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Watchdog says State Department and USAID are withholding information on Afghanistan withdrawal

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By Kylie Atwood, CNN

The State Department and United States Agency for International Development have not provided information to a government watchdog about the fall of the Afghan government during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, according to a letter from the watchdog’s director.

The information has been required by multiple congressionally mandated audits, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) director John Sopko said in the letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the USAID Administrator Samantha Power on Wednesday.

While these agencies have typically provided assistance to the watchdog, Sopko wrote in a letter reviewed by CNN that “agency officials now appear to have adopted a premeditated position of obstruction.”

He described the development as “particularly troubling” because the departments are legally required to share information with his office. He also quoted President Biden saying that the “watchdogs are back” in his administration.

Instead, Sopko said that there have been multiple requests for information which have been declined. He called the situation “unprecedented.”

He explained that the information is needed for specific audits that congress has asked them to carry out.

“This information and assistance is needed for several audits and Congressionally mandated reviews pertaining to, among other things: (1) the collapse of the U.S. backed government in Afghanistan; (2) State and USAID compliance with laws and regulations prohibiting the transfer of funds to the Taliban; and (3) ongoing humanitarian and development programs supporting the Afghan people,” Sopko writes.

Politico was first to report on the letters.

A State Department spokesperson shared a letter with CNN that was sent from State and USAID to SIGAR’s office of the inspector general in April that cited concerns about “how some of SIGAR’s requests for information relate to their statutory jurisdiction,” the spokesperson added.

The top lawyers at the State Department and USAID wrote that activities involving humanitarian and development assistance remain out of SIGAR’s mandate and requests clarification for the “scope” of SIGAR’s inquiry.

The letter was an effort to “resolve those concerns — including nuanced, technical details — to help us best comply with all of our oversight bodies,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also added that “State and USAID are committed to assisting SIGAR with its important auditing and oversight role.”

An interim report from the watchdog published last month strongly criticized the Biden and Trump administrations policy in Afghanistan. It said the US decision to leave the country under both administrations was the driving factor behind the swift collapse of the Afghan military as the Taliban swept across the country with stunning speed last summer.

The interim report called the US decision to withdraw — conceived by the Trump administration in 2020 and implemented by the Biden administration in 2021 — the “single most important factor” behind the collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

The inspector general’s report, which also cast significant blame on decisions made by former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, was one of the deepest examinations to date at the reasons behind the stunning fall of the Afghan government last summer that saw the Taliban rapidly take control of Afghanistan amid a full US withdrawal following a 20-year war.

Earlier on Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked about the letters and said cited a recent SIGAR report that was put together without State Department input, saying that it “does not reflect the consensus view of the State Department or of the US Government.” He added, “many parts of the US government, including the State Department, have unique insights into developments in Afghanistan last year that were not captured in the report. And we don’t concur with many aspects of the report.”

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CNN’s Jeremy Herb contributed reporting.

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