.
President Joe Biden’s administration “has been providing updates and information on spending,” she said.
Jean-Pierre explained that this included “thousands of pages of documents, analyses, spreadsheets and written responses to questions,” as well as congressional testimony and “hundreds of briefings to members of both parties and their staff.”
The hearing came a day after Ramiz Alakbarov, deputy UN special representative and humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, said the country “remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis through 2023” Yes, 28 million people currently depend on assistance to survive.
He added that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen by 35 percent in the past 18 months, the cost of the basic food basket has increased by 30 percent and unemployment has increased by 40 percent.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he would convene a meeting of special envoys for Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, on May 1-2, aimed at “reviving international engagement”.
UN officials also suggested that the meeting could include a “small step” toward formal international recognition of the Taliban, albeit with strings attached.
Sopko said the U.S. aid to Afghanistan included $3.5 billion diverted from previously frozen Afghan central bank funds to international funds aimed at stabilizing the country’s economy.
He also cited $2 billion in humanitarian and development aid and another $2.8 billion from the Defense Department to support the transportation, housing and food needs of Afghan allies evacuated from the country.
He added that it was “clear” from SIGAR’s work that the Taliban was benefiting from the aid, including the imposition of duties and vendor fees on aid shipments entering the country.
Sopko also accused the Taliban of diverting funds from groups it “considers hostile,” such as the Hazara minority, “to groups they support.”
The latest SIGAR report, also released Wednesday, details the findings.
Later in the hearing, Sopko added: “I haven’t seen starving Taliban fighters on TV. They all seem to be fat, stupid and happy. I’ve seen a lot of starving Afghan children on TV. So I wonder where all this money is going.”
He stressed, however, that the full extent of the Taliban’s benefits from foreign aid remains unknown.
“When SIGAR asked the state how much income the Taliban received from the United Nations, NGOs or other groups that provided international aid, it was shocking that the state responded that it did not know,” he said.
“Similarly, the UN does not provide countries or SIGAR with detailed accounts of its expenditures, nor that of its partners. In our view, this lack of information prevents informed decisions on program effectiveness from being made.”
The watchdog’s latest report also paints a grim picture of the status of pledges to resettle tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with the United States during its two-year occupation of the country.
The latest figures show that 175,000 Afghans are waiting for the US government to process their Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) or US refugee claims. With only about 20 percent of SIV applications processed, the regulator noted that it could take decades to complete the relocation.
“According to one estimate, at the current pace, it will take 31 years to relocate and resettle all SIV applicants,” the report said.
“The failure of the U.S. government to create a database of eligible Afghans places an almost insurmountable burden on applicants to obtain evidence of their service, requiring them to track down years-old supervisors for references and human resources from now-defunct companies letter,” the report added.
On April 7, the Biden administration released a summary report on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, justifying the decision to withdraw troops.
Agencies involved in the withdrawal have largely blamed the chaos of its execution on decisions made by former President Donald Trump’s administration, including an overall lack of planning.
“In fact, President Biden came into office with no such plans, even with the full withdrawal agreed upon three months later,” the summary report said.