Congress wants more scrutiny of U.S. spending in Afghanistan

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 15, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Members of a House subcommittee drilled three U.S. agencies Thursday for not tracking billions in U.S. money invested in the rebuilding of Afghanistan since 2002.

After reports of more than $3 billion being smuggled out of Kabul's airport since 2007 and that Afghanistan ranks as the second-most corrupt country in the world, lawmakers demanded to know where their constituents' money is going.

To approve the pending appropriation of another $3.9 billion for Afghanistan now would "(undermine) our civil-military mission and our responsibility to ensure Americans' hard-earned tax dollars are not squandered or mismanaged," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chairwoman of the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee.

Since 2002, the U.S. has spent over $51 billion on Afghan reconstruction, with $20 billion of that spent within the past two years.

Now, with watchdog reports on the inadequacies of Afghan forces and the benchmarks used to measure their progress, the committee established that it would not be a rubber stamp for more Afghan appropriations.

"Yes, money is leaving Afghanistan," said Arnold Fields of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in reference to the Kabul Airport situation.

SIGAR challenged the progress of Afghan forces, and said that U.S. troops will need to be in Afghanistan at least five to 10 more years.

Fields mentioned a weak justice system, government corruption and fraud as prominent factors why Afghanistan is not yet self-sufficient.

"We must do a better job to ensure taxpayer's dollars are not wasted," Fields said.

While agencies including the U.S. Government Accountability Office and U.S. Agency for International Development said there was no question that there was smuggling of money from Kabul Airport, they said that it's unclear whether it was money from the U.S. or not.

National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said that the Obama administration is working with the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency on inspecting and evaluating SIGAR.

"We are committed to minimizing waste, fraud and abuse in our reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and strong and effective IG operations in Afghanistan are important to those efforts," Hammer said.

Charles Johnson, a senior executive of the GAO, said that he recognizes the need for a more transparent system to see where U.S. money is going, but estimates the implementation of it would take six-to-eight months.

"The high-threat security environment has also limited the movement and ability of U.S.

personnel to directly monitor projects," Johnson said in his formal testimony. "USAID has specifically cited the security environment in Afghanistan as a severe impediment to its ability to directly monitor projects."

In addition, issues of the Afghan government lacking the confidence of its citizens, a lack of sustainable institutional knowledge and deficiencies in the Afghan bureaucracy have all tested the U.S. effort.

"This committee is under no illusions about the difficulty of implementing programs in Afghanistan, including security threats, a nascent banking system, and challenges in identifying and developing credible local partners," said Lowey. "We have the responsibility, the obligation to protect taxpayer money and get the process right."

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