Development aid in key Afghan province lacking in oversight, audit finds

Criticism is rising in Washington about the coherence of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. But troops on the ground have different measures of success.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 10:49 PM

U.S. and other international development programs in a key Afghan province are "incoherent" and lack mechanisms to avoid wasteful overlap or to monitor their success, according to a new report by government auditors.

More than $100 million in U.S. aid to Nangahar province, an area in eastern Afghanistan often cited as a model for success elsewhere in the country, was spent in fiscal 2010 with little or no input from local officials, according to the audit by the congressionally mandated Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

A separate SIGAR report released Tuesday warned of insufficient training of U.S. Foreign Service officers and other government civilians working throughout Afghanistan as part of the Obama administration's "civilian surge." The number of civilians has tripled since early last year and is expected to reach 1,500 by January 2012, rivaling the U.S. Embassy in Iraq as the world's largest.

The report said the State Department has done a good job of providing housing and other support for the rapidly growing workforce. But it faulted the effort to integrate civilian and military forces, saying that goals were often undercut by reliance on "ad hoc arrangements and individual personalities" rather than any agreed standards.

SIGAR was modeled after an investigative body set up to audit the multi-billion-dollar U.S. reconstruction program in Iraq, where vast corruption and waste was uncovered. Some in Congress have cited SIGAR for not being aggressive enough in examining massive U.S. expenditures in Afghanistan, estimated at about $100 billion in combined military and civilian activities this year.

Spending for Afghanistan from 2001 to the end of fiscal 2010 totaled about $336 billion, about $60 billion of it for non-military "reconstruction" projects. The total is less than half the cumulative expenditures in Iraq, beginning in 2003, although annual Afghanistan funding exceeded Iraq for the first time this year.

'Increasingly concerned'

In its July quarterly report to Congress, SIGAR said it was "increasingly concerned" that the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan was impeded by lack of accountability and oversight, inadequate metrics and attention paid to sustainability of projects, and insufficient Afghan institution-building.

All of those concerns arose in the Nangahar audit. Afghanistan's second-largest revenue-producing province and the most densely populated, its capital city of Jalalabad sits astride the main highway between Kabul and Peshawar. Although security is said to have deteriorated over the past year, it is considered a relatively stable part of the country.

The province spends 85 percent of its $60 million operating budget on wages for government employees and about 4 percent on development projects. "The U.S. government and other donors fund most of the development in Nangahar," the SIGAR report said, "but do not track funds or coordinate provincial funding with other donors."

Major donors, including the United States and the United Nations, "do not routinely collect or disseminate detailed data," or separate what they are doing in Nangahar from countrywide expenditures. "As a result," the report said, "U.S. officials . . . do not have the information necessary to effectively monitor and evaluate USAID programs."

Information on projects funded by the Commander's Emergency Response Program, through which the U.S. military dispensed $58 million in development aid to Nangahar this year, and USAID, which spent about $42 million, is not reported to the Afghan government, it said.

The report said that the province lacks an overall development plan and that local officials have virtually no control over decisions on where donor money is spent. It is also critical of the government in Kabul, which it said controls all funding, appointments and contracting in Nangahar without local input. U.S. policy in Afghanistan calls for empowering government levels below Kabul, but "provincial officials are effectively disenfranchised" by the current system.

Despite U.S. rules requiring that projects be sustainable, the report said, "Nangahar's provincial officials cannot manage or maintain what they cannot see, and most of the externally funded U.S. and international development activities we identified . . . are implemented without the input or visibility of provincial officials." Nangahar officials, it said, "are severely limited in their ability to sustain U.S.-funded development projects."

Lack of planning by the U.S. and Afghan governments, it said, "has resulted in an incoherent approach to development because accomplishments cannot be measured against needs identified in a plan, and ultimately impeded capacity development within the provincial government."

'Systemic obstacles'

In a response to the report, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said that it recognized "systemic obstacles" to local management of development and the provincial budget but that "this is a matter of Afghan law" giving such powers to the central government. "All the governor and other provincial officials have is the power of persuasion," the embassy said of the provincial relationship with the national government.

In its "civilian surge" report, SIGAR said civilians working in the field "at all levels" raised concerns about the increase, "including the effectiveness of training; level of agency guidance . . . [and] models for civilian-military integration," as well as the "long-term sustainability" of the surge.

In the rush to fill personnel quotas, the report said, civilians new to the U.S. government, while technically qualified, "lack complete understanding of their agencies' missions and operating procedures." Some officials interviewed by SIGAR said that they were not told their assignments or deployment locations before arriving in Kabul and that their job descriptions were vague.

The report also said some civilian officials felt their knowledge of policy and procedures was inadequate compared with the military. "When civilians cannot provide quick responses to their military counterparts," it said, "they are viewed as being ineffective."

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