The Afghan money pit
A Pentagon report due out this week will probably try to convince us that the war in Afghanistan is on the right track. And yet a poll released this month surveying Afghan public opinion says otherwise.
Although the poll results showed some bright spots, after spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, security and day-to-day life in many regions of Afghanistan aren’t improving. When asked if crime and violence, economic opportunity and freedom of movement are getting better, worse or staying the same, most Afghans stated that things were worse on all three fronts. Availability of electricity, food, medical care and schools has shown little or no improvement in recent years, they said. Afghans are witnessing more violence, not less; their support for the war, according to the survey, is diminishing. Nearly six out of 10 Afghans said Western troops should leave on or before the original July 2011 withdrawal date; only 17% say the deployment should be maintained longer.
What the Afghans see, or don’t see, on the ground is a strong sign of a particular American failure there: too little oversight and accountability for billions of taxpayer dollars pouring into that nation.
This is no secret. Billion-dollar projects granted in Washington end up in Afghanistan with a mere fraction of funds left. Skimming and bribery are pervasive. My colleague, Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), as chairman of the House oversight subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs, reported the prevalence of extortion and corruption along the U.S. supply chain in Afghanistan. My staff’s fact-finding trip to Afghanistan found government and nongovernment officials — from the Afghan minister of rural rehabilitation and development to World Bank officials to heads of local Afghan organization — with similar tales about pervasive waste and fraud in foreign efforts. Meanwhile, the U.S.-based Louis Berger Group Inc. continues to manage multiple billion-dollar contracts in Afghanistan, despite paying a criminal penalty and civil claims after admitting to systematically overbilling American taxpayers.
Congress created the post of special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction to provide independent and objective oversight of the war’s stabilization and reconstruction funds, but like so much about the war effort, there isn’t enough to show for it. The Afghanistan inspector general’s office has produced only four convictions to date, and its investigations have failed to meet minimum standards, according to peer reviews. This prompted a bipartisan team of U.S. senators to send a letter asking the president to remove Arnold Fields, who heads the office.
Compare the Afghanistan effort with the inspector general’s office in Iraq. In this quarter alone, the Iraq inspectors found a Marine Corps major illegally depositing more than $440,000 into U.S. bank accounts, a U.S. military contractor involved in a $360,000 bribery scheme and a U.S.-based construction company participating in an $800,000 kickback conspiracy.
In fairness, the Afghanistan-focused team cites its relatively recent 2008 arrival as the reason for its less-than-stellar performance so far. The Iraq-focused team has been up and running since 2004.
Given the comparatively weak Afghanistan team, and the fact that the Iraq inspector general’s office is due to close in 2012 despite 50,000 troops and 80,000 defense contractors still operating in Iraq, we need a better form of oversight. Iraq and Afghanistan — and every other U.S. “contingency operation” involving billions of taxpayer dollars — should be under the watchful eye of a permanent, independent Office for Contingency Operations, with its own special inspector general. Rather than a piecemeal and reactive approach to the oversight of billions of dollars in these situations, we need a dedicated shop run by a proven investigator who can report to the National Security Council, and the Defense and State departments, without being cowed by political pressure.
We cannot afford to continue overseas relief and reconstruction efforts in an ad-hoc fashion, spending billions of taxpayer dollars under “emergency” pretexts with too few conditions and too little coordination, transparency, oversight and evaluation. It weakens our economic and national security.
Like the Afghans, Americans have told pollsters this month that they are tiring of our longest and most expensive foreign war. They would like it even less if they were getting a transparent and complete look at exactly how their dollars are being spent — or misspent.
A permanent Office for Contingency Operations, whose mandate would transcend political timetables, would send the message that transparency, efficiency and efficacy are institutional priorities, and waste and corruption will not be tolerated. Do this and not only do you begin to turn the tide of American and Afghan public opinion, but you get a lot closer to the stability we set out to secure in the first place.
Mike Honda is a Democrat representing California’s 15th District in the House of Representatives.