Lawmakers slam office overseeing Afghan rebuilding

AP News
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Posted: Dec 09, 2009 11:43 AM

The U.S. inspector general's office overseeing Afghanistan's reconstruction has failed to hire enough staff and issued too few audits and investigative reports, three senators are warning President Barack Obama.

The office of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, headed by retired Marine Corps Gen. Arnold Fields, lacks leadership and focus at a time when aggressive, independent oversight of the country's reconstruction is more important than ever, the three senators said in a letter Tuesday to Obama.

In a statement, Fields said the Dec. 8 letter from Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., paints an inaccurate picture. The office "started from scratch with minimal funding," Fields said, adding that he has formed an experienced team that is helping to improve the reconstruction effort.

The inspector general's office is responsible for monitoring a broad range of projects, including training of the Afghan army and police, and ensuring U.S. tax dollars are spent properly. The office was created by Congress in 2008, nearly seven years after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan.

In their letter to Obama, obtained by The Associated Press, the senators don't call for Fields' resignation. But they do want the White House to conduct a thorough review of the office "to determine if improvements can be made to the organization."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The senators are members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The criticism of Fields' office comes as the Obama administration is escalating the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to stabilize the government and defeat the Taliban insurgency. But corruption with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and the primitive state of much of the country's infrastructure have led to concerns the goals may not be met even with more money and people.

According to the most recent quarterly report to Congress from Fields' office, the U.S. has committed $39 billion for reconstruction programs in Afghanistan. That figure is expected to hit $50 billion in 2010.

Without vigorous oversight by an experienced staff, the senators say, the rebuilding of Afghanistan will run into the same problems that occurred in Iraq, where nearly $50 billion was spent on reconstruction projects marred by waste and fraud.

Fields' office has "experienced significant, ongoing difficulty in recruiting adequate, qualified staff," the letter states. Of particular concern is the inability to hire investigators and auditors working in the office overseeing Iraq's reconstruction. As that effort winds down, those employees should be looking for new opportunities.

But because of "the perception that the leadership and quality of work" in Fields' office are not as robust, there's little interest in moving there, the senators say.

Fields says he is "perplexed" by that allegation. His office has hired employees from the Iraq office, but he also notes that he agreed "not to poach their staff."

He also says auditors and investigators are hired on merit and rejected the idea that his office simply absorbs employees from another organization without considering their qualifications.

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They also find fault in the number of reports the office has done and the topics selected. Since Fields was sworn in July 2008, his office has issued 14 audits and inspection reports, the senators say. By comparison, the Iraq oversight office issued nearly 70 reports in its first 18 months.

The senators say Fields' office has chosen questionable subjects for review. A report issued in late October examined the role of women in Afghanistan's recent presidential election when the office should be concentrating on contracting. The senators call the failure to set priorities for what the office examines a matter of "grave concern."

Fields said five more reports will be published in coming weeks and 13 other reviews of major programs and contracts are under way.

He also defended the election report, saying Congress allotted $150 million for the promotion of gender equality in Afghanistan.

To harness the experience of the Iraq oversight staff, McCaskill, Collins and Coburn recommend the two offices be combined with a single person in charge. Their letter doesn't suggest any candidates for the post.

Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, has held that job since October 2004.