Biden admin clashes with Afghan IG as Republicans cook up grills

An under-the-radar fight between the Biden administration and an independent Afghan inspector general will soon be in the spotlight when Republicans take control of the House in January, with Republican leaders pledging to push back against what they call a Systematic “filibuster” by the State Department and other branches of the federal government.

House Republicans have vowed to convene oversight hearings as soon as the next Congress is sworn in. Much of the effort will focus on the administration’s handling of the precipitated and widely criticized U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and its aftermath and why, as critics claim no high-ranking official was dismissed as a result.

Republicans are also focused on an unusually bitter and public clash between the administration and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the government’s top watchdog in Afghanistan. Since its inception in 2008, SIGAR has consistently exposed the apparent waste, fraud, and mismanagement of American money.

Submitting SIGAR’s quarterly reports to Congress has long been a thorn in the side of both party administrations. Supporters say the inspector general provided a crucial window over the past 16 years into how American money was spent as Washington tried to rebuild Afghanistan, train its military and prop up its ill-fated government .

Despite the tensions between SIGAR and several administrations, the Inspector General’s investigators apparently always had access to the information they sought to assess.

That is no longer the case, SIGAR said, because the Biden administration refuses to provide detailed accounts of the roughly $1.1 billion in US aid to Afghanistan since the military pullout.

SIGAR “for the first time in its history is unable this quarter to provide Congress and the American people with a full account of these US government expenditures due to the non-cooperation of multiple US government agencies,” said the Inspector General in his latest quarterly report. in Congress. He pointed the finger at the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for freezing the watchdog.

The dispute appears to stem from differing interpretations of what constitutes the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan and, therefore, where SIGAR’s legal authority begins and ends. With the end of the 20-year US military and development mission in Afghanistan, according to the administration, SIGAR should also conclude its work.

“We have been engaged in back and forth for some time with SIGAR and fundamentally disagree with their assessment of what constitutes rebuilding Afghanistan,” a State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times.

“Our position is that with the exception of some specific funds, SIGAR’s statutory mandate is limited to funds available ‘for the reconstruction of Afghanistan’. Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the United States has ceased providing assistance for the purposes of rebuilding Afghanistan and is now focused on improving the immediate humanitarian situation in the country.

A USAID spokesperson echoed that stance with the argument that US funding for “reconstruction” in Afghanistan has ended.

“Nevertheless, the State Department and USAID provided SIGAR with written responses to dozens of questions, as well as thousands of pages of responsive documents, analysis, and spreadsheets describing dozens of programs that are part of of the U.S. government’s reconstruction effort in Afghanistan,” a USAID spokesperson said. “We work frequently and regularly with SIGAR as part of its statutory mandate.”

Bad blood between the watchdog and the departments it oversees is nothing new. In a raunchy commentary this week, former acting Pentagon comptroller Elaine McCusker, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called SIGAR “expensive irrelevance” that should be shut down immediately.

Noting SIGAR’s complaints in its latest quarterly report that USAID, the Treasury Department, and the State Department have severely limited cooperation or refused to work with SIGAR investigators, Ms. McCusker wrote, “I wonder why would that be? Perhaps because the United States no longer has a presence in Afghanistan to collect reliable detailed information. Perhaps because SIGAR wasted its staff time with requests for information for years, even before the shameful US exit from Afghanistan, with very diminishing results.

The Inspector General, she said, “repeatedly obscured the benefits he accrued with his pursuit tone and approach to releasing reports that seemed oddly destined to grab headlines rather than ‘to improve the use and accountability of taxpayers’ funds’.

SIGAR chief John Sopko has long been critical of what he called a lack of openness at the State Department and Defense Department about the true state of the conflict in Afghanistan and the cost to American taxpayers. He said in 2019 that US civilian and military leaders had “incited lies to Congress” about the war.

“The whole incentive is to show the success and ignore the failures,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “And when there’s too much failure, file it or don’t report it.”

The Oversight Office continued to publish reports and analysis on the US mission in Afghanistan. A report released this month sharply criticized the long record of the US-backed Afghan government and the efforts of the US and its allies to keep that government in power.

“The United States has sought to build stable, democratic, representative, gender-responsive, and accountable Afghan governance institutions,” the report says in its conclusion. “It failed.”

Fight against surveillance

For Republicans, putting Afghanistan back in the spotlight could have political benefits — though it will also serve as a reminder that it was President Trump, not President Biden, who signed an original peace deal with the Taliban in beginning of 2020 which fixed the American withdrawal. moving.

Mr. Biden’s personal approval polls were hit hard in the summer of 2021 when the US-backed Afghan government collapsed and the US and its allies retreated hastily and in a disorganized way. The president’s approval ratings never fully recovered.

“I think the political points that Republicans will try to score with this survey will go to the Republican base and put it back on the radar of some independent voters,” said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

“Even if that was also Trump’s plan, they will criticize Biden’s handling of the withdrawal and attempt to use it to question Biden’s judgment more broadly and his fitness to serve as commander-in-chief.” , did he declare.

The rhetorical squabbles between the administration and SIGAR have been on Republicans’ radar for months, but without scrutiny from either house of Congress, their power to address it has been limited.

This will change in January. Republicans on major committees signaled they were preparing to push the administration for more information, and they suggested they could use congressional subpoena powers if necessary.

Republicans on the House Foreign Relations Committee told The Times they view the lack of cooperation with SIGAR as a “significant issue” and said the Biden administration appeared concerned that continued oversight of SIGAR could ” uncover information that could be detrimental” to white people. Accommodation.

This information could reveal mismanagement, fraud or waste involving the $1.1 billion in US humanitarian aid, they said, or in the worst case it could show that some of the money finds itself indirectly in the hands of the Taliban or their allies.

State Department and USAID officials insist they are cooperating with other watchdogs that track the money, including congressional committees and inspectors general from both agencies.

Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee also have their eye on the administration’s fight with SIGAR. In a Nov. 7 letter to Mr. Sopko, Republicans on the steering committee requested a trove of documents about SIGAR’s communications with the administration.

“SIGAR is critically important in considering whole-of-government issues regarding U.S. engagements in Afghanistan,” Representatives James Comer of Kentucky and Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin said in the letter. They are the ranking Republicans on the Oversight Committee and its National Security Subcommittee, respectively.

“Historically, [the State Department] and USAID honored SIGAR’s mission,” they wrote. “Their current lack of cooperation with SIGAR – following the deadly US withdrawal from Afghanistan – is alarming. Without SIGAR’s oversight, the American people lack answers about how taxpayers’ money was and [continue] to use and what impact the withdrawal has had on our national security.

The dispute is only one part of a much larger problem. Republicans said they would also push the administration for answers about the planning for the US withdrawal and why military and intelligence assessments have done so poorly in estimating how long the Afghan government will survive as US combat forces were withdrawing.

“There has been an extensive pattern of stonewalling by the Biden administration every time we have attempted to obtain information about the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and incoming Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman. The temperature. “At the next Congress, I can guarantee that our committee will no longer sit idly by while our Section 1 oversight authority is ignored.”


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