A U.S. House member from Utah expressed shock Thursday over what he called "lobbying money" paid to the government of Afghanistan in exchange for laws or programs the U.S. government wants but the Afghan government wouldn't otherwise enact.
Last year, the U.S. Agency for International Development paid $15 million out of its "incentive fund" in return for the Afghan Parliament passing a law on violence against women, which was "unpalatable" to parliament without the incentive, a USAID witness told the House Oversight subcommittee.
Donald "Larry" Sampler, assistant to the administrator of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs for USAID, said he didn't think "lobbying money" or "slush fund" were accurate ways to describe the payment. Instead, he said, the funds help get policies and programs passed that are a higher priority to the U.S. than to Afghanistan. The incentive fund was budgeted at $75 million in 2013, and increased to $100 million this year.
"It sounds like a bonus, it sounds like a slush fund, it sounds like a lot of very negative things," Chaffetz said, arguing that such a system would be against the law in the U.S.
Sampler was in the hot seat for most of the hearing, taking heat from both the subcommittee and the other witness, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko.
Subcommittee members grilled Sampler on embarrassing information withheld from USAID assessments of Afghan ministries given to the committee, arguing that the redactions amounted to hiding information from Congress.
USA Today first had the story about the redactions Wednesday night. Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., pressed Sampler on why USAID withheld important findings from its assessments, including the Afghan government's inability to prevent its ministries from doing business with people with terrorist ties.
Sampler disputed the story and said USAID didn't keep important information from Congress, but submitted the assessments last year.
"The allegation that we covered up information coming to Congress is false, and I find it somewhat offensive," Sampler said.
But according to Sopko, the committee didn't receive the assessments in their entirety until last week, when SIGAR provided the committee with the un-redacted versions. The redacted and un-redacted versions tell two different stories, he said.
USAID asked SIGAR not to release the un-redacted versions to Congress or the public, Sopko said, and when he asked why, he was told the material kept from Congress was "mainly embarrassing," extending beyond the personally identifiable information USAID told the committee it was withholding.
What was actually kept from the committee was "far more damning, and far more important to your work," Sopko told Chaffetz.
According to a letter from SIGAR General Counsel John G. Arlington obtained by the Washington Examiner, the redacted version of the assessments included "the Afghan government's apparent inability to prevent its ministries from contracting with individuals with ties to terrorism." The un-redacted reports also indicated "certain Afghan ministries lacked controls on the management of cash, could not keep track of fixed assets, and were using pirated copies of Microsoft software."
The committee also focused on whether the U.S. has poured too much money into unsustainable projects in Afghanistan, questioning the wisdom of funding expensive buildings and utilities the country likely won't be able to pay for on its own for decades.
The U.S. has committed $100 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction, much of it through USAID. That money has funded everything from hospitals to power plants to the Afghan National Security Force. Afghanistan's own domestic annual revenue is only about $2 billion, less than half of the estimated $4.1 billion annual cost of sustaining the ANSF alone.
USAID's approach to reconstruction hasn't always been "realistic," Sopko said in his prepared testimony, calling some of the agency's projections and projects "overly ambitious" and "highly unrealistic."
"We're accelerating funding as we're drawing down the troops," Chaffetz said, expressing concern about the U.S.'s ability to oversee where money goes once U.S. troops and investigators are gone. "One of my biggest concerns is that we have U.S. money flowing to the very terrorists who intend to do us harm."
Sampler argued the projects are important for the country's stability, and the U.S. has a national security interest in continuing to fund them.
"We've invested twelve years of blood and treasure to ensure there will never be another attack on U.S. soil from Afghanistan," he said.
Subcommittee members, however, said Congress needs to look carefully at how and how much the U.S. continues to spend in Afghanistan.
"Is it realistic for the Congress to appropriate money and then ask USAID ... to do the impossible?" asked Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat.
"The fact we share a goal doesn't necessarily mean we have the means to achieve it," he added later.