An accelerating U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this year and next will raise the risk of ill-advised spending of billions in U.S. funds for the country's rebuilding, the top auditor of U.S. reconstruction spending said Wednesday.
John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, told the House Oversight Committee that civilians monitoring these projects are allowed to work only within a "safe zone, or bubble" limited to areas within about a 20-minute helicopter flight to a facility that can provide emergency medical care.
"As our U.S. troops continue to withdraw, the amount of territory in Afghanistan that falls outside of the bubble will increase," Sopko said. "Accordingly, the amount of programs and number of projects that can be monitored and overseen by U.S. personnel will decrease."
President Barack Obama announced Tuesday in his State of the Union speech that 34,000 U.S. troops will come home from Afghanistan over the coming year, with an unspecified additional number leaving in 2014. There currently are about 66,000 U.S. troops there. The combat mission is due to end at the end of 2014.
Obama's goal is to have Afghan forces sufficiently trained and equipped to handle security on their own by then.
Sopko said $20 billion in reconstruction money appropriated by the Congress has not yet been spent. He said security issues and Afghan government corruption make it problematic that the money will be used wisely.
He said his auditors already have encountered limitations on their work due to security restrictions. Recently in northern Afghanistan his organization was prevented from visiting an area because it was deemed too dangerous, he said. "As a result, 38 projects and over $72 million in U.S. taxpayer money is beyond our inspection."
Acknowledging that his organization does not have a firm grasp on the amount of U.S. money that could be at risk in the next few years in Afghanistan, Sopko said he will soon request that the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies tell him the status of each of their Afghan reconstruction projects and how many more they plan to start in the months ahead.
The projects that are still on the drawing board could commit billions in additional U.S. funds, Sopko said. His conversations with various agency leaders suggested to him that they are seized with a "desire to get the money pumped out before the clock runs out," he said, referring to Obama's timetable for ending the war.
Sopko said he is concerned about the prospect for success of Washington's two main aims in Afghanistan: transferring full responsibility for Afghan security to Afghan forces, and the simultaneous effort to improve the Afghan government's ability to manage the country's reconstruction during that transition and beyond.
"I think it is fair to say that the success or failure of our entire 10-year engagement in Afghanistan is teetering on whether these two interrelated and very important and ambitious goals can be met," he said.
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