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From Clinton, plain talk on Afghanistan

In testimony, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton questioned contractor hiring in Afghanistan and where U.S. aid money is going.
In testimony, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton questioned contractor hiring in Afghanistan and where U.S. aid money is going. (Andrew Harrer/bloomberg News)
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Candor is, sadly, in short supply in Washington, particularly when government officials discuss shortcomings related to Afghanistan before congressional committees.

But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, during last week's marathon set of hearings on President Obama's new strategy in that war, gave two examples of forthrightness that are worth further examination: a discussion of trouble with expanding the workforce of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, and a tough look at how U.S. aid money is being slipped into the hands of the Taliban.

In hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clinton said that there has been a 10-month investigation of what USAID was doing on the ground in Afghanistan, and that "we didn't particularly come away impressed." Many of the 300 civilians there were on six-month rotations and did not have well-defined missions, and many spent time out of the country, she said. More important, Clinton added, "most of our civilian aid going into Afghanistan had been contracted out without adequate oversight or accountability."

Plans call for tripling the USAID workforce and changing its mission. "But," she added, "the numbers are going to have to grow if we expect to deliver on what is required."

Clinton's dilemma is spelled out vividly in an October USAID contractor solicitation for a second phase of what is called a "support" project. "Significant increases in USAID/Afghanistan's budget and program portfolio since 2002 had outstripped workforce resources," said the solicitation to continue what amounts to a shadow, contractor-run USAID office in Kabul, with its own building and personnel. The project calls for supplying contractors to take over just about every personnel need required of the main USAID/Afghanistan office.

Among the services this project provides are "activity/project designs, assessments, evaluations, management information and reporting, mapping, translation and interpreting services." In addition, contracted technical specialists "collect and disseminate public information, enhance the quality of data, and develop web content."

The reason for these contractors is explained in the background section of the solicitation. It says direct hire of American, third-country and local employees is constrained by "limited office space, housing, high costs for administrative support, operating expense limitations and security restrictions."

USAID needs the contracted experts "to temporarily fill the staff slots until such time as the [Kabul] Mission has been able to fill the staff slots through its own internal recruitment process," the solicitation says. Although the contractors will be asked to do such jobs as assist with field-based monitoring of USAID projects and the evaluation of these projects, and even propose the makeup of evaluation teams, the proposal said that since they are not "U.S. Direct Hire employees, they will not perform inherently government functions."

Appearing later before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Clinton gave a blunt summary of how U.S. funds get into the hands of the Taliban -- a problem that the news media have referred to in the past only through anonymous government officials.

"Much of the corruption [in Afghanistan] is fueled by the money that has poured into that country over the last eight years. And it is corruption at every step along the way, not just in the palace in Kabul," she told the legislators.

Referring to the daily stream of truck convoys that bring supplies into the landlocked nation, Clinton said, "You know, when we are so dependent upon long supply lines -- as we are in Afghanistan, where everything has to be imported -- it's much more difficult than it was in Iraq, where we had Kuwait as a staging ground.

"You offload a ship in Karachi. And by the time whatever it is -- you know, muffins for our soldiers' breakfast or anti-IED equipment -- gets to where we're headed, it goes through a lot of hands. And one of the major sources of funding for the Taliban is the protection money. That has nothing to do with President Karzai."

She concluded: "We have to do a better job, on the international side, to coordinate our aid, to get more accountability for what we spend in Afghanistan."

Clinton also picked up on a theme that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, emphasized in his report this summer: He sought support for efforts to keep the door open to Taliban members who might be willing to renounce terrorism if there were a financial alternative.

Echoing the general's report, Clinton said: "We understand that some of those who fight with the insurgency do not do so out of ideology, theology or conviction, but frankly due to coercion and money. The average Taliban fighter, it is our information, receives two to three times the monthly salary than the average Afghan soldier or police officer."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company