By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON, June 9 (Reuters) - The United States has wasted billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan over the past decade, and now a renewed Taliban insurgency is threatening the gains that have been made, the U.S government's top watchdog on Afghanistan said.
"The bottom line is too much has been wasted in Afghanistan. Too much money was spent in too small a country with too little oversight," John Sopko told Reuters. "And if the security situation continues to deteriorate, even areas where money was spent wisely and gains were made, could be jeopardized."
The nearly $113 billion Congress has appropriated for reconstruction since 2001, when U.S.-led forces invaded the country and toppled the Taliban regime, has long been plagued by corruption, waste and mismanagement, according to a series of reports from Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Appointed by President Barack Obama, Sopko has led the watchdog agency for nearly four years. He said the planned drawdown of U.S. troops could compound the reconstruction effort's problems and add to the amount that already has been wasted, which he estimated is in the billions of dollars.
According to Sopko's latest report, issued in April, U.S. reconstruction funding for Afghanistan includes projects for programs to combat the drug trade, build electric power lines, develop new industries, improve the banking and legal systems and modernize agriculture, which the report says "employs more than 50 percent of the labor force".
While he declined to comment on how many American troops he thinks should remain in Afghanistan, his new warning could increase the pressure on Obama to reconsider his timeline for reducing the U.S. force in Afghanistan from about 9,800 today to 5,500 by the time he leaves office in January.
Last month, the Afghan Taliban selected Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as their new leader after the United States killed their former chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a drone strike in Pakistan. The Taliban are making steady battlefield gains against Afghan security forces and Akhundzada has vowed, in an audio recording, that there will be no return to peace talks.
Last week, more than a dozen retired U.S. generals and diplomats urged Obama to maintain the current level of troops in Afghanistan, warning that a reduction would undercut the morale of Afghan government forces and bolster the Taliban.
Nearly $951 million - less than one percent - of the aid money has been saved in "restitution, fines, forfeitures, recoveries, savings, civil settlements," and between 2015 and 2016, 107 people and companies have been barred from doing business with the U.S government for contractor misconduct, Sopko's office said.
"Our agency wasn't created until half the money or more was spent," Sopko said.
About 60 percent of the $113 billion Congress has appropriated has gone to train and equip Afghan security forces. However, how effectively Afghan forces can fight the Taliban remains a big question, Sopko said, and if the security situation deteriorates further, it could threaten the ability of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government to provide services to citizens.
"If we can't get out there ... we can't see if the troops are getting shoes, or getting bullets, or getting grenades, or getting paid, and the security will have an impact on that," Sopko said.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
In May, a Brookings Institution report cited as evidence of greater insecurity a rise in deaths among both civilians and Afghan security forces, as well as persistent deficiencies in the army and police, including retention and support functions.
Pentagon officials said that while Afghan forces have made steady progress, there is room for improvement.
"Obviously in a perfect world we would love to see them further along, you know, than perhaps (what) they demonstrated last year," said U.S. Army spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland.
Large portions of Afghanistan's territory, including the provincial capital of Kunduz and multiple districts of Helmand province, have fallen, at times briefly, to the Taliban over the past year and a half, and many other districts and provinces are under Taliban control.
Still, U.S. reconstruction money has helped Afghanistan make some strides in human development, according to experts and former senior U.S. officials, and the U.S. Agency for International Development said it is not concerned about the planned drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
James Dobbins, the State Department special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2014, said despite some humanitarian gains in Afghanistan, the invasion has yet to achieve its objective, despite the billions of dollars spent.
"We went into Afghanistan to make it more peaceful, and so far we haven't succeeded," Dobbins said.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by John Walcott and Howard Goller)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.