The U.S. Army is refusing to "suspend or debar" supporters of the Afghan insurgency from receiving lucrative government contracts, a practice that is illegal and dangerous to U.S. national security interests, according to a government watchdog group.
The Army has rebuffed and ignored multiple calls for it to stop doing business with Afghans who are known to support the country’s insurgency because information about these individuals is classified, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which oversees the United States’ multi-billion dollar effort in Afghanistan.
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SIGAR also found evidence in its latest report to Congress that U.S. reconstruction projects have helped Afghans grow large quantities of opium-poppy plants, according to the report released early Thursday.
SIGAR head John F. Sopko told Congress that he is particularly concerned about the United States continuing to contract with backers of the Afghan insurgency.
"The Army’s refusal to suspend or debar supporters of the insurgency from receiving government contracts because the information supporting these recommendations is classified is not only legally wrong, but contrary to sound policy and national-security goals," Sopko wrote in the report.
While the United States uses classified lists to target insurgency backers—and even kill them—it will not apply the same standards to its government contracts, Sopko said.
"I remain troubled by the fact that our government can and does use classified information to arrest, detain, and even kill individuals linked to the insurgency in Afghanistan, but apparently refuses to use the same classified information to deny those same individuals their right to obtain contracts with the U.S. government," he wrote. "There is no logic to this continuing disparity."
"I continue to urge the Secretary of Defense and Congress to change this misguided policy and to impose common sense on the Army’s suspension and debarment program," Sopko said in the report.
U.S. government contractors tied to the insurgency have even gained access to coalition facilities and bases, despite being made aware of these vulnerabilities by SIGAR.
In 2013, for instance, one contractor clearly identified as providing explosives to the Afghan insurgency was permitted access to a Coalition-controlled facility, SIGAR reported at the time.
This occurred despite year-old warnings from the Commerce Department informing agencies that the company was designated as supporting the insurgency due to its "involvement in ‘networks that provide components used to make improvised explosive devices used against U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan,’" according to one government source familiar with the incident.
However, the Army continues to refuse SIGAR’s requests for a change in the policy.
Additionally, SIGAR notes in its report that military leaders in Afghanistan have censored critical information about the Afghan National Security Force’s (ANSF) capabilities, which have come under question since U.S. troops left the country.
SIGAR’s assessment of the ANSF’s abilities was censored by the Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which operates under NATO.
"ISAF’s classification of the report summary deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort," Sopko writes in the report. "SIGAR and Congress can of course request classified briefings on this information, but its inexplicable classification now and its disappearance from public view does a disservice to the interest of informed national discussion."
SIGAR goes on in its report to detail massive amounts of waste, fraud, and abuse that continue to hamper U.S. reconstruction efforts.
More than $104 billion has already been spent on Afghanistan reconstruction, with around $14.5 billion still waiting to be disbursed, according to SIGAR.
Among the more shocking revelations in the most recent report is evidence that U.S.-funded reconstruction projects "have facilitated increased opium-poppy cultivation"—despite U.S. expenditures of more than $7.6 billion on counternarcotics campaigns.
U.S.-funded irrigation projects in some Afghan provinces have contributed to poppy cultivation reaching an "all time high" in the country, SIGAR reported.
"Irrigation improvements funded by the [Good Performer's Initiative] in Bamikhel in the Pachir wa Agam District of Nangarhar were definitely used to cultivate opium poppy in both 2013 and 2014," according to SIGAR.
Despite SIGAR’s findings, the State Department has referred to the Good Performer’s Initiative as "one of the most successful counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan."
Afghanistan’s "opium economy" currently provides around 411,000 full-time jobs, according to SIGAR’s estimates, which is "more than the entire ANSF."