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EXCLUSIVE: $5 billion for Afghans still unspent
As the U.S. prepares to send more money and troops to Afghanistan, investigators are reviewing why $5 billion in previously appropriated aid has not been fully spent, how money meant for short-term humanitarian projects was diverted to road building and why Afghan police received inadequate training.
U.S. personnel involved in oversight, Afghan officials and documents made available to The Washington Times show that the problems began or intensified from 2005 to 2007, when Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry - President Obama's choice to be the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan - commanded U.S. and NATO forces in the country. Gen. Eikenberry faces confirmation hearings on Thursday.
The issues raised are reminiscent of those that troubled the U.S. mission in Iraq. But unlike in Iraq, only in the past year has a body been created to investigate. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is led by retired Marine Gen. Arnold Fields, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee.
"Afghanistan is a critical front in the ongoing battle against Taliban and al Qaeda extremists, and there is no place for waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer money in such an important endeavor," committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, told The Times.
Mr. Skelton said his committee "established the SIGAR to help prevent misuse of Afghanistan reconstruction funds" and expects the oversight body to "demand answers to any allegation of waste, fraud or abuse in Afghanistan and throughout the defense budget."
The need for scrutiny over U.S. spending will intensify as more U.S. troops surge into Afghanistan, with at least 60,000 expected to be serving there by the end of August. The Obama administration also is preparing to inject more civilian personnel and money for construction and development, as well as for training Afghan soldiers and police.
According to interviews and documents reviewed by the Times:
• Of $32 billion in aid appropriated for Afghanistan, $5.625 billion has not been fully disbursed. The problem of "unexpended" funds rose sharply after 2005, according to a SIGAR report to Congress in January.
• Commanders' Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds, are supposed to be used by the military to fund short-term projects such as clinics, were diverted to road building and other long-term capital spending. Of $700 million in CERP funds, only $3 million has been audited.
COMMENTARY: O'HANLON: Afghan exit strategy a must-have
• Afghan police were trained for paramilitary rather than law enforcement duties, and figures were inflated for those capably trained and on active duty. Afghan specialists have said repeatedly that one reason for the resurgence of the Taliban is the fact that Afghan police are corrupt and do not pursue criminals.
• Gen. Eikenberry in 2006 failed to provide full and unfettered access to information and locations for a Defense Department team to conduct a full audit and inspection of some projects.
Gen. Fields, in an e-mail to The Times, said his organization on Feb. 18 asked U.S. government agencies "to provide explanations on why there are billions of dollars of appropriated funds that have not been fully disbursed."
He added that "on Feb. 27, 2009, SIGAR notified the Departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan that it is initiating several reviews, including a review of internal controls and accountability over the Commanders' Emergency Response Program (CERP)."
Gen. Eikenberry declined requests for comment. A Pentagon spokesman said current systems were adequate to protect against abuses.
"We have a robust internal-review structure built into our everyday operations, through the chain-of-command system," said Army Lt. Col. Mark Wright. "There are a multitude of rules regarding the proper disposition of property and money."
But Mr. Obama, who is expected to release the results of an Afghanistan strategy review as early as this week, hinted Tuesday at what he saw as a lack of discipline in the handling of the war to date.
"My expectation would be that over the next several years you are going to see a more comprehensive strategy, a more focused strategy, a more disciplined strategy to achieve our common goals," he said after a White House meeting with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Polls show that Afghan support for the U.S. presence has plunged from more than 80 percent in 2005 to less than 50 percent today. Former and currently serving U.S. officials said U.S. efforts to win popular support were hampered by the diversion of resources to Iraq and made worse from 2005 to 2007 by waste and disunity within the U.S. mission.
Army Col. David Lamm, chief of staff to Lt. Gen. David Barno, Gen. Eikenberry´s predecessor, said the team in the country had been "tight knit" and centered around an interagency working group at the embassy compound, where Gen. Barno lived along with the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. Regular meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet were held to decide on development projects aimed at winning hearts and minds, Col. Lamm said.
He said interagency relations started to fray soon after Gen. Eikenberry and Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann arrived.
Gen. Eikenberry moved to "put new fingerprints [on the mission] and change things right away," said Col. Lamm, now a counterinsurgency specialist at the National Defense University.
Two months after arriving, Gen. Eikenberry moved out of the compound. The responsibilities of the Embassy Interagency Planning Group and the Interagency Resources Cell - units designed to assure integration and monitoring of projects - were abridged and later phased out, said two U.S. officials who remain involved with operational issues and financial oversight. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of concerns of about retribution.
This shift in protocol upset Afghan officials presiding over a fragile government amid a gathering insurgency, Col. Lamm said.
"People saw the U.S. military going its own way," he said.
Mr. Neumann, who is now retired from the foreign service, counters that he worked closely with the general. The move outside the embassy compound, he explained, was because of a lack of space for the general's staff.
"I found generally that the military worked harmoniously with us," he said.
