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War on waste: Pentagon auditor spotlights US billions blown in Afghanistan

  • Sopko.jpg

    Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko has shined a spotlight on billions of U.S. tax dollars wasted in the region since taking the position in 2012. ((SIGAR HQ))

  • Afghan AF.jpg

    An Afghan Air Force C-130 sits on the flightline at Kabule Air Wing, Kabul International Airport, Kabul Afghanistan. The cargo plane is one of four that were provided to the Afghan Air Force with U.S. tax dollars. (SIGAR)

Another day, another report of rampant waste of U.S. taxpayer money in the effort to rebuild Afghanistan.

John Sopko, the inspector general charged with monitoring aid sent by the U.S. to Afghanistan, has identified potentially billions of dollars wasted in Afghanistan, including donation of planes the local government doesn't need or can't use, weapons that disappear as soon as they're handed over and and construction of brand new buildings that are basically firetraps. In a steady stream of audit reports, Sopko's office of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, has spotlighted seemingly endless waste in the war-torn nation.

In recent days, Sopko's team has reported:

- Afghanistan probably can't even use two $40.5 million C-130 transport planes the U.S. government plans to give to its motley air force.

"Too often we've pushed taxpayer money out the door without considering if the Afghans need it and can sustain it."

- John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

- Some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics and even fire stations built by the Army are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don't meet international building codes.

- The Pentagon has little oversight over hundreds of thousands of small arms turned over to the Afghan army, and many have disappeared altogether.

In addition to the recent flurry of reports, SIGAR has criticized the spending of $34 million to build Camp Leatherneck in the Washir District of Afghanistan, a 64,000-square-foot facility that was never used and sits empty to this day. Another $34 million of U.S. taxpayer money was wasted on a disastrous soybean program that Afghan farmers have rejected. In October, the U.S.-funded construction of Gardez Hospital, in Afghanistan's southeastern Paktia Province, was found to be delayed for two years due to poor contractor work and overpayment for services never rendered. And in December, an audit discovered that that $5.4 million was wasted in construction at Forward Operating Base Sharana on inoperable incinerators, leaving U.S. soldiers to burn waste and noxious materials in open pits.

The Afghanistan reconstruction budget is separate from the estimated $105 billion annually the U.S. spent at the peak of the 13-year war. Since 2002, Congress has appropriated approximately $103 billion to help rebuild Afghanistan, and the SIGAR's office has said that since March of this year, $17.9 billion of that remains to be doled out.

It’s not clear how much of the reconstruction aid is considered to have been wasted, but SIGAR officials say that during 2012, Sopko’s first year on the job, the general inspected projects, programs, and general issues that totaled $10.6 billion in funding and found nearly $7 billion was potentially wasted.

Critics say the real problem is the policy behind the reconstruction effort.

“It was the subsequent approach [after military action] that has proved so problematic,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, now the executive director for the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security for Duke University. “Essentially, it was thought that the best way to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists was to transform what is an ancient and xenophobic society into a pluralistic democracy congenial to Western sensibilities, and hostile to extremists who sourced their ideology in religious belief."

Asking the military to use taxpayer funds to transform Afghanistan, especially with an impatient U.S. public calling for full withdrawal,was a "virtually impossible task," Dunlap said.

Sopko is not shy about lacing his numbers-heavy audits with pointed criticism and recommendations. In his report earlier this month on turning over two C-130 Hercules transport planes, he methodically noted that the Afghan air force had already proven unable to adequately maintain a pair it previously received.

"Action taken now could save substantial expenditures," he wrote. "The opportunity exists with the C-130s to ensure that the Afghans are capable of supporting what we have already given them before providing additional aircraft.”

Experts including Mark Jacobson, a fellow with the Truman National Security Project who also served on NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, say Sopko gets it.

“The challenge is this; we’re unsure what the political level in Afghanistan is going to be," Jacobson told FoxNews.com. "Training the maintenance and U.S. support will be needed to operate the aircraft. If those things aren’t there then it’s going to be a complicated issue.”

Contacted by FoxNews.com, Sopko said he is fighting a culture in which neither Afghanistan's nor America's interests are well served.

"Too often we've pushed taxpayer money out the door without considering if the Afghans need it and can sustain it," Sopko said. "We have a golden opportunity now to stop and reassess this purchase to ensure that taxpayers' funds are spent wisely."

Sopko, like other inspectors general, enjoys broad autonomy to audit government operations to ensure compliance and guard against misconduct, waste, fraud and theft. His reports are public, and are filed with top Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

In a report just days after the one criticizing the plane deal, Sopko, who works out of a government office in Arlington, Va., found that a large number of buildings provided through a $1.57 billion U.S. Army Corps of Engineers program were death traps. He sharply challenged the Army Corps of Engineers' rationalization that the buildings were safe enough, because “the typical occupant populations for these facilities are young, fit Afghan Soldiers and recruits who have the physical ability to make a hasty retreat during a developing situation.”

On Monday, yet another report for Sopko's office questioned the accountability of nearly a half-million weapons supplied to Afghan National Security Forces by the U.S. It found poor record-keeping, security and inventory of guns. Not surprisingly, thousands of weapons were found to be missing during inventory inspections at supply depots.

“This audit reveals a stunning lack of accountability over combat weapons provided to Afghan security forces,” Sopko told FoxNews.com. “It also reveals that the Pentagon continues to send weapons -- even though the Afghans have 100,000 more than they need. We're very concerned that weapons paid for by US taxpayers could wind up in the hands of insurgents and be used to kill Americans and Afghan troops and civilians.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych