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Shades of Iraq, millions spent in Afghanistan lack adequate oversight

The inspector general finds too few watchdogs keeping an eye on how US reconstruction funds are spent.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2009

US C-17 military plane prepares to fly to Afghanistan from an air base in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Friday, May 8, 2009.

Azamat Imanaliev/AP

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Washington

The person responsible for a $404 million reconstruction contract in Afghanistan sits nine time zones away in suburban Maryland and is unable to provide adequate oversight as to where all the money is going, according to a new government report.

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The audit suggests that the US is confronting the same kinds of problems in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq, where billions of dollars were unaccounted for during six years of reconstruction there, and has little plan yet to address the problems.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its first audit of reconstruction work in Afghanistan, focusing on a single, $404 million contract let by the American command responsible for training Afghan security forces.

The auditors discovered the sole person overseeing the massive contract – just one of an untold number of contracts let under the training command – cannot provide the proper oversight because the individual is not in Afghanistan but instead works an Army contracting center in Maryland.

Recognizing the problems inherent in overseeing such a massive contract far away from where the work was actually being done, the contracting officer hired a subordinate to work in-country. But that person has limited contracting experience and is not able to visit many of the actual work sites where the work is performed under the contract.

"Because of other duties, this official does not have time to make field visits," according to the five-page report.

Meanwhile, two prominent senators say the US must significantly expand the size of the Afghan security forces, potentially expanding the scope of work under the $404 million contract.

The US has spent more than $32 billion on reconstruction, stabilization, and development activities in Afghanistan since 2001. Half of that amount was spent by the Pentagon and of that, $15 billion is to provide security assistance to the Afghan army and police. Although the US has been in Afghanistan since that time, the special inspector general for Afghanistan was established just last year.

This first audit suggests the issue in Afghanistan seems to be that there simply isn't enough capacity or money to hire enough people to oversee all the work being done.

Security in some areas is such that it can be hard for some contracting officers, with little experience in war zones, to visit sites where work is being performed.

The American training command relies on American officials working within the Afghan government to inform them if the work is not being performed. But US officials acknowledge that this is not an adequate way to ensure contract work is actually being performed.

The SIGAR recommends the US training command employ more contracting officers in Afghanistan.

Arnold Fields, a retired Marine two-star general who is the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, struggled to answer questions about the contract or how many other contracts exist under the training command. He acknowledges that his staff's ability to conduct oversight is still weak as the nascent organization grows.

"This is not a surprise to me because I try not to be surprised," said Mr. Fields, during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "But it's a reflection of the dynamics of reconstruction not unlike those that we have seen in Iraq, where it takes an abundance of funds, considerable numbers of people ... necessary to ensure that the taxpayer dollar is being used for the purposes for which it was appropriated."

In an unrelated move that could have an impact on the same kind of contracting work on behalf of Afghan security forces, Sen. Carl Levin, (D) of Michigan (who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, (I) of Connecticut, proposed dramatic expansion of Afghan security forces – tripling the size of the army to about 300,000 soldiers and doubling the number of police to 160,000.

The senators sent a letter to President Obama Tuesday urging him to support the expansion, "important for the success of our efforts in Afghanistan."

"Taking an incremental approach toward the development of the Afghan security forces does not reflect realities on the ground," the two wrote in a letter obtained by the Monitor.

The two noted that the cost to increase the Afghan forces is "very modest," saying the cost of a single American soldier in Afghanistan is comparable to what it costs to sustain at least 60 Afghan soldiers because of lower wages.

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