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Why Everyone’s Talking About John Sopko

If you read this morning’s edition of three of our prominent national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, you may have noticed something: the sudden necessity of talking about a man named John Sopko. The Times and the Post each run different-but-not-really pieces intended to profile Sopko and his work. The Journal takes a slightly different tack, talking about Sopko through the most recent and newsworthy aspects of his work.

So who is John Sopko? Here is the Times’s lede: “John F. Sopko is a 61-year-old former prosecutor who believes ‘embarrassing people works.’ ” But the Kabul dateline is the tipoff. Sopko is in Afghanistan as the inspector general for American-led reconstruction efforts. He is in charge of keeping the bureaucracy honest, and he is not well-liked by his compatriots there; the Post calls him the “the bane of the existence of American bureaucrats scrambling to bring the war to a dignified end.” What Sopko is finding out firsthand is that political leaders love to talk–and often, only talk–about rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in any system. Everyone loves the idea of oversight.

Sopko also clearly knows the value of publicity. The coincidental placement of A-Section stories on him in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on the same day is testament to that. But Sopko’s penchant for publicity doesn’t endear him to those under his watchful gaze. In fact, it seems his profiles were, in part at least, a result of his need to push back on the grumbling inspired, in circular fashion, by his need for publicity. As the Times explains:

He and his team spend their days cataloging the waste, mismanagement and fraud that have plagued American reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

Then they go out and publicize what they have found — aggressively. If they upset the generals and diplomats running the war, so much the better. Most officials “would love to have it all triple-wrapped in paper, classified and slipped under a door so it goes away — then they don’t have to do anything,” he said during a recent interview.

He added, “I’m into accountability.”

Sopko also sat for an interview with the Post, and they paint much the same picture:

“I didn’t take this job to be liked at the State Department or USAID or the Department of Defense,” he said in an interview. “We’re the umpire. My job is to call strikes.”

Bureaucratic battles within America’s wars are legion. But none has played out quite this publicly, and all sides agree that the stakes could hardly be higher. To a large extent, the U.S. ability to disengage smoothly from Afghanistan and retain influence after combat troops leave — by the end of 2014 — will depend on the work U.S. agencies are able to accomplish, as well as the amount of political will and confidence in the mission they can engender.

But it’s the Journal article that seems to do the most to legitimize the Times and Post articles. The Journal has always tended to take a slightly different approach to the same stories other papers cover, and in this case the Journal’s article on Sopko is a perfect companion piece to the others.

The Post explains that the office of inspector general for Afghan reconstruction had alternated between ridicule and vacancy. Sopko came in and fired up his staff, warning that the clock was ticking on the mission. The Journal article offers one example of the misbehavior uncovered by the newly energized office under Sopko’s leadership:

American anticorruption officials are investigating an alleged criminal ring working for U.S. Special Operations Command in southern Afghanistan that may have defrauded the U.S. government of more than $77 million, according to court documents and government officials.

Federal officials have frozen $63 million held in bank accounts around the world linked to a young Afghan businessman who allegedly bribed two foreign contractors to secure contracts to transport food and fuel for the U.S. military in southern Afghanistan, according to documents unsealed by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The Afghan, Hikmatullah Shadman, is at the center of a continuing investigation that also could ensnare Americans working for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, said John Sopko, the special U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

“We’re not done with this matter in the least,” said Mr. Sopko, who spearheaded the legal action to freeze and seize Mr. Shadman’s bank accounts.

As Max Boot and Michael Rubin have written numerous times here at COMMENTARY, there is both the need and the ability to clean up Western efforts in Afghanistan. On that note, I think it’s worth restating Michael’s point from February on corruption and USAID waste/mismanagement in Afghanistan: “Terrorism impacts a small number of people, but corruption is a cancer on a whole society.”

That is exactly right, and that seems to be Sopko’s perspective. He has taken on a sense of urgency as well because the mission is indeed running low on time. I don’t think many of those complaining about Sopko’s intensity or publicity-seeking fully appreciate just how much of a black eye it will be for America’s reputation if after a decade-long nation building project we leave behind well-fed corruption rings and warlords with deeper pockets as our legacy. There is only so much control our agencies have, of course, in Afghanistan. But surely conducting themselves with transparency and integrity is not too much to ask.

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