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Congress brings down top auditor of Afghan corruption. Wrong target?

Congress targeted the man responsible for protecting US taxpayer dollars from Afghan corruption, but aid workers say the bigger problem is that the US is sending too much money.

By Staff writer / January 12, 2011

In this March 26, 2009 file photo, Arnold Fields, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, speaks with reporters during an interview at the Pentagon.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP/File

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New Delhi

The US government’s top auditor of reconstruction funds in Afghanistan resigned this week, after facing tough Congressional criticism that his agency was not moving aggressively enough to combat fraud and waste.

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During Arnold Fields’s 18-month tenure, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) completed 34 audits tied to $4.4 billion in reconstruction spending that led to four convictions and the recovery of $7 million of US taxpayer funds.

While a recent peer review uncovered weaknesses within SIGAR, development experts with experience in Afghanistan say that the auditors are not at the root of the problems facing the country’s reconstruction. Instead, many cite the failure of US agencies and other officials to listen to the auditors – including in the halls of Congress.

IN PICTURES: Afghanistan aid

“The auditing of US government-funded projects is really important, but it’s not the central piece [to help end corruption and waste in Afghanistan]. It’s following up on those findings,” says Ashley Jackson, head of policy for Oxfam International in Afghanistan. “If you look at the audits you see the same problems pointed out time after time.”

SIGAR's findings in Afghanistan

Some of the toughest – and most repeated – SIGAR criticisms of aid projects:

* Poor record-keeping. In 2009, SIGAR found that the US military did not know how many projects it was funding that year because of incomplete databases.

* Shoddy and unsustainable projects. In a forthcoming audit, SIGAR found that half of the military reconstruction projects surveyed already show maintenance problems after handover. A Monitor investigation found similar problems with other US projects, mostly as a result of poor or incomplete construction, as well as unsubstantiated expectations that Aghans could continue supporting a project.

* Cost overruns due to contracting problems. Last year, SIGAR reported that a $125 million contract to build a power plant in Kabul ballooned to $300 million and was a year late. This month, the US government awarded the same firm, Black & Veatch, a $266 million no-bid contract for another Afghan power project.

Criticism of SIGAR from the US Congress

But a bipartisan group of senators on the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight criticized SIGAR for nearly two years, first for sluggishness in hiring auditors, then for a lack of aggressiveness in the field.

Complaints intensified following peer reviews of SIGAR completed in August that presented a mixed picture of the fledgling agency. The reviews found SIGAR’s strategic plan had no performance targets and that the agency did not conduct formal risk-based assessments to help prioritize which projects to investigate. The report also noted that “stakeholders” were unhappy they weren’t consulted in that prioritization process.

SIGAR began working on implementing the peer review suggestions. But Fields also hired an “independent monitor” to oversee SIGAR’s performance, choosing a former Defense Department Inspector General who resigned in 2005 under allegations of misconduct that included misleading Congress.

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