Afghanistan: Oversight AWOL?

The effort to monitor billions of dollars in reconstruction contracts is understaffed and underfunded. So says the guy in charge.

| Thu Jul. 16, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

After the legendary corruption of the Iraq occupation—private contractors fashioning spurs for their cowboy boots from stolen Iraqi gold, vanishing pallets of shrink-wrapped cash—you'd think the US government would be keeping an extra-close watch on the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. But you'd be wrong. Who says so? The guy in charge of rooting out corruption. Even as the Obama administration steps up spending in Afghanistan, it's shortchanging the government auditors responsible for ensuring that taxpayer dollars don't wind up in the pockets of swindlers and opportunists.

Afghanistan already places fifth in Transparency International's annual ranking of the most corrupt nations in the world. The US plans to spend nearly $14 billion there over the next financial year on military operations and reconstruction projects, up from about $11 billion this year. Yet Arnold Fields, the official charged with keeping track of this money—as well as foreign investment in US-sponsored programs—says in an interview with Mother Jones that he lacks the tools for the job.

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For several months after the creation of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in July 2008, SIGAR was "just a couple of us," Fields says, until the agency belatedly received its first injection of funds. In March, when President Obama unveiled his new Afghanistan strategy, he promised "robust funding" for Fields' anti-corruption efforts. But Fields says his FY2010 budget of $23 million is still about $8 million short of what he needs. Instead of the 90 employees Fields asked for, SIGAR has 44. It has produced just one audit. By way of contrast, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) released more than a dozen audits in its first year.

Perhaps more so than Iraq, Afghanistan is an ideal destination for would-be war profiteers. As Fields told members of the House Armed Services Committee in March, "Iraq had much more upon which to build…We are really constructing as opposed to reconstructing in Afghanistan." At the time of the US invasion in 2003, Iraq boasted the world's third-largest oil reserves, a per-capita annual income of $4,000, an average life expectancy of 70 years, and 74 percent literacy. Afghanistan, by contrast, has no natural resources to speak of, per-capita annual income is just $800, life expectancy is a dismal 45 years, and only 28 percent of the population can read or write. It has precious few paved roads, no railways, and only four airports with runways suitable for large aircraft. Its mountainous, landlocked geography is a haven for insurgents. Moreover, whereas Iraq under Saddam Hussein possessed a corps of competent technocrats, Afghanistan's civil society has been decimated by more than 30 years of uninterrupted warfare. Much of the countryside is now under the sway of tribal warlords and devoted to harvesting opium, by far the country's most lucrative industry.

Corruption thrives in such conditions. During one of Fields' recent trips to Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai personally requested his help in cleaning things up. The request illustrates the tightrope Fields must walk: cracking down on corruption while satisfying Afghan requests to have more control over reconstruction funds. The president's older brother, Mahmood Karzai—a wealthy Kabul-based businessman himself accused of exploiting his younger sibling's influence to amass a large fortune—told me by phone from Afghanistan, "The reconstruction that is going on is not based on the priorities of the Afghan people." Asked if the Afghans could be trusted with reconstruction funds, he claimed that indigenous fraudsters siphon off far less money than do foreign ones. "I'm in favor of the lesser of two evils," he said. "Corruption in Afghanistan is petty."

Whether corruption is domestic or imported, the need for oversight is becoming increasingly urgent. The Government Accountability Office warned this spring that "the sudden influx of substantial amounts of donor money into a system already weak from poorly regulated procurement practices increases the risk of corruption and the waste of resources." And the Pentagon isn't helping. The DOD has assigned a single, overworked representative to monitor a $404-million contract to provide training and support for Afghan security forces. That officer "has limited contracting experience," noted SIGAR's first and only audit in May, adding that the rep had yet to make any site visits. And waste of reconstruction funds is not only an affront to taxpayers—it undermines Obama's strategy in Afghanistan. If vital infrastructure doesn't get built because the money has gone missing, it adds weight to insurgents' efforts to convince civilians that the central government is inept and incapable of providing security.  

But Fields is not yet discouraged. A slight, wiry man with metal-frame glasses and a bald pate, his ramrod posture and knuckle-crushing handshake betray his military pedigree. We met in his Pentagon office, a sterile room containing little more than a desk and a table. Fields is exceedingly polite, often saying "thank you" before responding to questions and punctuating his answers with "sir." He's a native of Early Branch, South Carolina, a small town named after Confederate commander Jubal Early. After studying agriculture in college, Fields was drafted and joined the Marines. Over the next 34 years he advanced steadily, and ended his military career in 2004 as deputy commander of the US Marine forces in Europe. He went on to become the chief of staff of the office that meted out reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

In his new role, Fields has worked closely with Stuart Bowen, head of the Iraq Inspector General's office, who has warned that the US is poised to make the same mistakes in Afghanistan that caused the Iraq reconstruction effort to lose track of billions of dollars. "Unless the expanding Afghanistan program draws upon the lessons learned in Iraq, substantial waste of taxpayer dollars will occur," Bowen told Congress in March, with Fields at his side. SIGAR "is unsurprisingly uncovering problems similar to those we found in Iraq," Bowen continued, lamenting that most of the $32 billion in US reconstruction funds budgeted for Afghanistan since 2001 have been spent "with little oversight."  

So far, Fields has little to show for all the sober talk. He assured me that SIGAR would publish a series of audits this summer, covering subjects ranging from Afghan governance to elections. But today, few people in Washington even know who he is. If Fields has his way, that could change. "It is my intent to take this to the limit," he says. "I might take it to a point at which the Congress might say, ‘Fields, you have reached too far.'" Presently, though, Congress could just as easily say he hasn't reached far enough.

For a shorter version of this article, read No Accounting for Waste.