WASHINGTON — Nearly 18 billion dollars earmarked for reconstruction in Afghanistan remain unaccounted for, snagged in a "labyrinth" of contract bureaucracy, a sweeping US government audit has shown.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said 17.7 billion dollars was obligated over three years to nearly 7,000 contractors, but the Pentagon, State Department and US Agency for International Development were unable to say how much money has been spent.
The audit addresses fiscal years 2007 through 2009, but the problems go back to 2002 when the United States began funding Afghan reconstruction, because "much of the data available from the agencies prior to 2007 was too poor to be analyzed," the report said.
And years into the reconstruction there is still no central government database to monitor the projects from various US agencies and departments, SIGAR found in its report, which was seen Thursday by AFP.
"Prior to this audit report there was no comprehensive study on contractors and the money the US is spending through contractors on Afghan reconstruction," said special inspector general Arnold Fields in the first such snapshot of the reconstruction contracting environment in war-torn Afghanistan.
"This audit is crucial because if we don't even know who we're giving money to, it is nearly impossible to conduct system-wide oversight."
Reconstruction is a key component in a US-led anti-insurgency effort which seeks to stabilize the volatile south and east of Afghanistan, in part by helping Afghan farmers and improving local government.
Asked about the report, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said it did not come as a surprise and that the administration has been working to improve accountability.
"I don't think we're surprised that as we're going through this, we're going to have reports like this that show weaknesses," Crowley told reporters.
He said the report would contribute to "our efforts to improve our cooperation with the Afghan government and improve the ability of the Afghan government to be responsible and accountable for the support that we do provide."
The SIGAR said its report, addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and US ambassador to Baghdad Karl Eikenberry, "shows that navigating the confusing labyrinth of government contracting is difficult, at best."
It said the Department of Defense alone has four organizations set up to track Pentagon-funded contracts, but they do not share information. Cross-agency information sharing is also minimal, it found.
SIGAR, mandated by Congress to try and track reconstruction spending, identified nearly 7,000 contractor groups, including for-profit and non-profit groups as well as government agencies involved in Afghanistan.
Among the largest contracts, it said, is a deal worth 1.8 billion dollars to a US-based company to train Afghanistan's national police forces, and 691 million dollars to an Afghan construction firm to build military facilities.
The future of the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan is believed to be in jeopardy because of President Hamid Karzai's threatened ban on private security guards, which aid organizations rely on for protection.