Afghan Corruption: Is the Inspector General the Right Man for the Job?

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NATO soldiers stand guard during a ceremony to mark the construction of a provincial council building in Herat, Afghanistan

Among the many lessons the U.S. has learned during its more than six years in Iraq is just how difficult it can be to follow the massive sums of money involved in trying to rebuild an entire country. Earlier this year Stuart Bowen, head of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), estimated that about 15% of the nearly $20 billion spent on major construction projects since 2003, or roughly $3 billion, had been wasted as a result of mismanagement or outright corruption. So, in an effort to avoid making some of the same mistakes in the nation's other war zone, Congress created a separate Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to review any agency's rebuilding spending in the country.

So far, however, that process doesn't appear to be going too well. A year since the special inspector general's position was formally established, there is growing concern in Congress that the critical new oversight office is already faltering, with many critics pointing fingers at the head of SIGAR, retired two-star Marine General Arnold Fields. Although no one on Capitol Hill is publicly calling for Fields' replacement, several senior congressional staff sources say they are moving in that direction but likely won't take any action at least until hearings are convened this coming fall.

One concern arises from a simple comparison between the performance of SIGAR and its Iraq counterpart, which produced 14 reports in its first year. By contrast, SIGAR has produced just two — and both have been widely considered substandard. "Contrast this with SIGIR — they were up and running and firing on all cylinders a year later and they have consistently been cranking out audits, reports, inspections, investigations that have brought to light a whole mess of problems over there and we just are not really seeing that," explains a senior staffer of a Senator with oversight responsibilities.

Critics say that even the two audits that SIGAR has so far made public — including one on a $400 million contract to train the Afghan National Army that is overseen by just one overworked, underqualified Pentagon employee — don't dig deep enough, nor do they deal with the biggest U.S.-funded projects that are ripe for corruption and misuse.

Its defenders counter that the SIGAR is just ramping up its activities, and therefore it is too early to judge its effectiveness. They maintain that it was hampered until Congress came through with adequate funding and expanded hiring authority in October, and Fields himself wasn't appointed by the Bush Administration until last July. As for comparisons with the Iraq special inspector general, some observers point out that SIGIR enjoyed a running start, because it emerged from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, and it had the pick of a relatively small pool of auditing and investigator talent willing to work in wartime conditions. John Brummet, the Afghanistan audit chief who is formerly of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), says the office will soon be inspecting a still-incomplete power plant in Kabul, originally budgeted at $100 million, where cost overruns now have U.S. taxpayers already on the hook for close to $500 million.

SIGAR's audit capabilities are actually considered pretty sound, in the assessment of several experts familiar with staffing there. The weaknesses, these sources say, reflect shortcomings in General Fields, whose key aides are also current or retired military men, some of whom have dubious qualifications for their senior posts.

In a one-hour phone interview with TIME, General Fields talked vigorously about the mandate and defended his record. "I knew that it was going to be a challenge to put together the right organization, particularly when we did not have funding, particularly when we wanted to put it together with a high level of folks who passed the credibility and scrutiny of those whom they may investigate or audit or inspect, but we have moved this organization along," says Fields. In a subsequent statement Fields emailed to TIME, he went further, stating that SIGAR has seven audits underway, has "initiated inquiries into 23 investigations", and was "part of a joint investigation that resulted in the indictment of two suspects in a bribery scheme". "We will try to ensure that our progress is more widely appreciated among all Members of Congress going forward," Fields said.

Still, some observers question whether Fields, given his military background, fully grasps the more robust independence invested in departmental inspectors general — such as his office, which reports directly to Congress — versus the much more constrained roles of an inspector general of a military command. Fields served two years as the inspector general of Central Command in Florida, but in the interview had a hard time conveying how that office's mandate is significantly different from that of the more full-fledged inspectors general.

"I like Arnie Fields, I knew him from Iraq [where Fields worked for 14 months until October 2005 for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad as the chief of staff of the Iraq Reconstruction and Management Office] but he comes from the military, and military IG mind-sets are very different from the departmental IGs," explains a former departmental inspector general who claims to know Fields well. "The military IGs are about being a support and help — and sort of the eyes and ears of the commander within the unit. Departmental IG is about waste, fraud and abuse, stewarding taxpayer dollars, and I am not sure he has moved fully from the former to the latter."

Fields, a South Carolina native, is regarded as likable, well-mannered and always courteous, but many question whether he has the fortitude to aggressively expose wrongdoing. An effective inspector general, after all, has to be willing (or even eager) to make enemies and possibly send them off to jail, as Bowen has done in Iraq. To many observers, Fields appears to be too much a team player. "I know him very well. He is a helluva nice guy [but] he is painfully shy and desperately anxious to please — it's a total misfit," says one retired military man.

Indeed, in expressing his views of his new job, Fields seems relatively low-key about the mission. Asked how serious a problem is corruption — which is widely understood to be rampant at even the highest levels of government in Afghanistan, and a major challenge to U.S. credibility on the ground — Fields replies: "Our work is beginning to show that there is at least a measure of corruption, but the depth and breadth of audits to sustain this idea, I think we will get to that point in the near term."

It is not entirely clear how Fields was chosen for the position, which was made without Congressional vetting. But several sources suggest that the Administration's experience with SIGIR — headed by Bowen, whose mandate is meant to expire at the end of next year — may have influenced that choice. Although once a staff member for Bush in his days as Texas governor, Bowen quickly became a nuisance for the Administration by producing a cascade of embarrassing reports from Iraq. Yet he was so well regarded that for a time Congress considered extending his mandate to Afghanistan, which would have avoided the long delays involved in starting up a new bureaucracy.

In the end, the idea was rejected and a new body was created, so that SIGIR would not be diverted from its primary task in Iraq. Now there is some talk of extending Fields' mandate to cover Pakistan as well, just as State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke's brief has been. In a recent Congressional appearance Holbrooke himself spoke in favor of this idea.