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House Oversight Chair Wildly Optimistic About Afghanistan Mission; Reality Begs to Differ

Ed Towns arriving in Kabul (apparently via Honolulu) August 6 (photo: ISAFMEdia on Flickr)

In an interview this morning  House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Ed Towns sounded quite pleased and highly optimistic about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Towns visited current Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus and with members of Afghanistan’s parliament this past week; he’s apparently gained confidence that Petraeus will be able to root out corruption in the Afghan government and deal effectively with related contracting controls problems — in spite of the impending departure of the Dutch and other countries from the coalition effort, and what appears to be Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s continuing tepid efforts to reduce corruption in his country’s government.

Town’s optimism seems completely at odds with what the public knows. On Nov. 3, 2009, Towns had sent a letter to Defense Secretary Gates asking him to supply the total number of contractors and subcontractors in Afghanistan and Iraq.

No formal response to that request has been received as of this date, although there has been at least one informal hearing in early 1Q2010 between the DOD and Oversight Committee personnel about the request. No public-facing documentation about informal hearing(s) has been furnished through the Oversight Committee’s website. Sources indicate the numbers are being held close to the vest in a couple different functions within DOD; staff at the Oversight Committee say that investigations into contracting oversight remain ongoing.

How can Towns be so enthusiastic when there has been so little real data indicating progress on contracting controls?

Towns’ upbeat attitude seems even more out of place given the Oversight Subcommittee on National Security’s report, WARLORD, INC.: Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan, released in late June. The report revealed considerable corruption, affecting supply logistics in Afghanistan, reportedly originating from the Afghan government itself. As summarized in Section 4., Unaccountable Supply Chain Security Contractors Fuel Corruption:

Finding: HNT contractors and their private security providers report widespread corruption by Afghan officials and frequent government extortion along the road. The largest private security provider for HNT trucks complained that it had to pay $1,000 to $10,000 in monthly bribes to nearly every Afghan governor, police chief, and local military unit whose territory the company passed. HNT contractors themselves reported similar corruption at a smaller scale, including significant nubmers of ANP checkpoints. Military officials confirmed that they were aware of these problems.

Further heightening a sense of cognitive dissonance with regards to Towns’ reaction to General Petraeus’ plans is the disparate testimony on July 15 in front of the House State, Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Arnold Fields: (cont’d.)

…U.S. agencies have no comprehensive data base on reconstruction contracts. Without complete and reliable information about contracts and subcontracts, it is difficult for U.S., donor, and Afghan stakeholders to properly oversee the performance of contracted activities. Using data from the Departments of Defense, State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development SIGAR is compiling a list of primary vendors and the reconstruction contracts, grants, and cooperative agreements they are implementing. This has been a time consuming undertaking, but it will enable SIGAR to identify the principal firms, nongovernmental organizations, and other entities involved in reconstruction programs in Afghanistan.

We have a continuing concern about the ability of implementing agencies and their prime contractors to monitor contracts. One of our early audits found that the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), which was responsible for training the Afghan security forces, did not have enough contracting officers and program managers to oversee major contracts.

Are we really supposed to believe that with the change of a single leadership role in Afghanistan, that these enormous problems with accountability and transparency in DOD contracting and the mission in Afghanistan have changed virtually overnight, that a culture in which lawlessness and corruption has been ingrained for decades has suddenly turned itself around?

One might wonder what kind of hyperbole Rep. Towns received during his trip to Afghanistan, or before his interview this morning. Perhaps he’s simply suffering from a very, very bad case of jet lag…

[Photo: Afghan contractors discuss road building with U.S. soldiers (source: ISAF Media via Flickr)]

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