Watchdogs: Agencies risking billions in war zones

Friday - 6/3/2011, 9:40am EDT

Mike Thibault, co-chair, Commission on Wartime Contracting

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Graphic base: Army contract employees install a fabric end section on a new maintenance tent at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. (Photo by Jim Hinnant, 401st Army Field Support Brigade)
By Ruben Gomez
Federal News Radio

The U.S. government risks wasting billions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan because of poor planning, according to a congressional panel monitoring reconstruction efforts there.

The federal government has not done enough to make sure host countries can sustain U.S. funded projects, the Commission on Wartime Contracting wrote in a new assessment released today.

"Potential waste from unsustainable projects exceeds $11 billion for just one program in Afghanistan," the panel wrote about a facilities construction project for the Afghan National Security Forces. "The total risk from all contracts in both Iraq and Afghanistan could be much higher."

U.S. troops are scheduled to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July. The military presence in Iraq is scheduled to end by Dec. 31.

Co-chair Mike Thibault told Federal News Radio, "significant contracting and costs are going to be incurred," covering the time after the United States leaves Iraq. "How is that going to be awarded? Who's going to award it? Where does the money flow in? And how is the cost going to be managed? We as a commission believe that this is probably higher risk to potential waste than the many situations we've already reported under."

The commission singled out the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Departments of Defense and State for what it called inadequate planning.

Investigators who have examined the past decade's wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan have said the government has already wasted tens of billions of dollars.

"Absent effective counter-measures," the panel wrote, "those findings could pale in comparison to additional waste developing from unsustainable projects and programs."

In one example, the report highlighted a $300 million Kabul, Afghanistan power plant funded by the U.S. and built to improve quality of life in the area. Construction on the plant has been completed, but it sits largely unused because the Afghan government cannot afford operation and maintenance, the commission wrote. Instead, Afghanistan buys electricity from neighboring Uzbekistan at a fraction of the cost.

"A project may be carefully planned, well executed, and economical, but still become wasteful if the host nation cannot provide trained staff, afford parts or fuel, perform necessary maintenance, or produce intended outcomes," the commission wrote.

The threat of new waste, according to the report, stems from, among other things, overly ambitious proposals, weak coordination and inadequate follow-through by federal officials. The risk also comes from "a failure to apply effective acquisition discipline in the stress of a contingency setting."

Recommendations

In many cases, it is too late for the government to avoid or mitigate waste, the commission wrote. But the government should also take swift steps to prevent more waste:

  1. DoD, the Department of State and USAID should examine completed and current projects for the risk of failure and "pursue all reasonable strategies to mitigate risks."
  2. The federal government should ensure that new requirements and acquisition strategies for projects that will be handed over to a host nation include detailed assessments of the nation's ability and desire to sustain the project.
  3. The U.S. government should cancel or redesign "projects or programs that have little or no realistic prospect for achieving sustainability".
  4. Federal officials should report to Congress, by Dec. 31, 2011, and annually thereafter, their analysis and proposed actions for mitigating sustainability risks.

Co-Chair Christopher Shays said, "We're seeing sustainment problems ranging from health clinics in Iraq to road building in Afghanistan. Unless government officials identify and address sustainment requirements and change or kill doomed programs, an enormous amount of taxpayers' money will turn out to have been wasted. We're raising a storm warning for Congress, the Executive departments, and the public."

This story is part of Federal News Radio's daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.