The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) rendered what could be the final verdict on the Pentagon’s controversial Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (Task Force). On Tuesday, the watchdog released the results of a comprehensive performance audit of Task Force programs and activities in Afghanistan. It found “mixed results, waste, and unsustained projects” that cost U.S. taxpayers more than $675 million.
Readers of our blog are probably familiar with the Task Force, a Department of Defense (DoD) office that carried out economic development projects in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2014. The office achieved notoriety in 2015 for allegedly spending $43 million to build a gas station that should have cost less than $500,000. (The actual cost of the gas station remains a matter of dispute between SIGAR and DoD.
The dispute took a bizarre turn two years ago when a DoD official testifying at a Senate hearing quoted a cost figure, the source of which remains a mystery.) For the last two years, Special Inspector General John Sopko has been publicly bashing the Task Force for “ill-conceived,” “poorly planned,” and “unfinished” projects.
The audit, conducted at the request of Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and former Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), found several systemic flaws that doomed the Task Force: poor record-keeping, absence of a clear statement of objectives and strategy, inconsistent coordination with other U.S. agencies, and poor contract planning and oversight.
Because the Task Force did a particularly bad job collecting data and retaining records, SIGAR was “unable to determine whether it achieved its goal of reducing violence, enhancing stability, and supporting economic normalcy in Afghanistan through strategic business and economic activities.” As a result, taxpayers may never know exactly what the Task Force did or did not accomplish. The records SIGAR could get its hands on tell a story of massive waste and unfulfilled promises.
The Task Force obligated more than $675 million in contracts, $316 million of which funded contracts directly supporting economic recovery projects. The remaining $360 million went toward various indirect and overhead costs, including the infamous luxury private villas the Task Force used to house staff, guests, and contractors, instead of using less expensive U.S. government accommodations.
SIGAR determined that only 22 percent of the $316 million in contracts fully met their objectives. But even this rather modest metric must be taken with a grain of salt, since completed projects often were abandoned or fell into disuse or disrepair because the Afghans were unable to independently sustain them.
The report quotes an unnamed Task Force employee who recounted some troubling initial impressions:
The first thing I noticed was that the organization was involved in far too many activities. The list of projects was extremely long and unfocused and seemed to be a hodge-podge of projects without a strategy. The organization was trying to do too many things, including work that overlapped with that of other organizations working in Afghanistan.
Task Force contracting personnel, according to the report, were “generally inexperienced and unfamiliar with government contracting regulations and timelines, and their plans tended not to account for routine delays in the U.S. contracting process.” Furthermore, ill-defined contract requirements often left contracting officials unable to hold poor performers accountable.
The Task Force awarded more than $200 million in sole-source contracts, which pose a higher risk of poor performance and corruption. Even worse, $35 million of these contracts went to companies employing former Task Force officials. In the two examples described in the report, the results were disastrous. Hickory Ground Solutions, a consulting firm whose chief executive was a former Task Force employee, won a $3.9 million sole-source consulting contract. Hickory allegedly ran afoul of small business contracting rules and misled the contracting officer about its capability to fulfill the contract’s requirements. Transformation Advisors Group, another small consulting firm that employed a former Task Force official “in a senior capacity,” received full payment on a mining training program contract despite allegedly unsatisfactory performance.
Despite recounting numerous examples of waste, cronyism, and outright fraud, the report makes no mention of any criminal or other enforcement actions arising out of the Task Force’s operations. This is somewhat surprising, given Special Inspector General John Sopko’s assertion in January 2016 that “several criminal investigations” connected with the Task Force were underway.
To its credit, DoD took a conciliatory tone toward the audit. “We appreciate SIGAR’s efforts,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Jackson wrote in a response letter reprinted in the report’s appendix. He conceded that SIGAR’s findings are “consistent with other independent assessments that concluded that [the Task Force] had mixed results” and that the report “documents unacceptable weaknesses and shortcomings.”
“We can—and must—do better,” Jackson stated.
Credit must also go to John Sopko and his dogged team of auditors and investigators for keeping the heat on DoD. We hope the government has learned its lesson and takes to heart the several “observations” SIGAR makes in the report to guide the White House and Congress if they ever decide to authorize another entity like the Task Force.