With the president busy doing victory laps for caving into the idea of exchanging a few favors for the poor for huge tax cuts for the super-rich, and Washington all aglow in its usual holiday splendor, it's hard to recall that there are those who will be spending Christmas in a bunker.
From Afghanistan, where more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops, and tens of thousands of NATO allies, will be waiting out the inevitable on Dec. 25th, there's a new report out this week about the rate, and the waste, of reconstruction spending that throws some light on the real reason we're there, and the real obstacles facing any kind of breakthrough in the mission...
Arnold Fields, the special inspector general appointed by Congress to look into waste and fraud allegations in the funding of reconstruction and aid projects in Afghanistan, revealed on Monday that "well into the millions, if not billions, of dollars" have gone missing in what he called a "confusing labyrinth" of public and private entities used to funnel money from Washington to Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
Since the war in Afghanistan started nearly ten years ago, the U.S. alone has sunk more than $56 billion into the country, much of it during a time when economic stress at home has left governments to make tough choices between funding unemployment and healthcare subsidies or slashing social programs across the board. About $29 billion has gone into building Afghanistan's military and police forces, and Fields said that this is the area where most of the waste and missing funds got spent--or didn't.
Due to the extensive use of private contractors in the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been difficult for investigators like Fields to find out where funds are going, and when they're being diverted to feather a corrupt official's nest. Or to pad a corporation's profits. Or, in fact, when they're being diverted to the enemy. Previous investigations of Afghanistan funding found that some money ended up in the hands of Taliban fighters and Taliban-supporting groups. Fields emphasized the difficulty in his report of discovering the final destination of much of the funds he tried to track, due to the fact that private firms are not under the same stringent reporting requirements as government agencies.
And this is the whole point, isn't it? The vastly increased use of private contractors under the Bush administration, which has been continued almost without pause (and in some cases with huge increases in funding, like the company formerly known as Blackwater, and currently called Xe), makes it much easier to simply abscond with taxpayer funds.
Fields, a retired Marine Corps major general, made it clear in his report that the system seems designed to be purposely confusing, and most of this is on the part of private companies who often don't even provide invoices and shipping receipts for materials, don't keep business plan and execution records, and have few if any internal controls. Many of the companies, especially those involved in providing security, sprang up overnight after 9/11 and were never constructed to provide data to their sole funding source--the federal government--and often seem to have been built from the ground up to frustrate all efforts to find out the truth.
With the war in Afghanistan about to go into its second decade, and investigators like Fields raising similar questions in allied European states, even the money machine in Washington will find itself under increasing pressure for early withdrawal. The continued use of private firms to provide everything from food services to actual boots-on-the-ground protection for American and NATO troops, parallels the rising power of the security industry in national domestic politics. Security companies have more power now over a wide spectrum of Washington agencies, from the TSA, to customs, immigration, and even the EPA, IRS and NASA. The tentacles of the Department of Homeland Security, and its growing army of private capital allies, are constantly busy trying to draw more and more government business, and more and more government funding, under its discretion, and its strict rule of secrecy on the private companies it deals with.
Fields bemoans the fact in his report that in Afghanistan, a country where the average lifespan is only 45 years, and where less than a third of the people are literate, the situation after a decade of U.S. efforts is still one of severe poverty, with no functioning judicial system, very little respect for a violently corrupt police force, and a crisis in both clean water resources and agriculture led by misguided, failed, and just plain fraudulent privatised reconstruction projects. By the way, the 45-year life expectancy is down considerably since the country was dragged into the weird, irrational games of geopolitcal affairs in the form of the Soviet invasion. The other problems have emerged during the subsequent upheavals and invasions. Prior to that, and after the period of colonialism, the country had a functioning, well respected and well liked, leftist secular government.
But nobody seems to remember that last fact. Not even Fields.
CBS News report on Dana Priest's series in the Washington Post, on the rapid growth of security firms, redundancy, waste, and the involvement of the private security industry in tragic events like the Fort Hood shooting:
AP story on Fields' report:
The full text of Arnold Fields' testimony before Congress: