SIGAR chief tells US lawmakers he cannot assure American aid is ‘not currently funding the Taliban’

The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, SIGAR, on Wednesday, told the US Congress that he cannot say with certainty that United States aid to Afghanistan is “not currently funding the Taliban.”

“While I agree, and we all agree Afghanistan faces a dire humanitarian and economic situation, it is critical that our assistance not be diverted by the Taliban,” SIGAR chief John Sopko said as he testified before the US House Oversight Committee. “Unfortunately, as I sit here today, I cannot assure this committee or the American taxpayer we are not currently funding the Taliban.”

“Nor can I assure you that the Taliban are not diverting the money we are sending from the intended recipients, which are the poor Afghan people,” Sopko added.

The SIGAR chief meanwhile asked the US Congress for help in getting the Biden administration to cooperate with its investigations in the wake of the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s takeover of the country.

Sopko mentioned its issues with getting access to information and interviews.

Last summer, Sopko criticized the State Department and US Agency for International Development for “sudden refusal to cooperate,” which they pushed back on.

“We need your help to stop this obfuscation and delay” from the State Department and, to a lesser extent, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Sopko testified.

“As I’m sure my fellow inspectors general would agree, we cannot abide a situation in which agencies are allowed to pick and choose what information an IG gets or who an IG can interview or what an IG may report on. If permitted to continue, it will end SIGAR’s work in Afghanistan, but also Congress’ access to independent and credible oversight of any administration,” he said.

While US aid continues to flow to Afghanistan, “unfortunately so do many of the problems that SIGAR has identified over the past decade, including problems that led to the collapse of the Afghan government and security forces,” which is compounded by the lack of full cooperation from the agencies, Sopko said in his prepared statement.

He said that as a result, the office “on the extent to which our government may be funding the Taliban and other nefarious groups with U.S. taxpayer dollars.”

“More troubling, State and USAID have instructed their employees not to talk to SIGAR, and in one recent instance, State told one of its contractors not to participate in a SIGAR audit,” Sopko added in his statement.

The SIGAR chief’s concerns were echoed in his office’s fifth high-risk list released in conjunction with the hearing. He also noted in his prepared statement that the office has previously had issues getting information from the Pentagon.

“SIGAR’s audits are an important part of Afghanistan-related oversight,” said a spokesperson for the State Department as quoted by US media. “We have raised questions related to SIGAR’s jurisdiction with respect to activities after August 2021,” which “remain unresolved,” said the spokesperson.

“Nonetheless, the Department and USAID have provided SIGAR written responses to dozens of questions, as well as thousands of pages of responsive documents, analyses, and spreadsheets describing dozens of programs that were part of the US government’s reconstruction effort in Afghanistan,” said the State Department spokesperson as quoted by Government Executive. “We are frequently, regularly working with SIGAR within the scope of its statutory mandate.”

When asked about the alleged stonewalling during the briefing on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “The administration has consistently provided updates and information and including…thousands of pages of documents, analysis, spreadsheets and written responses to questions, hundreds of briefings to bipartisan members and also their staff, public congressional testimony by senior officials all while consistently providing updates and information to numerous inspectors general.”

Meanwhile, Republicans on the committee have publicly raised concerns about the issue for a while now.

“This administration not only continues to provide excuses for the self-inflicted humanitarian and national security catastrophe, but senior officials are actively obstructing meaningful congressional oversight,” said James Comer, chair of the oversight committee.

Kweisi Mfume, ranking member of the committee’s panel on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce, addressing Sopko, said that Congress and particularly, Democrats on the oversight committee in the previous session of Congress, “repeatedly, encouraged and pushed agencies to cooperate with SIGAR,” so he was frustrated to hear the agencies haven’t given their full cooperation.

Underscoring what Jamie Raskin, ranking member, said earlier in the hearing, “It’s the intention of this committee to always support the work of inspectors general; if we don’t do that then it’s pretty difficult for us to move forward with any sense of legitimacy,” Mfume added.

Amid some partisan swipes during the hearing, members from both parties discussed possibly issuing a joint letter of support for the IG community.

The State, USAID, and Defense IGs––also present at the hearing––testified they are not having access issues with the executive branch.

This comes after the Biden administration on April 10 released a report on the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. The chaos was blamed on Trump, whose administration had signed the Doha agreement with the Taliban in 2020, without input from US allies nor the government of Afghanistan at the time.