WASHINGTON — The top inspector general for Afghanistan accused the Biden administration on Wednesday of stonewalling his efforts to procure records about assistance to the country since the U.S. military evacuation, warning that American taxpayer dollars were probably ending up in the hands of the Taliban.
“I cannot assure this committee or the American taxpayer we are not currently funding the Taliban,” John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, or SIGAR, said at a House Oversight Committee hearing. “Nor can I assure you the Taliban are not diverting the money we are sending from the intended recipients.”
He ticked off ways in which Taliban fighters were “siphoning off” goods and funds entering Afghanistan, such as by diverting food assistance and by forcing groups to pay fees to operate in the country.
Mr. Sopko blamed weak oversight practices within the international organizations handling Afghan assistance, and what he called the “abject refusal” of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to allow oversight.
“We used to brief on a regular basis,” Mr. Sopko said of his prior engagements with the State Department, U.S.A.I.D. and the Pentagon, as he lamented a lack of access of records on what he said was over $8 billion in U.S. aid that had been provided to Afghanistan since the evacuation. “Since this administration came in, it’s been radio silence.”
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The Biden administration pushed back on the allegations, effectively accusing the inspector general of misrepresenting the extent to which the administration has accommodated his requests and presuming a broader mandate than he was afforded under the law.
“Since SIGAR’s inception, U.S.A.I.D. has consistently provided SIGAR responses to hundreds of questions, as well as thousands of pages of responsive documents, analyses, and spreadsheets describing dozens of programs that were part of the U.S. government’s reconstruction effort in Afghanistan,” said Jessica Jennings, a spokeswoman for U.S.A.I.D. “We are frequently and regularly working with SIGAR on their requests.”
A State Department spokesman said that U.S. reconstruction activities in Afghanistan — the centerpiece of Mr. Sopko’s jurisdiction — ceased after the Taliban took over the government in August 2021.
The hearing had been billed as a venue to scrutinize the Biden administration’s actions during the withdrawal, a focus that the panel’s top Democrat, Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, criticized as “absurdly narrow.”
Mr. Sopko’s allegations nonetheless inspired rare bipartisan outrage among the lawmakers.
“Why is it that he’s being blocked from doing the thing that he was legally charged by this Congress — and previous Congresses?” said Representative Byron Donalds, Republican of Florida.
“This issue of not enough accountability — I don’t know how any of us can defend that,” said Representative Kweisi Mfume, Democrat of Maryland.
Congress created the watchdog office in 2008, and Mr. Sopko was appointed by President Barack Obama to run it in 2012. Since then, he has repeatedly clashed with the various agencies of the federal government involved in Afghanistan.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Mr. Sopko listed a few recent highlights of that adversarial relationship. He complained that the Biden administration had turned down his requests for copies of documents related to the Doha agreement, a deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban that set the terms for the U.S. departure from Afghanistan.
He also charged that the State Department and U.S.A.I.D. had refused to answer “the simplest oversight questions we have,” such as identifying the organizations that have received American assistance for programs in Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal. Ms. Jennings called that assertion “inaccurate.”
His complaints stood in stark contrast to the testimony of the inspectors general that oversee the State Department, the Defense Department and U.S.A.I.D., who appeared alongside Mr. Sopko on Wednesday. Those officials told the committee that they had not had any issues with access to information.
The testimony came as multiple Republican-led committees in the House examine the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as the party takes aim at foreign assistance programs as it seeks to tighten the federal budget.
The Oversight Committee’s chairman, James R. Comer, Republican of Kentucky, hinted that assistance to Afghanistan also was not sacrosanct.
“The Biden administration is taking money out of the paychecks of American truckers, American teachers, American farmers, American builders and American soldiers and sending it to the same people who shot at those soldiers, who murdered those soldiers, until not long ago,” Mr. Comer said. “And the Biden administration has no interest in identifying the waste, fraud and abuse connected to Afghanistan.”
Mr. Sopko, for his part, clarified that his complaint was with his ability to conduct oversight over the funds being transferred to Afghanistan, not the assistance itself.
“I’m not opposed to humanitarian aid,” Mr. Sopko said. “If the purpose is to help the Afghan people, we have to have effective oversight to ensure the money goes to those people.”