Roads over clinics
Started in Iraq to provide junior officers with authority to spend money quickly on small, high-impact projects, the CERP program was designed to complement the work of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). However, under Gen. Eikenberry, roads became a focal point.
At one point, said a senior military officer who served under Gen. Eikenberry, road projects accounted for nearly 70 percent of CERP funding, exceeding the capacity of the Army Corps of Engineers and leading to an 18-month backlog. The officer asked not to be named to avoid prejudicing his career.
In an Oct. 2005 memo obtained by The Times, Gen. Eikenberry informed his staff that "CERP will shift focus from projects to programs [systems]; higher capital program packages to build more capacity [i.e. roads program. I will retain flexibility throughout the fiscal year to shift funds as necessary.]"
In June 2006, Gen. Eikenberry testified before the House Armed Services Committee that better access to markets created more income for Afghan farmers and an alternative to growing opium poppies.
However, then-acting USAID Administrator James Kunder told the same hearing that the roads being built generally did not help farmers because there were not sufficient markets for them to sell their goods.
Mr. Neumann said it was wrong to suggest that they were building roads to nowhere, since "in many cases,markets don't exist until you have roads to get to them."
"I totally believe roads and [electric] power were the most important things we could do in Afghanistan," he said. "As General Eikenberry has repeatedly said, 'Where the roads stop, the Taliban begin.' "
Mr. Neumann conceded that the Corps of Engineers at times became overextended, but he added, "So did everyone else."
About this time, Afghan Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatemi was told that no funds were available for urgent humanitarian needs, ministry officials said.
A series of high-profile projects promised by Ambassador Khalilzad, such as an agricultural school, were canceled, the two U.S. officials said. They said a burn unit built with CERP funds in Herat did not get sufficient funding to be sustainable.
Waste and abuse
At the end of last year, money spent under CERP exceeded $700 million, according to the U.S. Embassy. The huge sums opened the program to allegations of waste and abuse.
For example, the commander of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in eastern Afghanistan told a local governor: "I have $20 million to spend. What would you like me to do with it?" The comment was included in a field report given to one of the two U.S. officials by a Defense Department inspector.
In another instance, a former PRT commander in the eastern province of Ghazni used millions of dollars in CERP funds to begin building an airport in an area where one already existed.
When an independent audit of CERP funds was attempted by the Defense Department in 2006, the two officials said, the auditors weren't given full access to review all projects, even though a July 2005 memo from the Pentagon comptroller´s office had required all officials to "cooperate fully with any review, audit or investigation" by U.S. authorities.
The two officials said that only $3 million in projects was audited, and that of that amount, nearly $1.7 million went for activities outside the original scope of the program.
'Piecemeal' police training
The U.S. also struggled to build a functioning police force.
Instead of creating a community-based force to handle everyday law enforcement, U.S. authorities shaped the police into a paramilitary outfit that attempts to fill gaps in the U.S.-led coalition but lacks the training or pay to fight insurgents successfully, according to interviews.
"A narrow focus on counterterrorism in the post-Taliban period led to over-securitization of the rule of law despite the fact that the establishment of the rule of law is the key to winning the people in post-conflict environments," said Ali Jalali, Afghan interior minister from 2003 through 2005.
"This led to building the police as a counterinsurgency force. Instead of police protecting the population, they were pushed to fight insurgents. This subordinated the rule of law to operational security tasks," Mr. Jalali said.
He added that "the push for quick training and equipping police forces in large numbers thwarted police capacity both as a law enforcement agent and as a counterinsurgency force. The inadequately trained, lightly equipped, poorly paid and badly led police forces deployed in small numbers in remote areas were extremely vulnerable to attacks by well-armed insurgents, causing heavy losses to the force. The neglect turned the police into an incompetent and corrupt force, driving the people away from the government."
Mr. Neumann acknowledged problems.
"We got into police training piecemeal and late," he said. The State Department "originally funded [the program], but it had so many problems that responsibility for implementation was transferred to the military, with policy direction remaining with the ambassador."
Mr. Neumann said the State Department lacked personnel to deal with the police, while the U.S. military had "more bodies" to throw at the program.
Given an expanded Taliban offensive in the summer of 2006, however, "we could neither get additional U.S. forces nor expand the Afghan army in time to meet the need," he said. "We tried to use the Auxiliary Police for static security under Ministry of Interior authority. In the end, the program ran into many problems, but the concept was a last-ditch effort to provide security to the population."
Underarmed and exposed, the police continue to bear the brunt of Taliban attacks, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry, which recorded nearly 1,200 insurgency-related police deaths last year.
Gen. Fields told The Times that his organization needs more money to do its job and that he is seeking $7.2 million on top of $16 million appropriated last year.
"The shortfall limits our ability to provide oversight of the $32 billion reconstruction program," Gen. Fields said. "[We] hope that additional resources will be made available soon so that SIGAR can move forward to provide the oversight that the Congress intended."
• Barbara Slavin and Sara A. Carter contributed to this report.
About the Author
Taxpayers must pay the freight for over-budget train projects
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