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USAID: Understaffed and overwhelmed in Afghanistan

Obama's troop surge fails to address how to improve delivery of aid.

An Afghan construction worker places mud on a wall for a new building in a school in Taloqan, east of Kundus, April 23, 2009. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Understaffing combined with unwieldy budgets on rushed schedules in an active war zone have severely undercut the U.S. Agency for International Development’s ability to deliver nearly $10 billion in aid for development projects in Afghanistan.

A new report by USAID’s inspector general raises serious questions about how U.S. taxpayer dollars are being spent — or misspent — in Afghanistan on the construction of roads, bridges, schools and other projects.

A dramatic shortage of program officers as well as auditors and investigators and poor security conditions on the ground have all conspired, the 128-page report concludes, to “significantly impair” the objectives of USAID’s mission, which is to provide economic development and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and around the world.

The summary report is based on numerous individual audits and at least 14 active investigations, but it offers few specific details on the fraud, bribery, extortion and kickback schemes which involve at least $150 million in taxpayers’ money.

The failure of USAID to effectively monitor the development projects threatens to undermine the U.S. military’s new counterinsurgency strategy and troop surge, which is built upon the effective delivery of aid in the struggle against the Taliban for hearts and minds.

“We are sending too much money, too fast with too few people looking over how it is spent,” said one official knowledgeable of the USAID inspector general’s auditing process for the $9.4 billion obligated to Afghanistan in the last seven years.

“We end up not knowing where the money is going,” added the official, who is pushing for a deeper investigation into alleged abuses by contractors and subcontractors and widespread corruption from the highest levels of the Afghan government to the lowest level of subcontractors in the field.

That push for a further investigation is joined by the House Foreign Affairs Committee which is examining the delivery of foreign aid and the need for more USAID auditors and investigators to be assigned to the field.

The committee's interest was spurred in part by a special report by GlobalPost that highlighted how USAID funds are going to Afghan subcontractors who are allegedly paying protection money to the Taliban.

Following the GlobalPost report on how subcontractors are purportedly being extorted by the Taliban, the USAID inspector general’s spokeswoman Dona Dinkler said the agency was conducting a probe into those allegations. In a recent briefing, she declined comment on the status of what she described as an “active” investigation.

The probe comes amid an overall rethinking in Washington of how the restructuring of USAID has left the agency vastly ill-equipped to deal with the challenges it faces, particularly in Afghanistan.