US watchdog ‘cannot assure’ Afghanistan aid not going to Taliban

The chief of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has criticized a lack of transparency from US agencies, which he says makes it impossible to determine whether aid allocated to the people of Afghanistan is instead “currently funding the Taliban”.

During fiery testimony on Wednesday before the US House Oversight Committee, Special Inspector John Sopko accused the State Department and other agencies of failing to provide legally required information that would allow the watchdog to carry out its oversight duties.

SIGAR is tasked with overseeing approximately $8 billion that the US has “provided or otherwise made available” to the Afghan people.

Those funds, US officials said, are intended to circumvent the Taliban, which Washington still considers a “terrorist organization.” The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan weeks before the US completed a full troop withdrawal in August 2021.

“I cannot report to this committee or to the American people on the extent to which our government is funding the Taliban and other nefarious groups with US taxpayers’ money,” Sopko said in a prepared opening statement.

“We just don’t know as the State Department, USAID, UN and other agencies refuse to give us basic information that we or any other oversight agency need to ensure the safe management of taxpayers’ money.”

He further accused the State Department of “misappropriation and delay”, calling the lack of cooperation “unprecedented” in his 12 years in the position.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre pushed back the claims.

President Joe Biden’s administration has “consistently provided updates and information” on spending, she said.

That includes “thousands of pages of documents, analysis, spreadsheets and written responses to questions,” as well as congressional testimony and “hundreds of briefings to bipartisan members and their staff as well,” Jean-Pierre explained.

The hearing comes a day after Ramiz Alakbarov, United Nations Deputy Special Representative and Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, said the country “remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in 2023,” with 28 million people now dependent on aid to survive. to survive.

He added that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen by 35 percent in the past 18 months, with the cost of a basic food package rising by 30 percent and unemployment by 40 percent.

UN chief António Guterres has said he will convene a meeting of special envoys for Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, on May 1-2, which aims to “revive international engagement in Afghanistan”.

UN officials have also suggested that the meeting could include “baby steps” toward the international community formally recognizing the Taliban, albeit with conditions attached.

US aid to Afghanistan included $3.5 billion transferred from otherwise frozen funds from Afghan central banks to an international fund aimed at stabilizing the country’s economy, Sopko said.

He also listed $2 billion in humanitarian and development assistance 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 benefited from the aid, including by imposing customs and vendor levies on aid shipments entering the country.

Sopko also accused the Taliban of diverting money from groups it deems “hostile”, such as the Hazara’s ethnic minority, “and to groups they favor”.

Those findings were detailed in the latest SIGAR report also released on Wednesday.

Later during the hearing, Sopko added: “I have not seen a starving Taliban fighter on TV. They all seem to be fat, stupid and happy. I see a lot of starving Afghan children on TV. So I wonder where all that money is going.”

Still, he stressed that the full benefits the Taliban reaped from foreign aid remain unknown.

“When SIGAR State asked how much revenue the Taliban collect from the UN, NGOs or other groups that provide international aid, the shocking response from State was that it didn’t know,” he said.

“Likewise, the UN does not provide state or SIGAR detailed accounts of its expenditures, nor those of its partners. We believe that this lack of information makes it impossible to make informed decisions about the effectiveness of the program.”

The watchdog’s latest report also painted a grim picture of the status of pledges to relocate the tens of thousands of Afghans who collaborated with the US during the country’s two-decade occupation.

The latest figures show that 175,000 Afghans are waiting for the US government to process their Special Immigration Visa (SIV) or US refugee applications. With only about 20 percent of SIV applications already processed, the watchdog noted that the move could take decades to complete.

“At the current rate, it is estimated that it will take 31 years to relocate and resettle all SIV applicants,” the report said.

“The failure of the U.S. government to build a database of eligible Afghans has created an almost insurmountable burden for job applicants to obtain proof of service, forcing them to track down their supervisors from years before to get referrals. – and get employee letters from now-defunct companies.” report added.

On April 7, the Biden administration released a summary report on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, defending its decision to withdraw from the country.

The agencies involved in the withdrawal blamed the chaotic execution largely on decisions made by former President Donald Trump’s administration, including an overall lack of planning.

“Indeed, there were no such plans when President Biden took office, even with the agreed full withdrawal in just over three months,” the summary report said.