Commentary: Close but no SIGAR

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   Jan. 14, 2011 at 8:31 AM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- After no less than 10 quarterly reports to Congress, 40 percent of $56 billion -- $22.4 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds -- allocated to civilian projects in Afghanistan cannot be accounted for by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.

The original amount for civilian aid is now being increased to $71 billion.

Corruption and outright theft are rampant in the projects SIGAR supposedly inspects but SIGAR's top cop, retired U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, kept coming up empty handed as he labored to protect his 150-person organization (32 of them stationed in Afghanistan, most of whom don't speak any local language).

SIGAR employs 50 auditors, many of them "double-dippers," who collect both government pensions and six-figure salaries, but none of them ever conducted required forensic or contract audits. More than 100 cases of corruption -- both U.S. contractors and Afghan subcontractors -- were ignored. U.S. Government Accounting Office auditors look at programs but are not shown the uncompleted completion.

U.S. Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., led a team of Senate investigators that spent two years looking into what became the SIGAR scandal. But Fields kept parrying their attacks by laying his reputation as a black Marine general on the line. The persona he displayed at the congressional witness table was disarming. It was a look of hurt innocence and Marine rectitude.

Fields was also expert at deflecting suggestions of malfeasance in the ranks of SIGAR with references to his poor humble beginnings as a deprived black child in South Carolina.

"I raised up hard, ladies and gentlemen, in poverty myself," he told the senators. "I worked for less than $1.50 a day -- about what the average Afghan makes today in year 2010," Fields told a packed Senate Committee room. Voice shaking, he added, "I wish that someone had brought $56 billion to bear upon my life."

Tugging at heart strings, Fields reminded senators that "the day President Kennedy was buried, which was a no school day for me, my brother and I shoveled stuff out of a local farmer's septic tank with a shovel for 75 cents an hour for the two of us."

Senators applauded the 67-year-old general's humble beginnings but dismissed this part of his life as irrelevant. They were more interested in why his agency had only audited four out of 7,000 contracts. The Project on Government Oversight called for his resignation last fall but he still enjoyed solid White House backing -- and protection.

In a final gasp to appease the Senate's hound dogs, Fields fired two assistant inspectors general (for audits and investigations) and brought in a new deputy, Herbert Richardson, who retired from a bigger job as principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Energy, for the double-dipping he is now allowed at SIGAR (retirement from one agency and salary from the next).

But the senator sleuths grew tired of being treated like bumbling Inspector Clouseaus in the Pink Panther series and Fields, stripped of his Marine carapace and rapidly eroding White House support, resigned.

Where the $22.4 billion in U.S. taxpayers' money disappeared is still a mystery.

Much of it was payments to civilian contractors for unfinished and abandoned schools, roads, first aid stations, street lights. The building of one power plant, estimated at $100 million, came in at $300 million. And large amounts of cash leave Afghanistan legally among the estimated $10 million a day in U.S. currency that is carried out by passengers on flights from Kabul to Dubai, one of the seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates.

Afghanistan is littered with unfinished projects in areas that have switched from "secure" to "insecure." Taliban insurgents are under orders not to damage anything erected by the U.S. or other NATO nations as they want to be spared as much reconstruction as possible for when they believe they will be back in charge of government. Insurgency cadres tell villagers that will be within a year or "maximum two years." They are encouraged to accept aid from any quarter, a major change from when they could be executed for doing so.

Some 350 schools built in 13 provinces remain closed due to insecurity. The U.S. Embassy with five ambassadors and more than 1,000 diplomatic personnel remain largely confined to Kabul for the same reason.

Afghan governors have also learned how to extract funding from what they see as the western military cornucopia. Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa told journalists the government had put in a claim for $100 million in property damage caused by a major military operation in his province.

A McClatchy Newspapers investigation found that U.S. government funding for at least 15 large-scale programs and projects grew from slightly more than $1 billion to nearly $3 billion despite the government's questions about their effectiveness and cost.

The cost of the longest war in U.S. history is now at $500 billion. By 2014, the earliest estimate for a sizeable return of U.S. troops, the cost will be bumping $1 trillion -- what the Iraq war cost in the first decade of the 21st century.

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