By R. Jeffrey Smith
The multinational NATO force in Afghanistan has declared that it spent more than $200 million to buy fuel for the Afghan Army in 2010 and 2011, but cannot locate any documents to substantiate the expense or show precisely where the money went, according to a special report by a government watchdog on Dec. 20.
As a result, the U.S. government is unable to “account for $201 million” worth of fuel purchases, said Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko, in a letter alerting two members of Congress to the missing documentation.
The letter is a follow-up to a warning by Sopko in September that coalition force personnel in Afghanistan had improperly shredded fuel purchase records that covered a five-year period, blocking the ability of auditors to assess how much fuel was actually used by the Afghani army and how much might have been lost or stolen.
Since then, many of the relevant records were found, but a deeper investigation by Sopko’s team failed to find those it is complaining about now.
In his report to the chairman and ranking minority member of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security and foreign operations, Sopko said he had found “no evidence that the document shredding was related to criminal activity.” But he noted that the shredding began within days after the U.S. military’s Central Command specifically ordered managers “not to destroy or dispose of financial records.”
Sopko said his staff interviewed more than a dozen current and former contracting officials and found two that admitted to doing the shredding with the aim of enhancing “efficiency [and] saving physical storage space.” They claimed it was authorized, and said they scanned the documents into a computer first, but said they could not recall where the scans were stored.
One of the supervisors they named did not recall approving it, and the other said the documents were supposed to be scanned “but did not recall what was done with the original documents.” No one could find them, Sopko’s letter said.
Cdr. William H. Speaks, a Defense Department spokesman, said in an e-mail Friday that “NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan/Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) takes this matter very seriously, and they continue to work with the SIGAR investigators on the issue.” He said the Pentagon could not comment further because SIGAR has not completed its work.
SIGAR spokesman Philip J. Lavelle said however that while SIGAR final report on the issue will be published in January, “our investigation into the shredding is closed.” He said it is now up to others to act on the findings.
The episode is hardly the only snafu involving U.S. aid to the country’s reconstruction. In a separate report this month, Sopko’s office disclosed that $12.8 million worth of equipment purchased by the military to upgrade the Afghanistan electrical grid has been sitting in storage for years, partly because of confusion over which U.S. agency is responsible for its installation.
The military responded that it has “developed a clear plan for the installation of the equipment.”