KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The planned U.S. pullout from Afghanistan has been a controversial topic since being announced by President Obama in May 2014. A less commonly discussed, but perhaps equally important, consequence of an American withdrawal is the disruption of Afghani power and electricity generation. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, has been critical of the Obama administration for a lack of communication and planning on the issue, as worries over a Taliban comeback and financial woes continue to mount for Kandahar.
President Obama earmarked 2017 as the year all U.S. troops will finally leave Afghanistan, with a small residual force of nearly 10,000 to stay from 2015 to 2017. That force will see its numbers intentionally and strategically cut over two years. The plan is contingent upon the Afghani president signing a bilateral security agreement (BSA), something that acting leader Hamid Karzai hasn’t done yet. It is important to note that Karzai isn’t alone in his hesitation, as numerous U.S. military leaders have expressed concern over the plan. A Khaama Press report states, “The top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford has told the US senators that complete US troops pullout from Afghanistan in 2017 was not recommended by any military leader.”
SIGAR leader Sopko, who is at the helm of a $104 billion dollar Afghanistan reconstruction project, has brought serious lapses in the U.S. effort to rebuild to light. The Christian Science Monitor highlights Sopko’s concerns, ranging from barring embezzling contracting firms out of the picture to cutting of diesel supplies that fuel Kandahar electrical generators. SIGAR’s efforts must work, as the reconstruction price tag exceeds that of the vaunted Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after WWII.
John Sopko, a former prosecutor for an international law firm, was given the SIGAR position in 2012 by President Obama. His career has spanned over two decades in Congress, most recently working as Chief Counsel for Oversight and Investigations for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. SIGAR’s official website also notes that Sopko investigated things pertinent to his present role in Afghanistan, including curtailing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, infrastructure protection, protection against organized crime and drug gang infiltration, counter-terrorism and government procurement fraud.
There is obvious concern and trepidation from Afghan leadership and troops in the field that a pullout will lead to a possible Taliban resurgence. Leaving a working means of power generation behind is a key to counterinsurgency, even if the U.S. has no plan in place to secure it. Currently, there is $1 million allocated to power the town of Kandahar monthly, according to a Washington Times report. Making the situation increasingly dire is the U.S. practice of cutting diesel fuel supplies to Afghan generators, weaning Kandahar off of power. While the U.S. wants to see a democratic and safe Kandahar manifest upon full withdrawal, there is no way that Afghanistan can promise that without continuing aid of some sort, and locals fear a Taliban return will fill the power vacuum.
The $1 million per month Kandahar power bill is only a drop in the bucket compared to the $753 billion that the U.S. has spent on the lengthy Afghan war, according to The Fiscal Times. Sopko adds that any plan moving forward to secure the energy and infrastructure future of Afghanistan away from terrorist influence will cost the United States, and casts major doubts on the successes of future ventures. Sopko isn’t optimistic because of the inability of the U.S. government to find a solution. Solar panels are being explored by USAID, but they have the potential to be stolen.
A Fox News report also sheds light on more missed opportunities Sopko has spotted. These include nearly 300 buildings like clinics and army barracks that were questionably insulated, making them fire hazards. Many small arms that have been given to the Afghan forces are now unaccounted for, and Afghan soldiers can’t adequately operate two large transport planes that were to be given by the U.S. Camp Leatherneck, a seldom-used facility which received over $30 million in upgrades. Sopko hasn’t been shy in noting his displeasure with the Obama Administration’s policy on Afghanistan reconstruction, or lack thereof.
Pew research polls show clearly that the American public wants a total exit from Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of saved tax dollars and prevention of further loss of troops’ lives. However, pulling out in stark fashion with no reconstruction plan in place is irresponsible and leaves the Afghan public vulnerable once again to being under Taliban rule.
Perhaps Special Inspector John Sopko’s recommendation will hold weight as he continues reconstruction efforts. Despite his dissenting role, the changes that he’s calling for and the questions he’s asking are necessary for auditing the magnitude of war-torn Afghanistan. A well-planned, leaner approach to securing the nation must be implemented jointly by America and Afghanistan. However, the task at hand remains a tall one.
– Dave Smith