Outside View: Afghanistan reconstruction poised for failure

By LAWRENCE SELLIN, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Aug. 7, 2009 at 11:00 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- Often we don't learn at all. Sometimes, we simply become more effective at doing the wrong thing.

In February 2009 a report issued by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction titled "Hard Lessons: the Iraq Reconstruction Experience" described massive waste, fraud and a lack of accountability in the $50 billion relief and reconstruction project in Iraq, most of it done by private U.S. contractors.

At that time, the report's senior author, Stuart Bowen, suggested that many of the same mistakes will likely occur again in Afghanistan because none of the substantive changes in oversight, contracting and reconstruction planning or personnel assignments that Congress, auditors and outside experts proposed for Iraq have been implemented in Afghanistan.

Less than two months after the release of the Iraq report, problems in the Afghanistan reconstruction program began to appear in the media. The similarities are striking.

A Washington Times report in March 2009 stated that as much as $5 billion of the Iraq reconstruction money was wasted on dubious contracts, often in areas where poor security made development projects unfeasible. Retired U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said that $32 billion spent in Afghanistan since 2001 has been less than effective, in part due to mounting instability in the country.

Both Fields and Bowen said that a lack of U.S. oversight and coordination among various agencies supervising reconstruction has compounded the problems. As stated in the Iraq report, entities such as the departments of Defense and State, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Corps of Engineers mostly act independently under circumstances in which coordination and collaboration are critically needed.

More importantly, Fields has recognized that poor coordination between Americans and their Afghan counterparts risks wasting money and slowing the reconstruction process. As recently as July 19, Fields stated, "There isn't always a direct connection between what the Afghans feel that they need and what the reconstruction effort is delivering."

One of the key recommendations of the Iraq report stressed that programs should be geared to indigenous priorities and needs and that host country buy-in is essential to long-term success. In many cases, there was a lack of sufficient Iraqi participation in deciding how or what to reconstruct and ensuring that projects could be maintained afterward. Sustainability of projects depends upon developing the local capacity of people and systems. Such an approach must include the ability to clearly distinguish between pursuing reconstruction to stimulate long-term economic growth and conducting reconstruction to support a counterinsurgency campaign.

In Iraq the U.S. government failed to strengthen its capacity to manage contractors. Even in late 2005, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad couldn't match projects with the contracts that funded them, nor could it estimate how much they would cost to complete. The report states that reconstruction in Iraq eventually consisted of 62 offices and agencies. There were no command-and-control capabilities, interagency project management or interoperable information systems that could effectively coordinate the activities of the hundreds of firms and subcontractors performing work at thousands of locations across Iraq.

The SIGAR report to Congress dated July 30 said five agencies and commands -- the department of state, the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Forces -- Afghanistan, Combined Security Transition Command -- Afghanistan and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Afghanistan Engineer District -- play major roles in the implementation of U.S.-funded reconstruction programs in Afghanistan. SIGAR found that the availability and use of information systems for project management varied significantly and didn't allow agencies and commands to share information easily. As the SIGAR correctly noted, a single system providing a common operating picture of the various ongoing projects would contribute enormously to the efficiency and effectiveness of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

What are we waiting for? Commercially available solutions that enable applications running on different platforms, written in different programming languages, using different data representations or using different programming models to communicate with each other without altering the original applications themselves already exist.

Every day American, NATO, coalition and Afghan troops are risking their lives to provide a secure environment to make reconstruction possible. We owe it to them to get it right, right now.


(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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