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McCaskill wants 'aggressive' investigator of Afghanistan aid

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2011 - WASHINGTON - For the second time this year, the troubled watchdog office charged with ferreting out fraud and abuse in U.S. reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan is losing its chief investigator. And the future of that office may be up in the air as Congress focuses on ways to cut the Pentagon's budget.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- who had called for the departure of the previous special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), Arnold Fields, for weak oversight -- said Friday that the investigator who replaced him in January, Herbert Richardson, had "made great progress in a short amount of time." Richardson will be leaving next month.

While some lawmakers have considered the possibility of merging SIGAR with the more successful watchdog office for Iraq contracting, McCaskill said in a statement that "it is essential that an aggressive, principled investigator fill the [SIGAR] post quickly to oversee the billions of dollars being spent in Afghanistan, and ensure that accountability is not compromised for a second."

Since 2001, the United States has spent about $70 billion in security and development assistance contracts in Afghanistan, one of the world's most corrupt countries. At a November hearing of the contracting subcommittee she chairs, McCaskill lashed out at Fields, who resigned two months later under pressure from her and other lawmakers.

Over the last few months, observers have said that SIGAR -- which had been created by Congress -- appeared to be making progress. In an audit report published in July, SIGAR found that U.S. agencies have limited control over dollars that enter the Afghan economy -- leaving it vulnerable to fraud and diversion to the Taliban insurgency. SIGAR also aid poor cooperation by the Afghan government impeded U.S. efforts to help develop the Afghan financial sector.

"The United States has poured billions of aid dollars into a country plagued by corruption, insurgency and the narcotics trade," SIGAR's Richardson said when the report was released. "It is essential that we use all available tools to ensure that U.S. dollars are protected from fraud and diversion to the insurgency."

As first reported Thursday in a Foreign Policy magazine blog, Richardson plans to retire from the government and take another job early next month. In a statement, Richardson said he would take a private-sector job "at a time when I'm convinced SIGAR has changed course, is producing results, and is being led effectively by the new leadership team that I've put in place."

The Foreign Policy report said several lawmakers had called for combining SIGAR with the office of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction (SIGIR), which has been praised for its work and whose mission is winding down as U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq. For example, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., says they should be merged into a new Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations. Congressional staffers say the law that created SIGAR gives the president the authority to combine it with its Iraq counterpart and expected Pentagon cutbacks may make that an option.

McCaskill did not comment Friday on the consolidation proposals, but she said "there is still much more to be done" in auditing contracting in Afghanistan. "Rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan has proven dangerously elusive," she said. The Senate contracting oversight panel she chairs may look further into Afghanistan contracting this fall.

The latest SIGAR turmoil was reported that same week that the International Crisis Group -- a non-profit NGO "committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict" -- issued a report asserting that, despite tens of billions of dollars in aid, the United States and the international community have "failed to achieve a politically stable and economically viable Afghanistan."

Noting that Afghan institutions remain fragile and unable to provide good governance or deliver basic services to the majority of the population, the report concluded that "the international community still lacks a coherent policy to strengthen the state ahead of the withdrawal of most foreign forces by December 2014."

The report found that the impact of reconstruction aid will remain limited unless the United States and other major donors "stop subordinating programming to counter-insurgency objectives, devise better mechanisms to monitor implementation, adequately address corruption and wastage of aid funds, and ensure that recipient communities identify needs and shape assistance policies."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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