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Waste in US Afghan aid seen at billions of dollars

WASHINGTON – Waste and fraud in U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan while fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban may have cost taxpayers billions of dollars, a special investigator said on Monday.

Arnold Fields, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said the cost of U.S. assistance funding diverted or squandered since 2002 could reach “well into the millions, if not billions, of dollars.”

“There are no controls in place sufficient enough to ensure taxpayers’ money is used for the (intended) purpose,” said Fields, whose independent office was created in 2008 to energize oversight of what U.S. auditors have described as a giant, poorly coordinated aid effort that has sunk some $56 billion into Afghanistan since 2002.

Of that sum, some $29 billion has gone to building up Afghanistan’s nascent security forces, many of whose members cannot read and are just learning to shoot.

Another $16 billion has gone to trying to develop this poor country, where life expectancy is just 45 years and only 28 percent of people are literate, and to strengthening governance, said Fields, a retired Marine Corps major general.

Experts believe it will take years to build an effective government that can provide basic services in Afghanistan, where corruption and the lack a functional justice system have driven many villagers into the arms of the Taliban.

Efforts to bolster Afghanistan’s weak central government and in many cases its dysfunctional local leadership took center stage last week when a White House review of the nine-year-old war reported some military success but cautioned there was more to be done on improving governance and curbing corruption.

President Barack Obama is under pressure to show results in Afghanistan in the first half of 2011 so he can start bringing U.S. troops home in July.

U.S. and NATO partners hope Afghan forces will be able to take control by the end of 2014 as the West looks to curtail its involvement after nine years that at the present level of effort costs U.S. taxpayers at least $113 billion a year.

More than 700 foreign troops have been killed in 2010, the most violent year since the Taliban was toppled in 2001. Afghan casualties are far higher.

U.S. reconstruction activities are a major component in an even bigger outside assistance effort involving dozens of donor countries and hundreds of aid groups large and small.

Field’s office, known as SIGAR, described in a report issued this fall a ‘confusing labyrinth’ of agencies and contractors in that aid effort.

(Reporting by Missy Ryan; editing by Philip Barbara)

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