By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government should reconsider whether to spend more on reconstruction aid in Afghanistan, the U.S. watchdog that monitors the funds said on Wednesday, citing Afghanistan's persistent corruption and inability to manage projects as U.S. troops withdraw.
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, said $20 billion in U.S. assistance for Afghanistan had been appropriated but not yet spent. Nearly $10 billion more in aid may soon be approved by Congress.
Sopko asked whether any of this money should be released. A growing number of projects built with U.S. assistance in Afghanistan are now in insecure areas as U.S. troops withdraw, putting them beyond the reach of American auditors to safely visit, he said.
"We have the opportunity to hit the pause button" as U.S. troops are pulling out, Sopko told a House of Representatives committee. "It's an important opportunity to stop and reassess all of that money that hasn't been spent, and make the determination, is it worth the risk?"
"There may be a reason to push the money out the door for a particular project or program ... . But at least justify it," he said, speaking to the national security subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel.
Sopko's remarks came amid growing questions over U.S. spending on Afghanistan.
The subcommittee chairman, Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, said it was especially distasteful for Washington to be sending taxpayers' money to "the most corrupt government on the face of the planet" in a time of fiscal scarcity at home.
Afghanistan is regularly ranked as one of the world's most corrupt countries. The inspector general's audits have pointed out numerous weaknesses in the oversight of U.S. reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, which is approaching a $100 billion over a decade of war. Much of this money has gone to help train Afghan military forces.
One of the U.S. agencies that provides assistance in Afghanistan issued a statement after Sopko spoke defending the programs, saying they had helped Afghanistan make "dramatic" development progress over the last decade.
The statement from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversaw about $1.9 billion in assistance in Afghanistan last year, also said that the agency carefully scrutinizes the recipients.
"U.S. AID has conducted rigorous assessments of all ministries that receive U.S. AID funds" said the statement by Alex Thier, the assistant to the administrator for the office of Afghanistan and Pakistan. "If the assessments identify vulnerabilities, U.S. AID helps the ministry address the issues before they are eligible to receive funds."
President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he would withdraw 34,000 troops - about half the U.S. forces in Afghanistan - by the end of this year.
That would be followed by further troop withdrawals next year to wrap up the war there, Obama said in his State of the Union speech.
Sopko, who has been in his job for seven months, said his office will write letters to all U.S. agencies operating in Afghanistan asking them to list the status of projects there. Congress and the administration should examine the list and decide whether to forge ahead with the projects that have not begun, he said.
For example, he said, "If the Afghans can't sustain a hospital, why build it?"
Sopko is auditing some hospitals and clinics that were built in Afghanistan with U.S. help.
Chaffetz of Utah and the panel's top Democrat, John Tierney of Massachusetts, have introduced legislation to prevent the United States from buying more fuel for the Afghan Army without stricter accounting measures.
A recent audit by Sopko's office showed that for more than $1 billion of fuel Washington bought for the Afghan military, records for $201 million in purchases were missing. That increased the risk that funds and fuel were lost or stolen, or that purchases were made from Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions, the audit said.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Xavier Briand)