SIGAR’s Public Diplomacy

In 2008, Congress created the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in order to oversee approximately $132.49 billion that the United States has invested in Afghanistan reconstruction. As a special inspector general office, SIGAR is responsible for conducting audits and investigations that “promote efficiency and effectiveness of reconstruction programs and detect and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.” Under this authority, SIGAR releases Quarterly Reports, detailing audits and investigations, and Lessons Learned Reports, studying systemic issues with and lessons to be learned from the US experience in Afghanistan. The current Inspector General (IG) of SIGAR, John Sopko, frequently speaks with outside groups about SIGAR’s mission and its current strengths and weaknesses.

Over the course of 2019, Mr. Sopko has given seven official speeches to a range of audiences, including the US Naval Academy, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, Middle East Conference, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (in July and March), the Center for International Private Enterprise, NATO, and the US Institute of Peace. The topics of these speeches varied, but there are some common themes. Most importantly, the speeches typically outline the role of SIGAR and stress the value of  independent oversight to the success of Afghanistan reconstruction. SIGAR is unique in its structure because it does not belong inside any another agency. Instead, it is a wholly independent entity with oversight over all agencies involved in Afghanistan reconstruction. Mr. Sopko begins each speech with this background, setting the stage for the rest of the speech of the importance of the role that SIGAR plays in government oversight of the Afghanistan War.

In two speeches, Mr. Sopko addressed routine audits and investigations conducted by SIGAR, and the role they play in SIGAR: the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners Middle East Conference and the Center for International Private Enterprise. Auditing and investigating are important functions of IG offices, and at SIGAR they hold those who spend US funding in Afghanistan accountable. At the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners Middle East Conference, Mr. Sopko spoke about the challenges of detecting fraud and abuse in dangerous environments. While major difficulties arose from security concerns, SIGAR still performed effective oversight by “following the money.” In some cases, SIGAR detected large embezzlement schemes solely from combing through funding documents and records at its D.C. office. At the Center for International Private Enterprise, Mr. Sopko spoke on SIGAR’s anti-corruption efforts. The office’s auditing and investigation process has brought to light several corruption issues, such as inflation of Afghanistan military and police numbers so officials could pocket extra money designated for payment to personnel. SIGAR’s work auditing the Afghan military and police revealed corruption practices and led to reform efforts in these areas.

Five of the speeches addressed the agency’s Lessons Learned reports: to the US Naval Academy, Center for Strategic and International Studies (July and March), NATO, and US Institute of Peace. The Lessons Learned reports are a very important example of SIGAR’s performance accountability[1] function. Through these reports, SIGAR sets specific goals for increasing efficiency and evaluates big picture themes of the United States’s involvement in Afghanistan. The speech delivered at the US Naval Academy focused on the importance of SIGAR’s Lessons Learned reports. Mr. Sopko explained that SIGAR was in the best position to perform long-term studies because of the agency’s ability to stay in Afghanistan (and stay on projects) longer than military personnel. Mr. Sopko also made the important distinction of outputs with successful outcomes. While outputs may be frequent, they are not always successful. Lessons Learned reports ensure that agencies strive for successful outcomes monitoring the progress of the effort to achieve desired goals. At both the March and July Center for Strategic and International Studies speeches, Mr. Sopko spoke on different Lessons Learned reports. In March, he addressed the continued need for investment in Afghanistan — particularly in reintegration and protection for women (both Lessons Learned report topics). In the July speech, Mr. Sopko addressed the benefits and challenges of divided responsibilities. In his speech to NATO, Mr. Sopko dove deep into the “Divide Responsibilities” report and informed NATO of areas in which the mission in Afghanistan could be improved. Lastly, at the US Institute of Peace, Mr. Sopko spoke on the most recent Lessons Learned report addressing combatant reintegration.  

Overall, these speeches fulfill the important IG value of transparency. Transparency builds public confidence in the work that the government does on a daily basis, and ensures the public that when things go wrong, those who are responsible are held accountable. Although, SIGAR reports are available online, making and publishing speeches provides both an inside look at the oversight process and goals as well as the opportunity to engage in dialogue with and ask questions to the IG himself. After eighteen years, there is little support for the war and a large amount of the public supports troop withdrawal. As a result, transparency is important to assure the public that their taxes are put to effective use.

Interaction with the public is vital to effective work by any IG, perhaps even more so when the work overseen is so complicated and unpopular. The public has an important interest in its government’s actions in Afghanistan, and SIGAR has a vital role to play in safeguarding those interests. Mr. Sopko’s public appearances provide some insight into how he prioritizes the work of his office and the key lessons learned from that work.

[1] Light, Paul C. Monitoring Government: Inspectors General and the Search for Accountability. Brookings Institution, Chapter 1, 1993.