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McCaskill questions $17 billion for Afghan reconstruction

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Imagine a highway that cost nearly $3 million a mile to build. A $300 million power plant that's been called a White Elephant because it is too expensive to run. Provincial justice centers in Afghanistan paid for by the Pentagon.

And, to add to the confusion, a bureaucracy so dense that even U.S. senators can't figure out exactly who to blame for problems with the 150,000 or so contracts - paid for by American taxpayers - that have been signed as part of the $61 billion spent so far on Afghanistan reconstruction. The administration of President Barack Obama has requested another $17.3 billion for Afghan reconstruction in next year's budget.

"Perhaps it's time to shut down $17 billion ... going for reconstruction projects, when our track record really stinks," said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., at a Senate hearing Thursday. "It's really time for a gut check."

McCaskill, a longtime critic of waste in U.S. contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, grilled witnesses from contractors, the Defense Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, which she chairs.

Telling witnesses that she was angry with the government's slow progress in tightening oversight of such contracts, McCaskill questioned whether projects such as the American-built Kabul Power Plant - which costs a fortune to operate on diesel fuel - and the remote 64-mile, $176 million Gardez-Khost Highway will be sustainable once U.S. forces finally leave Afghanistan and aid subsides.

"I've got too many people in Missouri saying, 'Why can't we fix this road?' and we can't afford it. But then we spend all this money on projects in Afghanistan that are clearly not sustainable," McCaskill said, calling the $17 billion budget request for Afghan reconstruction "enormous." She added: "It is now an urgent matter for this Congress to look seriously at whether or not that kind of reconstruction money is absolutely essential to our mission in Afghanistan."

The Pentagon and USAID witnesses generally defended the reconstruction funds and said efforts are being made to make sure that the U.S.-funded projects are "sustainable" - that is, will be able to be operated and maintained by the Afghans once the U.S. departs.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced that 33,000 U.S troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 2012, leaving about 68,000 troops, most of which would be gradually sent home between then and the end of 2014. Maintaining that "our strategy in Afghanistan is working," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David S. Sedney told the panel that "security gains are enabling key political initiatives to make progress."

The director of USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, Alexander Their, told senators that "sustainability is of paramount concern to us," and said USAID is making investment in Afghanistan that will help the nation's energy, agriculture, industrial and financial sectors.

But U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the subcommittee's ranking Republican, questioned projects such as the Kabul power plant and the Gardez-Khost Highway, which was built at great expense, and at the cost of 21 lives, to connect two mountainous provinces in southeast Afghanistan -- Paktia and Khost -- to try to interrupt a route that insurgents used to move money and guns into Afghanistan from Pakistan's tribal areas.

"The question is whether the policy makes sense," Portman said, complaining of "a huge risk" and demanding a reassessment of the projects. "Because so much of what we are doing and building we may not be able to maintain" after U.S. forces leave Afghanistan. "If we are not going to be sustained, why are we doing this?"

Portman said there were now about 154,000 contractors in Afghanistan working for the Pentagon, USAID and the State Department. "The issue of effective and efficient use of those contractors assumes a new urgency as we near both the surge drawdown" and the planned transition to Afghan-led security in 2014. "It's also, of course, a timely discussion given our fiscal problems and the fiscal crisis at our doorstep."

McCaskill expressed frustration that the loosely controlled money that was given to U.S. commanders to address reconstruction and humanitarian relief in Afghanistan - the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) funding - has now morphed into a much larger program, the Pentagon's Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund, that she called "CERP on steroids." The budget calls for projects such as a power generator in Kandahar and provisional justice centers elsewhere.

"This morphing of CERP into something bigger makes accountability and oversight very difficult," McCaskill said. She added later: "I'm trying to figure out how much we're spending and who's in charge. Who is making the decisions on projects that are not sustainable?"

After a back and forth with the Pentagon and USAID witnesses, McCaskill said she was frustrated about the weakness of oversight in billion of dollars in spending. "I don't think the public can have any confidence that there is accurate reporting of the money we are spending in Afghanistan," she said.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.