Watchdog: Tight security hinders oversight of US Afghan aid

In this Monday, July 31, 2017 photo, an Afghan man ride his bicycle walks past blast walls in Kabul, Afghanistan. A U.S. watchdog says unprecedented security restrictions are making it difficult to monitor Afghanistan projects that are costing hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars. (AP Photos/Rahmat Gul)
Security forces respond at the site of a suicide attack followed by a clash between Afghanistan's forces and IS fighters during an attack on Iraq embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, July 31, 2017. A media outlet linked to the Islamic State group says two IS militants were behind the attack on the Iraqi Embassy in the Afghan capital. (AP Photos/Massoud Hossaini)
Security forces respond at the site of a suicide attack followed by a clash between Afghanistan's forces and IS fighters during an attack on Iraq embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, July 31, 2017. A media outlet linked to the Islamic State group says two IS militants were behind the attack on the Iraqi Embassy in the Afghan capital. (AP Photos/Massoud Hossaini)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. watchdog tasked with overseeing the spending of billions of U.S. dollars in aid to Afghanistan said unprecedented restrictions on the movement of American government employees is sending a dangerous message to Afghan people and hinder the U.S. work in the country.

He said the message the tight security sends is: "The terrorists should be feared and may actually be winning."

The quarterly report released Tuesday by the special inspector general says American government employees rarely step outside the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy compound in central Kabul and when they do, they stay nearby, in the "green zone" where most foreign embassies are located, protected by guards and fortifications that block streets, often frustrating residents.

"Hunkering down behind blast walls damages not only the U.S. civilian mission but also handicaps the U.S. military mission," Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko said in his report. "In the long run, such extreme risk aversion and avoidance may even contribute to greater insecurity, since it limits U.S. diplomatic reach to the very Afghans necessary to foster stability, rule of law, and economic growth, while sending an unintended, but dangerous message to friend and foe alike that the terrorists should be feared and may actually be winning."

Sopko said the restrictions affect everything from monitoring U.S. aid to interacting with ordinary Afghans, many of whom would have difficulty accessing the heavily fortified embassy.

Afghanistan, and Kabul in particular, has seen a spike in violence in the last four months. May 31 saw the worst attack since the Taliban's ouster in December 2001 when a massive truck bomb devastated the center of Kabul, killing 150 people and wounding scores more. On Monday the so-called Islamic State group attacked the Iraqi Embassy in the center of Kabul laying siege for four hours before all the attackers were killed.

The May 31 explosion generated outrage toward the government and its security forces and sparked widespread demonstrations by protesters frustrated with a deterioration in security in the capital.

Quoting United Nations figures, Sopko said "security incidents" were up 21 percent from March through June compared to the previous quarter. He did not define the nature of the incidents.

While there is good reason to be cautious, said Sopko, the U. S. government has to strike a balance and right now it is weighted too heavily toward avoiding all risk. He called the precautions "unduly" restrictive. He said risk is part of operating in conflict areas, but the U.S. government has to figure out how to protect its employees as best it can while still allowing them to do their job.

Sopko said his office has the added job handed it by U.S. Congress of assessing the progress of the Afghan government's anti-corruption efforts, however security restrictions were making it hard for his investigators to do their job. That could mean corruption and fraud goes undetected at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.

In more than 15 years, the United States has spent $714 billion in Afghanistan in both war fighting and reconstruction, according to Sopko's report.

In just the last four months ending Monday, Sopko's inspection teams saved $5.5 million that would otherwise have been lost to fraud, and managed to collect $200,000 in restitution. Since being created by Congress in 2008, the special inspector general's office has saved the U.S. taxpayer about $2.1 billion, according to its report.

Widespread corruption in both the Afghan government and its National Security Forces has been crippling. Transparency International has put Afghanistan among the world's most corrupt countries.

Meanwhile, Sopko urged the U.S. government to make public a report his office prepared into allegations of sexual abuse of boys by some members of the Afghan military. Under U.S. law, it is illegal to provide training or equipment to any foreign military or individual suspected of committing "gross human rights violations."

The report is classified but the special inspector general wants it de-classified and its recommendation made public.

"Child rape is always heinous and certainly could constitute a gross violation of human rights; however, each case requires a factual and legal review to determine whether it is a credible allegation," U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Adam Stump told The AP in an email reply to queries. He did not say whether the report would be made public or what, if any, action was being taken.

Tuesday's special inspector general report also says the value of the opiate trade in Afghanistan has doubled in just one year, increasing from $1.5 billion in 2015 to $3 billion last year.

The rare positive note struck by the report was to congratulate the government for not ceding territory to its enemies in the last four months, saying the government still controls of 59.7 percent of Afghanistan's districts. The remaining area is under the sway of insurgents, Sopko says.

But keeping its territory has taken a heavy toll on Afghan National Security Forces, according to the report, noting that in just the first five months of this year 2,531 Afghan service members were killed in action and another 4,238 were wounded.

The report also said U.S. forces in Afghanistan identified more than 12,000 Afghan Ministry of Defense personnel that were "unaccounted for," fearing some could be so-called "ghosts" or personnel who exist only on paper.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri dismissed the claim that the government controlled less than 60 percent of the country saying the Taliban held sway in only a handful of districts.

___

Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed to this report.

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