The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, much of it on private contractors who do everything from train Afghan security forces to build schools.
These projects are crucial to the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
Now more than eight years into the war, the government office in charge of tracking these projects has issued its first major report. The conclusion is that billions of dollars have been spent, but no one knows for sure what that money has bought.
Better Tracking System
Between 2007 and 2009, the U.S. government paid $18 billion to roughly 7,000 contractors doing reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Patrick Peterson, who wrote the report for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, says the big problem is that the agencies doling out those funds -- mainly the Pentagon and the State Department -- don't have a clear way to track this kind of spending.
"There are contractors who provide food and meal service for our troops – that's not easily distinguishable from a contract say to build a road in Afghanistan, conduct a police training or conduct an anti-drug operation in Afghanistan," Peterson says. "That's the challenge."
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says this is no obscure accounting challenge. The U.S. contracting problems in Afghanistan have huge consequences for the U.S. military strategy.
"Has it seriously jeopardized our ability to win the war? The answer is yes," he says.
Not being able to track reconstruction dollars means not knowing if projects designed to win over the Afghan people are working.
Counterproductive Reconstruction Efforts
At the same time, lax U.S. contracting rules have, in some ways, actually fueled parts of the insurgency, Cordesman says.
"You don't know whether the money is being used by power brokers or corrupt officials or people who are using it to build up local power or, for that matter, simply to pay off the Taliban and other insurgents," he says.
The reports issued this week by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction are the first to give a comprehensive look at how all contracting dollars are being spent. The big question is why it's taken so long.
"This might have been excusable going into Afghanistan in 2002," Cordesman says. "We had no real experience in doing anything like this. More than eight years later, there's absolutely no conceivable excuse."
Congress didn't pass legislation creating the Afghanistan Inspector General's office until 2008. Now that the office is up and running, it's produced a report that says the reconstruction records are so bad that it's almost impossible to review them.
A Broken Office Overseeing The Spending?
Special Inspector General Arnold Fields says it's his job to conduct audits and investigate the funds made available for reconstruction in Afghanistan.
But, he says, "If I cannot identify those funds for reconstruction in Afghanistan then I'm unable to carry out the full measure of the legislation."
Earlier this year the Afghanistan reconstruction office was itself audited and got a failing grade on management and standards.
A group of senators, led by Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, the chair of the subcommittee on contracting oversight, has called on the White House to fire the special inspector general.
McCaskill says if the White House doesn't act soon, she'll call a special hearing on the matter when Congress re-convenes next month.
She and others say you can't expect to fix the contracting system in Afghanistan if the office meant to do the fixing is broken, too.