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Auditors Advise on Future US Reconstruction in Afghanistan, Iraq

Government auditors have told the U.S. Congress that future U.S. reconstruction efforts must be monitored closely and managed competently to avoid a repetition of fraud and waste that occurred with efforts in Iraq.

In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, the special inspector generals for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan said Congress must apply tight oversight to future reconstruction activities to ensure that billions in taxpayer dollars are not wasted.

Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, says reform is needed, adding the U.S. government currently lacks an efficient system to manage and carry out such operations. "The U.S. government does not have an established framework for the management and execution of contingency relief and reconstruction operations," he said.

In Iraq, Bowen notes that the need for security sharply increased reconstruction costs, a fact reflected in inspector general and Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports since the U.S. military invasion in 2003. After spending some $50 billion in Iraq, he says, infrastructure goals were not achieved.

Among many lessons learned, Bowen says, is that relief and reconstruction operations require unity of command, better communication among departments and agencies, and improved rules for contractors.

Retired Major General Arnold Fields, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, says his office has begun an audit of U.S. reconstruction funds, projects and contracts.

He identifies as a key issue the U.S. government's ability to manage contractors, saying his office will be conducting a number of reviews on the use and performance of contractors in Afghanistan.

While Afghanistan and Iraq share similarities, he says, there are also key differences that need to be taken into account. "The nature and scope of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq have many similarities. However, as members of this committee are aware, conditions in Afghanistan from the standpoint of economic, geographic, demographic and political offer unique challenges to the feasibility and sustainability of reconstruction efforts," he said.

As the United States embarks on a new strategy in Afghanistan, Democratic House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton says learning lessons from Iraq will be increasingly important. "Among many other problems, at some point during the war in Iraq, the reconstruction effort suffered from poor financial controls, poor interagency coordination, and a lack of strategic planning. While to some extent these problems were addressed over time in Iraq, we must ensure that the lessons that we learned there at great expense are not lost," he said.

John McHugh, the ranking committee Republican, says if one thing has become clear from numerous congressional hearings and auditing reports, it is that more work needs to be done when it comes to reconstruction management and oversight. "In Iraq we will continue to assist that nation with their security forces for the foreseeable future. At the same time, building up the Afghan national security forces is a vital element of our counter-insurgency strategy there. In other words, this work is essential and we cannot afford any longer the inefficiencies and waste that has riddled our past efforts," he said.

Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers of the Government Accountability Office, says reconstruction both countries will require establishing and maintaining basic security, building a sustainable economic foundation, and holding governments accountable for economic and political commitments.

In Afghanistan, she says progress in building Afghanistan's national security forces to establish security has been slow, and as occurred in Iraq, deteriorating security conditions threaten U.S-funded projects. "A lack of security in Afghanistan has put U.S. funded development projects at risk. Concerns over security have delayed projects, increased costs, and again changed the scope and nature of the projects," she said.

Bridgers calls Afghanistan's development strategy, aided by the U.S. and other donors, under-funded adding that it may not be viable given current levels of assistance.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, she says, the U.S. must clearly define its objectives, estimate future costs, and seek to coordinate all U.S. government agency and international reconstruction efforts.