By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, July 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. Army has refused to bar 43 individuals or companies from getting U.S. contracts in Afghanistan despite information that they support the Taliban or other enemies of U.S. forces, a government watchdog said on Tuesday.
John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said he was concerned by the Army's refusal to follow his office's recommendations to prevent alleged supporters of the Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda from getting or keeping U.S. government contracts.
"I am deeply troubled that the U.S. military can pursue, attack and even kill terrorists and their supporters, but that some in the U.S. government believe we cannot prevent these same people from receiving a government contract," Sopko wrote in an introduction to his office's quarterly report on the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani Network is an Islamist insurgent group that operates on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The report said SIGAR referred 43 contractors' cases - most of them Afghans - to the U.S. Army for suspension or debarment, but all were rejected, "despite detailed supporting information demonstrating that these individuals and entities are providing material support to the insurgency in Afghanistan."
"In other words, they may be enemies of the United States, but that is not enough to keep them from getting government contracts," the quarterly report said.
A U.S. Army spokesman asked to comment on the report said the evidence submitted by SIGAR was based in part on anonymous sources and Commerce Department findings about the companies, and was insufficient to bar the contractors.
"The Army Procurement Fraud Branch did receive and review the 43 recommendations late last year, but the report did not include enough supporting evidence to initiate suspension and debarment under Federal Acquisition Regulations," said Matthew Bourke, an Army spokesman.
None of the contractors recommended for suspension or debarment were identified in the SIGAR report, nor did it provide details of their contractor work. SIGAR officials said that in excess of $150 million was involved, and that more than 80 percent of the contractors were Afghan entities; the rest were from the region.
SIGAR routinely refers individuals and companies for suspension or debarment from U.S. contracts based on evidence of misconduct such as theft from U.S. forces or acceptance of bribes. Such referrals have resulted in a total of 59 suspensions and 68 final debarments since 2008, the quarterly report said.
$100 BILLION IN AID
U.S. reconstruction aid to Afghanistan is approaching $100 billion after more than a decade of war. Much of this money has gone to train Afghan military forces. Federal agencies have asked Congress to approve more than $10.7 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction programs in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
A federal law aims to prevent militants from getting U.S. contract money from the Defense Department. But SIGAR said in an April report that weaknesses in the way it was being administered meant millions of contracting dollars were still at risk of being diverted to forces that want to harm the U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, Congress may want to consider extending the law to include contracts with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, SIGAR said in a separate report this week.
Sopko, who has held his position for a year, has been a skeptic of U.S. assistance to Afghanistan. He said in February that Washington should reconsider whether to spend more on reconstruction aid there, citing Afghanistan's corruption and inability to manage projects as U.S. troops withdraw.
The United States and its NATO allies are committed to wrapping up the international combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The Obama administration is in negotiations with the Afghan government about leaving behind a small residual force to conduct training, support and counter-terror operations. (Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Philip Barbara)
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