Potential Afghan Reconstruction Challenges Cited

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009

Government auditors sounded a warning yesterday for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan as they outlined to lawmakers how a lack of security, coordinated planning and effective oversight has hobbled the United States' $50 billion effort in Iraq.

They pointed to American-built projects that Iraqis cannot run themselves as an example of an issue that could be even more problematic in Afghanistan, where three-quarters of the population is illiterate, the average annual income is $800, and the country has few paved roads, no railway and only a handful of airports with paved runways. By contrast in Iraq, 74 percent of the population is literate, the average annual income is $4,000, and the nation has a network of roads, railways and airports.

"Afghanistan has a much lower absorptive capacity for investment," Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. "Any investment has to be aimed at [their] capacity. You build above that, you lose it."

Similarly, Pentagon officials have expressed a key concern that the Afghan national security forces they are training lack the capacity to perform the intelligence and data gathering necessary for national security, said Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers, managing director for international affairs and trade at the Government Accountability Office.

At the same time, said Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, Afghan leaders are pressing to be more involved in the redevelopment of their country. "More specifically, the government and ministries of Afghanistan would like to partake more in the contracting effort," he said.

That raises concerns of corruption, abuse and inadequate oversight of the tens of billions of U.S. dollars appropriated for Afghan reconstruction.

The reconstruction effort in Iraq is winding down as the effort in Afghanistan is ramping up, with $32 billion appropriated since 2001 and more coming.

Iraq reconstruction has been hindered by a dearth of trained Iraqi contracting officers, officials said. That is a prime reason why Iraq has a $47 billion budget surplus, largely from oil income, GAO officials said.

At least $3 billion to $5 billion in U.S. taxpayer money has been lost to contractor waste, Bowen said. That's 15 to 20 percent of the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund.

He pointed to a $40 million prison in Diyala province north of Baghdad sitting unfinished in the desert. The Iraqis, who he said did not want it and cannot maintain it, call it The Whale.

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