- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2009

Afghan reconstruction will require a disciplined, long-term U.S. aid commitment and the watchdog agency tasked by Congress to provide independent oversight needs greater resources to do its job, government auditors said Wednesday.

With President Obama scheduled to announce a new Afghan strategy this week that involves a substantial increase of manpower and money, the auditors warned that the situation is ripe for waste and fraud unless accountability improves.

“Unless the expanding Afghanistan program draws upon the lessons learned in Iraq, substantial waste of taxpayer dollars will occur,” Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, told the House Armed Services Committee.

The U.S. has so far spent more than $50 billion on nonmilitary aid for Iraq, including $21 billion for reconstruction. As much as $5 billion of the reconstruction money was wasted on dubious contracts, according to Mr. Bowen, often in areas where poor security made development projects unfeasible.

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), said that $32 billion spent in Afghanistan since 2001 has been less than effective, in part due to mounting instability in the country.

He resisted comparing Iraq and Afghanistan, citing the latter´s dearth of natural resources and infrastructure, low education levels, ethnic and linguistic diversity and rough geography.

But both he and Mr. Bowen said that a lack of U.S. oversight and coordination have compounded the problems.

On Wednesday, The Washington Times reported that $5.625 billion in Afghan aid has not yet been accounted for, while hundreds of millions of dollars designated for short-term humanitarian projects were diverted to other uses.

According to Defense Department inspectors, attempts to review questionable expenditures have been thwarted by U.S. military officials, including Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and Mr. Obama’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador there.

SIGAR was created last year to investigate possible abuses regarding all U.S. agencies working in Afghanistan.

Just returned from his third trip to Afghanistan, Gen. Fields said his agency is working closely with other auditors to set priorities and explore allegations of wrongdoing.

He said he has a team of 41 auditors and support staff, but needs 90 people to do the job.

Gen. Fields stressed that it would take more time and money to open offices and build the staff necessary to scrutinize a vast bureaucracy at home and abroad.

Moreover, he said that a shortage of funding could hamper SIGAR and requested that an additional $7.2 million be added to the $16 million operating budget appropriated last year.

Without the extra funds, “We will not be able to bring aboard the robust staff that is commensurate with the robust mandate that Congress has imposed upon us,” Gen. Fields said.

Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, Texas Democrat, recommended SIGAR receive the additional funds “to save money that might be misspent somewhere else.”

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