Time to Follow Fields' Example and Quit Afghanistan
The White House should draw a larger conclusion from the resignation of its corruption inspector for Afghanistan
Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, announced his resignation late on Monday evening – news that has virtually disappeared among all the other headlines from the Arizona shootings to Joe Biden's surprise trip to Kabul. Yet the departure of the top US official who set up Sigar, the office charged with making sure that the $56bn that has been spent in Afghanistan was not wasted has the potential to be a milestone in the war in that country.
Fields, a former major general in the US Marines, has been under public attack for over 18 months. Critics from Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, to Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, have been calling for his resignation for months, as have watchdog groups like the Project on Government Oversight.
The nadir of his two-year tenure came last November when McCaskill invited six other inspector generals to testify at a hearing on his failures. Instead of addressing the specific charges, such as why his agency had only audited four out of 7,000 contracts issued to date, Fields chose to focus on his childhood as an African American in South Carolina.
"I raised up hard, ladies and gentlemen, in poverty myself. I worked for less than $1.50 a day – about what the average Afghan makes today in year 2010," Fields told the packed room, his voice shaking. "I wish that someone had brought $56 billion to bear upon my life … (but) the day President Kennedy was buried, which was a no school day for me, my brother and I shovelled stuff out of a local farmer's septic tank with a shovel for 75 cents per hour for the two of us."
"I don't mean to be cruel," McCaskill told Fields at the time. "I don't think you're the right person for this job." She noted that the $8.2m that Fields claimed to have recovered or saved paled in relation to the $46m that his office had spent. By comparison, the US Agency for International Development's inspector general claimed to have recovered or saved about $149m, with a budget of just $10m. But Fields remained defiant, telling reporters: "The Marine Corps taught me not to quit."
Fields is not the only one to claim good intentions and a dogged determination to succeed in Afghanistan. Indeed, the commander-in-chiefs – President Barack Obama and his predecessor George Bush – have also declared their commitment to fixing Afghanistan's desperate poverty. Like Fields, both poured much time, money and even lives into this effort.
But unlike Fields, who took stock of his losses last night and called it quits, the same is yet to be said of his bosses at the White House, and officials at the Pentagon and USAID, who continue to pour good money down the drain by paying expensive contractors who have achieved very little, and may even have been counter-productive.
A few weeks before before Fields resigned, USAID awarded Black & Veatch from Kansas a no-bid contract worth $266m to provide electricity to Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Yet this company was the very one that both USAID and Sigar had criticised for billing $300m for the Tarakhil power plant outside Kabul, which should have cost $100m and was over a year behind schedule.
In December, DynCorp, the company that has so far failed to produce a reliable police force in Afghanistan, was awarded a new contract with the US Army worth up to $1bn. "With corruption, incompetence and illiteracy within the police force a persistent obstacle to turning over security responsibilities to the cops by 2014, Nato has revamped much of its training efforts – except, apparently, the contractors paid lavishly to help them out," wrote Spencer Ackermann in the Danger Room blog. Within Afghanistan, US forces continue to work closely with characters like Abdul Razziq, whom US officials regard as "presid[ing] over a vast corruption network that skims customs duties, facilitates drug trafficking and smuggles other contraband." (Razziq denies the allegations.)
The White House has an opportunity now to fill the vacant post at Sigar with someone who can aggressively pursue what has happened to the $56bn spent so far in Afghanistan, and who can make sure that bad contractors get their act together or lose their lucrative deals.
There is another opportunity, too: the White House could follow Fields' lead in examining its own leadership. The failure to deliver the promised transformation of Afghanistan over almost a decade suggests that the problem may be much greater than one ineffectual inspector general. It may rather lie with the generals at Pentagon and diplomats at the state department who have never been effectively challenged over their own policies in Afghanistan.
Fixing Afghanistan is not a job that Obama or his successors will be able to achieve by 1 July 2011, or even by 2014; it is a job for Afghans themselves and their regional neighbours to plan and implement for themselves. Throwing money at the problem has not proven to be the solution. The solution lies in experience, competence and the ability to know when, in fact, to quit – as Fields has belatedly recognised.
© 2011 Guardian News and Media