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US Military Still Lacks Oversight on Billions in Afghanistan

Posted by Steve Hynd on May 20th, 2009

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I’m not the only one to worry that that the gap between COIN theory and COIN practise will cost both lives and dollars. On paper, “people centric counter insurgency” looks great – so great that some interventionists see it as giving a whole new lease of life to the idea of successful colonialism. But the concept of winning hearts and minds keeps hitting up against an institutional aversion to U.S. combat deaths in the form of devastating airstrikes on civilians; the notion of targeting terrorists through better intelligence hits up against unchecked $5,000 bounty payments, indefinite detention and torture for the crime of “walking while Moslem”; and reconstruction efforts hit up against rampant corruption, bribery of even military officers and an institutional aversion to detailling soldiers as oversight beancounters. And the trouble with COIN is that it is “whole war” theory – if one bit doesn’t work, you as often as not might as well not have bothered.

Today there’s yet another indication that the gap between theory and practise is a vast chasm, unlikely to be meaningfully bridged anytime soon despite Gate’s pro-COIN budget. This time, from the Government Accountability Office. It’s entitled “Actions Needed to Improve Oversight and Interagency Coordination for the Commander’s Emergency Response Program in Afghanistan” (PDF) and slams the military for underresourced, inadequate oversight of reconstruction contracts worth billions.

Although DOD has used CERP to fund projects that it believes significantly benefit the Afghan people, it faces significant challenges in providing adequate management and oversight because of an insufficient number of trained personnel. GAO has frequently reported that inadequate numbers of management and oversight personnel hinders DOD’s use of contractors in contingency operations. GAO’s work also shows that high-performing organizations use data to make informed decisions about current and future workforce needs. DOD has not conducted an overall workforce assessment to identify how many personnel are needed to effectively execute CERP. Rather, individual commanders determine how many personnel will manage and execute CERP. Personnel at all levels, including headquarters and unit personnel that GAO interviewed after they returned from Afghanistan or who were in Afghanistan in November 2008, expressed a need for more personnel to perform CERP program management and oversight functions. Due to a lack of personnel, key duties such as performing headquarters staff assistance visits to help units improve contracting procedures and visiting sites to monitor project status and contractor performance were either not performed or inconsistently performed. Per DOD policy, DOD personnel should receive timely and effective training to enable performance to standard during operations. However, key CERP personnel at headquarters, units, and provincial reconstruction teams received little or no training prior to deployment which commanders believed made it more difficult to properly execute and oversee the program. Also, most personnel responsible for awarding and overseeing CERP contracts valued at $500,000 or less received little or no training prior to deployment and, once deployed, received a 1-hour briefing, which did not provide detailed information on the individual’s duties. As a result, frequent mistakes occurred, such as the omission of key clauses from contracts, which slowed the project approval process. As GAO has reported in the past, poorly written contracts and statements of work can increase DOD’s cost risk and could result in payment for projects that do not meet project goals or objectives.

While mechanisms exist to facilitate coordination, DOD and USAID lack information that would provide greater visibility on all U.S. government development projects. DOD and USAID generally coordinate projects at the headquarters and unit level as well as through military-led provincial reconstruction teams which include USAID representatives. In addition, in November 2008, USAID, DOD and the Department of State began participating in an interagency group composed of senior U.S. government civilians and DOD personnel in Afghanistan to enhance planning and coordination of development plans and related projects. However, complete project information is lacking, because DOD and USAID use different databases. USAID has been tasked to develop a common database and is coordinating with DOD to do so, but development is in the early stages and goals and milestones have not been established. Without clear goals and milestones, it is unclear how progress will be measured or when it will be completed.

Striped of the government-speak: the military is spending billions in Afghanistan on projects it doesn’t even know the status of, and could care less. It’s deja vu all over again. In Iraq, oversight was so awful that entire big-rig vehicles went missing, the police academy had to be rebuilt from scratch and the US embassy ended up years late and millions over budget. Now, years later, the same mistakes are being made. And like Iraq, the primary benefactors are US-based companies, not Afghans. As expert Anand Gopal recently explained in an interview:

All of the problems that existed in Iraq–fraud, lack of oversight, backroom dealing, etc.–exist here, and possibly to an even greater degree.

While the world is mired in an economic crisis, Afghanistan is one place where business is booming–if you’re foreigner or high-level government official. It is astonishingly easy to land a contract if you have the right connections. If you have any expertise in law, finance, engineering, governance, education, health care, etc.–or even if you just pretend to–you can take home a six-figure salary as a consultant.

Much of the U.S. aid and development programs here bypass the central government. While some feel that this weakens the authority of the state, this most likely wouldn’t be an issue if the money was actually spent constructively–since the central government would only stand to gain from the economic development of the countryside.

The real problem is that most of the money spent here ends right back in American coffers, not in Afghanistan. This is something that deeply upsets Afghans.

The GAO sets out the consequences clearly enough:

The expected surge in troops and expected increase in funding for Afghanistan heightens the need for an adequate number of trained personnel to execute and oversee CERP. With about $1 billion worth of CERP funds already spent to develop Afghanistan, it is crucial that individuals administering and executing the program are properly trained to manage all aspects of the program including management and oversight of the contractors used. If effective oversight is not conducted, DOD is at risk of being unable to verify the quality of contractor performance, track project status, or ensure that the program is being conducted in a manner consistent with guidance. Without such assurances, DOD runs the risk of wasting taxpayer dollars, squandering opportunities to positively influence the Afghan population and diminishing the effectiveness of a key program in the battle against extremist groups including the Taliban.

Costing not just dollars galore, but also American and Afghan lives.

(Also on Newshoggers)

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to “US Military Still Lacks Oversight on Billions in Afghanistan”

  1. bz2880 says:

    Please somebody stop the CERP money it is being used by Commanders in ways the Amercian public would not approve of. I have seen it first hand being mismanaged and used to purchase items that was not the intended purpose.

  2. bz2880 says:

    Please somebody stop the CERP money it is being used by Commanders in ways the Amercian public would not approve of. I have seen it first hand being mismanaged and used to purchase items that was not the intended purpose.

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