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Rebuilding Afghanistan will be long, costly effort

world Updated: Mar 26, 2009 12:05 IST

The effort to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan will be lengthy, complicated and expensive, government watchdogs said on Wednesday in a sobering assessment of challenges facing the Obama administration.

Quelling the growing insurgency is a critical first step before progress can be made toward rebuilding the country, they said at a congressional hearing, citing the hard lessons in Iraq. President Barack Obama is expected to disclose a new Afghanistan strategy on Friday that will emphasize more US troops and civilian officials and increased aid to combat militants.

"Unless the expanding Afghanistan program draws upon the lessons learned in Iraq, substantial waste of taxpayer dollars will occur," Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. Arnold Fields, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, indicated the United States has received little return from the $32 billion it has spent over the past seven years, including money to train and equip Afghanistan's military and police.

Afghanistan lacks Iraq's infrastructure and oil revenue, which limits the pace and scope of reconstruction projects the United States and its allies can pursue, said Fields, a retired US Marine Corps general who was appointed last year.

"Iraq had much more upon which to build," Fields said. "We are really constructing as opposed to reconstructing in Afghanistan."

Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers of the Government Accountability Office said Afghanistan's drug trade helps finance the Taliban and other insurgents, adding to the instability. Due to its weak economy, Afghanistan will be largely dependent on foreign aid for some time, she said.

In response to a question from Republican Rep John McHugh, Fields and Williams-Bridgers said the Obama administration had not requested their advice on how to develop a new strategy for Afghanistan.

Bowen said he has given briefings to members of the National Security Council staff and to Obama's deputy chief of staff about how the lessons of Iraq's reconstruction apply to Afghanistan.

The United States has spent more than $50 billion rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure and government institutions, including $21 billion for reconstruction and $18 billion on Iraq's security forces.

Bowen estimated as much as $5 billion of the reconstruction money was wasted due to sloppy contracting processes and violence that derailed major projects.

He said it was a mistake to rely heavily on contracts under which a contractor gets a fixed fee on top as profit. Critics of the deals say companies have little incentive to control costs. "I call them `open checkbook,"' Bowen said. Defense Department officials say in Afghanistan they will use more fixed-price contracts that keep a company from raising its initial bid.

Fields said he needs more people and money to ensure that money committed for improvement projects in Afghanistan is being spent properly. Bowen, who has made close to two dozen trips to Iraq over the last five years, has advised Fields and his staff to spend as much time in Afghanistan as possible.