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USAID: Understaffed and overwhelmed in Afghanistan

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

Wendy Chamberlin, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and former assistant administrator in the Asia/Near East bureau of USAID, said, “The development community has no model for Afghanistan.”

Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan finance minister and a presidential candidate, said the system of delivering U.S. aid to Afghanistan was “broken.” Ghani and Chamberlin both called for a fundamental restructuring of the program during a discussion this month at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

Many critics in the U.S. and Afghanistan have observed that U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech last week calling for 30,000 troops was noticeably lacking detail on a civilian strategy for the effective delivery of aid.

By the USAID inspector general’s own assessment, a lack of security in the war-torn country has made it impossible for U.S. officials to effectively carry out development.

The lack of eyes in the field has made it difficult to substantiate allegations of corruption, including the report by GlobalPost that the Taliban may be running a protection racket in which subcontractors are forced to pay as much as 20 percent of a contract to the Taliban. Failure to pay, according to several Afghan contractors who spoke to GlobalPost on the condition of anonymity, means employees are targeted for killing or the projects are bombed.

One official knowledgeable of the details of the report said that large contractors in Afghanistan are suspected of hiring private security firms who investigators believe may be the ones paying protection money to local Taliban leaders.

But USAID project chiefs, auditors and investigators are often unable to thoroughly investigate such claims because there is no paper work to substantiate them and because investigators are too frequently trapped inside the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul, prohibited from going into the field to assess progress due to strict rules governing the movement of U.S. government staff in the war zone.

Obama recently nominated Rajiv Shah to head the agency. At confirmation hearings earlier this month, Shah recognized deep problems in the agency and said the administration had secured funds to hire more than 300 additional foreign officers, including program officers and auditors.

But Dinkler said, “An increase of officers will be of little help if they are unable to get out and monitor the projects. They have to be able to get into the field and the U.S. Embassy has to be a partner in helping the USAID officers to do that.”

In addition, bloated USAID project budgets are being spent on rushed schedules with too few auditors and project managers in place to watch over them. According to the report, USAID has fewer than 14 auditors and two investigators, who are based in Manila, the Philippines, and provide oversight to programs in 22 other countries in the region, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now there is only one auditor and one investigator on the ground in Afghanistan, Dinkler said, although USAID says they will soon be adding three more staff to that team.

The report offers “investigative summaries” in which it describes some successes by USAID in thwarting corruption and finding savings, but it offers scant details on these cases.

Leading experts with years of experience in delivering development aid to Afghanistan have told GlobalPost that the most recent individual audits and investigation summaries are more forthright than most, but still offer a glimpse at only the tip of the iceberg of corruption and misspending.

USAID was founded under President John F. Kennedy and in the late 1960s had staffing levels that reached 17,500 employees. By 2005, that number had shrunk to just 2,400, according to research by Middlebury College Professor Allison Stanger.

As a result, USAID is increasingly reliant on a web of contractors and subcontractors to deliver foreign aid. It's become "a check-writing agency," said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of an appropriations panel that allocates foreign aid.