Afghanistan watchdog says $11 billion in U.S. funds are at risk

The outgoing U.S. watchdog over Afghanistan reconstruction projects warned Monday that substantial changes are needed to prevent the waste of $11 billion in American funds set aside for building security forces in the country. 

Arnold Fields, Washington’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a special commission that U.S. officials have repeatedly failed to perform long-term planning before undertaking complex projects there. 

“We have no plan for where we are going. We don’t know where we are going,” said Fields, a retired Marine Corps major general. “And so, we will not know when we will get there.”

His office’s audits and investigations have found numerous examples of facilities being built without consideration for whether the Afghanistan government is able to pay the maintenance bills or train a workforce to keep facilities operational, Fields told the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting.

Poor long-term planning will undermine U.S. goals in Afghanistan and will result in wasted U.S. funds, said Fields, who recently announced his intention to step down amid political pressure.

“Without a facilities plan that reflects current requirements, the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan puts its $11.4 billion for Afghan National Security Forces facilities construction at increased risk of being wasted because facilities may not meet … strategic operational needs,” he told the commission.

The $11.4 billion in funding will be used to build 884 facilities for Afghan security forces, the special IG’s office found in an audit to be released Jan. 26. 

“In addition, [the coalition command] is providing $800 million for the operations and maintenance of completed [Afghan security force] facilities for up to five years,” Fields said, adding the office plans “to aggressively review and audit all expenditures in this area.”

Several commission members said they are worried the Afghanistan government will lack the funds to maintain the U.S.- and coalition-funded projects. 

In some cases, such as a large power plant outside Kabul, the U.S. is building “something so large the Afghan government can’t afford to sustain it,” commission member Robert Henke said.

Failing to think about whether the Afghanistan government and economy can ensure U.S.-funded facilities are kept in working order “is a problem that permeates the whole of the reconstruction efforts,” Fields said.

If lawmakers approve the Obama’s administration’s $11.6 billion request for 2011 to build Afghan security forces, Washington will have devoted $39.4 billion to that project since 2005, according to the special IG’s office.

Along with lackluster long-term planning, Fields told the panel that too often reconstruction projects are undertaken with “inadequate expertise” and “substandard materials.”

Fields also used his final appearance before the commission to criticize Washington, saying the $23 million in initial funding he was promised arrived too late for him to “impact the organization as I would have liked.” The delay in funding left him with a skeleton staff, which he said was partially responsible for the office producing few reports and audits in its early months.

Lawmakers and good government groups that last year pushed for his ouster complained loudly about the IG office’s lack of output.

Fields also panned federal agencies for failing to provide ample support — even charging the special IG’s office fees when they did help out.

The outgoing special IG also promised commission member Katherine Schinasi that the office would be looking into sole-source contracts for major projects. He acknowledged that on projects with a price tag above $500 million, the U.S. government apparatus in Afghanistan often performs poor oversight. 

While Schinasi raised concerns about U.S. prime contractors having problems meeting schedule and other contract targets, one private-sector executive questioned some government contracting tactics.

Charles Mouzannar, executive vice president at AMEX Earth & Environmental, Inc., highlighted the government’s increased use of firm fixed-price contracts, as well as an increased practice of picking the lowest bid.

“This contracting method is effective when site conditions are known, security conditions are relatively stable, the supply chain is available and the scope of work is reasonably defined,” Mouzannar said. 

“However, many of the projects that are currently funded across Afghanistan do not conform to the above criteria,” he told the panel, “and could easily result in significant cost overruns, delays in contract performance, and the government’s failure to achieve its mission at the project location at the desired cost.”