U.S. needs to push ahead with handover of Afghan aviation: watchdog

Reuters News
Posted: May 15, 2015 11:33 AM

By leslie Gevirtz

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After spending more than $500 million over 12 years rebuilding Afghanistan's four international airports, the United States is still running Afghan civil aviation and needs to ensure it hands over control, a watchdog agency said on Friday.

John Sopko, head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said international funds had helped rebuild Afghanistan's civil aviation system but it had been hard to train enough local air traffic controllers.

Also a failure by the Afghan government to award an airspace management contract last year had delayed any handover but now was time to ensure there was a transition to local teams.

Sopko, a former prosecutor who took on the mafia in the United States, has earned notoriety in Kabul and Washington for denouncing how much of the $107 billion the United States has spent rebuilding Afghanistan since 2001 has been frittered away.

In his report he recommended the U.S. Secretary of State tries to ensures the Afghan government awards a new airspace management services contract before the current interim contract with the U.S. Department of Defense expires this September.

"If Afghanistan is able to pay for the full cost of a future

contract for airspace management services, it would demonstrate an increased capacity, at least in this area, to take responsibility for its own affairs," Sopko said in the report.

Sopko has previously said the U.S. government needs to change the way it operates and must set more strict conditions on its help and keep a much closer eye on the money.

The U.S. congress set up SIGAR in 2008 to provide independent oversight of U.S. funds in Afghanistan.

The U.S. ended combat operations in Afghanistan last year and under an agreement last September, Afghanistan authorities were to be responsible for the airports by the end of 2014 but this has not yet happened.

Sopko's report said the United States was not alone in trying to build Afghanistan's civilian aviation program.

From 2003 to 2008, the World Bank reported spending $24.8 million on Kabul International Airport's runway and another $7.4 million to provide communications and traffic control equipment.

Germany provided training for basic electronic theory and flight safety inspections, while Portugal's air force gave classes in navigation, surveillance and communication.

While the U.S. Department of Defense was mostly concerned with the military aspects of aviation, an estimated $500 million of its budget was spent on civilian aviation-related activities.

The Federal Aviation Administration was to provide basic air traffic control training supplemented with on-the-job training.

But security concerns prevented Afghan students getting access to some training facilities and the FAA faced problems getting passports and visas to train students abroad - and some students did not return to Afghanistan after training overseas.

In addition the Afghan government failed to award an airspace management contract to one of 19 bidders last year, saying it believed the costs were excessive. Instead, it asked the United States to continue its contracted services at a cost of $29.5 million until the end of this September.

Sopko said unless the Afghan government awarded a contract soon, the U.S. government could be called on to fund another interim contract.

While the FAA and Department of Defense declined to comment for the report, the State Department "generally agreed with our findings", the report said, and added that continued U.S. support for extending a U.S.-managed contract was "unlikely".

(Reporting By Leslie Gevirtz, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)