Nearly 80 percent of Afghanistan will be off-limits to oversight officials in the next year as mounting security concerns choke off access to many taxpayer funded reconstruction projects, according to U.S. officials and media reports.
The 2014 withdrawal of Western forces from the war torn country means that "no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible to U.S. civilian oversight personnel by the end of the transition," according to a new warning from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
The State Department has further notified SIGAR "that this projection may be optimistic, especially if the security situation does not improve," according to SIGAR’s John Sopko.
Reconstruction projects "worth billions of dollars" will likely be inaccessible, according to documents published by the Washington Post on Sunday.
"Significant portions of Afghanistan are already inaccessible to SIGAR, other inspectors general, the Government Accountability Office, and other U.S. civilians conducting oversight, such as contracting officers," according to Sopko. "SIGAR believes this constraint on oversight will only worsen as more U.S. and coalition bases close."
Oversight officials have been forced to abandon the inspection of many U.S. taxpayer funded sites due to the violence, meaning that fraud, waste, and abuse could increase, according to SIGAR.
"It is clear that everyone working in Afghanistan, including SIGAR, will struggle to continue providing the direct U.S. civilian oversight that is needed in Afghanistan," Sopko wrote in a letter sent earlier this month to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
"U.S. military officials have told us that they will provide civilian access only to areas within a one-hour round trip of an advanced medical facility," and just 21 percent of Afghanistan will be reachable, according to Sopko.
At least 72 sites worth more than $$725,980,465 will fall outside of the 2014 security bubble, according to accounting by SIGAR. The actual cost of unreachable projects could increase as SIGAR designates more sites that fall outside of the government's security bubble.
"U.S. officials have told us that it is often difficult for program and contracting staff to visit reconstruction sites in Afghanistan," Sopko wrote. "SIGAR personnel have direct experience with this problem, having already encountered difficulty obtaining military escort to travel into contested areas."
State Department and oversight officials can expect to have most of their travel requests denied due to security concerns, according to Sopko, who testified Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee.
"We have been told that requests to visit a reconstruction site outside of these ‘oversight bubbles’ will probably be denied," Sopko wrote.
"Similarly, State Department officials have warned us that their ability to reach reconstruction sites will be extremely limited due to constraints on providing emergency medical support without assistance from the Department of Defense (DOD)," according to the letter.
The State Department has also warned that it will not be able to provide "adequate protection to civilians," according to Sopko.
Access to various sites has decreased by nearly 50 percent since 2009, according to a series of maps released by SIGAR, which estimates that most of central Afghanistan will be unreachable by 2014.
Oversight officials have already been told that it is unsafe for them to "visit infrastructure projects in northern Afghanistan valued at $72 million because they are located in areas that could not be reached by U.S. civilian employees," according to Sopko.
"Direct oversight of reconstruction programs in much of Afghanistan will become prohibitively hazardous or impossible as U.S. military units are withdrawn, coalition bases are closed, and civilian reconstruction offices in the field are closed," Sopko warned.
SIGAR is asking that the State Department and other agencies form a plan to ensure that full access to reconstruction sites will continue after Western forces leave Afghanistan.
The State Department is using "a very high and overly restrictive" security standard, according to Dan Green, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Green said that the restrictive policy is an "overreaction" to recent security problems and attacks in Afghanistan, such as the Taliban’s deadly September attack on the U.S. consulate.
"This is just an overreaction," Green said. "These are the risks Americans expect us to make."