- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2022

A top GOP lawmaker accused the State Department of obstructing the work of a congressionally-mandated watchdog in a bid to cover up for the Biden administration’s failures during the calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan In the summer of 2021.

Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed the State Department for refusing to cooperate with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) because the agency “won’t repeat the false Biden administration talking points on Afghanistan.”

“It’s in direct violation of President Biden’s promise that ‘watchdogs have been welcomed back’ in his administration,” Mr. McCaul said in a statement. 

The clash broke out into the open last week when longtime SIGAR chief John F. Sopko sent letters to several key congressional leaders along with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), complaining about the lack of cooperation from the administration and both agencies’ “repeated and continuing refusal to provide information and assistance requested by my office.”

Mr. Sopko, who has written stinging appraisals of U.S. military and reconstruction efforts in the 20-year mission in Afghanistan, said he was “particularly surprised” at the lack of support from the two agencies.

“After more than a decade of cooperation with my office, [the State Department and USAID] have now refused to provide information and assistance needed for several audits and Congressionally-mandated reviews,” Mr. Sopko wrote last week. 

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He accused the Biden administration of stonewalling SIGAR on several subjects under review, including the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan; whether the State Department and USAID are complying with laws prohibiting the transfer of funds to the ruling Taliban; and ongoing humanitarian and developing programs supporting the Afghan people.

“Congress and American taxpayers deserve to know why the Afghan government collapsed after all that assistance, where the money went, and how taxpayer money is now being spent in Afghanistan,” Mr. Sopko wrote.

That letter brought a riposte from State Department spokesman Ned Price, who said SIGAR’s work last month about the collapse of the Afghan military didn’t reflect the “consensus view” of the U.S. government and that Mr. Sopko‘s investigators were not taking department arguments into account.

“Many parts of the U.S. government, including the State Department, have unique insights into developments in Afghanistan last year that were not captured in the report. And we don’t concur with many aspects of the report,” Mr. Price said during a June 22 press conference. “SIGAR did not request input from the State Department in the process of drafting this report, nor did they afford us an opportunity to review the draft before it was finalized, as had been a regular process for other reports.”

In a letter to SIGAR General Counsel John G. Arlington, State Department and USAID attorneys said the watchdog agency’s mandate only covers oversight of funds used in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and not humanitarian and development assistance.

“That requested expansion [of the mandate] has not been enacted into law and, as such, activities involving humanitarian and development assistance remain outside SIGAR’s current mandate,” Richard C. Visek, the State Department’s acting legal adviser, and Margaret L. Taylor, USAID’s general counsel, wrote.

The State Department and USAID said SIGAR is asking for information about topics already the subject of oversight by other investigative bodies, including their inspectors general, or fall within the purview of the recently-established Afghanistan War Commission.

But other Republicans backed Mr. McCaul and said the Biden administration’s refusal to work with SIGAR was part of a larger effort to divert attention from the larger failures of the Afghan mission and the triumph of the radical Islamist Taliban movement.

Biden left Americans behind. Biden left our military’s equipment for the Taliban. Biden made decisions that killed 13 U.S. service members and countless Afghan civilians. Now his administration is obstructing congressionally-mandated oversight,” Rep. Greg Steube of Florida said in a statement.

Congress granted SIGAR jurisdiction over all reconstruction spending in Afghanistan, including development and humanitarian aid, Mr. Sopko contended in his letter to Congress.

“Congress was also clear when it required State and USAID to provide SIGAR with information and assistance upon request, and when it unambiguously prohibited agency officials from refusing to cooperate with SIGAR’s work,” he wrote. 

The U.S. is continuing to pour money into Afghanistan even after the U.S. pullout and the establishment of the Taliban regime. On Tuesday, administration officials pledged to give nearly $55 million in immediate humanitarian assistance to people affected by a recent earthquake in southeastern Afghanistan that reportedly claimed at least 1,000 lives and injured countless more.

“The United States has an enduring commitment to the people of Afghanistan, and we welcome and encourage support from our international partners in this time of great need,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement.

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

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