One of the pitfalls President Barack Obama wants to avoid in Afghanistan is the gross waste of reconstruction aid that went on in Iraq.

So it’s sobering to listen to the warnings from Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a post created by Congress five years ago. Bowen carries around a thick paperback titled “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” which traces, as he put it, “the pervasive waste and inefficiency … mistaken judgments, flawed policies and structural weaknesses … in the largest nation-building program in history.” (You can read details of the billions lost or stolen at www.sigir.mil)

Recently, Bowen told the House Armed Services Committee that “unless the expanding Afghanistan program draws upon the lessons learned in Iraq, substantial waste of taxpayer dollars will occur.”

Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan shies away from the kind of grandiose nation-building tried in Iraq. But he still wants to offer U.S. expertise to build up Afghanistan’s economy and government. This is necessary to undercut the poppy economy and dissuade unemployed youths from joining the Taliban.

On her way to a donors’ conference last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said our Afghan aid programs “don’t work” and called the money wasted there “heartbreaking.” Bowen argues that unless we drastically overhaul the way we deliver aid to Afghanistan, we’ll make the same kind of mistakes as we did in Iraq.

The inspector general is a fascinating figure. A Republican lawyer and longtime Bush ally, he took his assignment so seriously (even taking on Halliburton) that Republicans in Congress tried unsuccessfully to eliminate his post.

Bowen tells a depressing tale of overly grandiose projects with little oversight in violence-ridden Iraq. They lacked clear goals and often failed to consult with Iraqis. Until the arrival of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, there was little coordination between U.S. civilian and military officials.

“It would be crazy to continue funding contingencies the way we have,” Bowen said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week.

Over the years, USAID, the U.S. aid agency, has suffered large staff cutbacks, eliminating the bulk of its technical specialists. It has become largely a contracting agency that hires consulting companies, which have trouble operating in difficult security situations.

In such situations, local military commanders often carry out the most effective aid projects with their discretionary funds. But this has forced the military into tasks it was never meant to handle.

Now, Congress has shifted responsibility for post-conflict rebuilding back to the State Department; an interagency “civilian response corps” of on-call technical specialists will supposedly be set up for emergency rebuilding. Yet it’s still unclear how civilian and military officials will coordinate aid projects.

In Afghanistan, there also must be a rethinking of strategy for designing aid projects, Bowen warns. Projects should be coordinated with local people, not funneled through layers of contractors or Western bureaucrats.

In Iraq, he says, U.S. officials tried to transform the society with massive projects that Iraqis often didn’t want and couldn’t absorb. Example: a $277 million water-treatment plant in Nasiriya that local people lacked the skills to staff. Iraqis have rejected hundreds of projects that U.S. officials tried to hand over to them, such as a half-finished prison in north Baghdad on which $40 million was wasted. “The process isn’t working, because they don’t want what we’ve built,” Bowen said.

The need to revamp that broken process is vital to U.S. security. Development aid has become a crucial tool in fighting insurgencies in failed states, which can’t be defeated by military means alone.

Rick Barton, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said USAID has been demoralized, but now is “the golden moment to fix things.” He added: “This is a time of wrenching failures and spectacular need. The secretary of state gets it, the president is wildly supportive, the public wants better systems.”

Afghanistan looms as the big test. President Obama has pledged that “the days of unaccountable spending, no-bid contracts, and wasteful reconstruction must end.” And Congress has appointed retired Marine Gen. Arnold Fields as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. “I’m working to ensure no replication (of the Iraq story) in Afghanistan,” Fields said. Wish him luck.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is: [email protected]


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