By Dale McFeatters
In 2008, long after tales of waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan had begun circulating widely, Congress got around to appointing a bipartisan commission to investigate how the billions the U.S. was investing in aid, rehabilitation and private security forces were being spent.
The commission is in with its report, and the answer is: Not well, not well at all.
Of the $206 billion in contracts and grants the U.S. has spent so far, the commission estimates at least $31 billion and as much as $60 billion was lost to fraud, waste and corruption. One commission member said the higher figure was more accurate.
Worse, in Afghanistan, the diverted funds were being used to finance the insurgents' war against us. According to a copy of the report seen by the Associated Press, the Afghan insurgency's second-largest funding after the illegal-drug trade was money skimmed, stolen or extorted from U.S.-backed construction and transportation projects.
The AP quoted military authorities in Kabul as saying that as much as $360 million ended up in the hands of the Taliban, but most of the money was lost to good old-fashioned bribery and skimming by assorted warlords, government officials and local criminals.
Both wars were started in haste with the expectation that they'd be over quickly. And there we still are. Military doctrine centered on winning quickly and leaving the aftermath to other agencies, mainly the State Department and the Agency for International Development, that clearly weren't up to the task. Early on, the George W. Bush administration derided "nation-building." But given those countries' dysfunctional governments, that's the task we were stuck with.
Also new was the increased, sometimes total, reliance on private contractors for such mundane functions as running the mess halls and laundries, and hauling supplies, but also for security functions that resulted in what were, for all practical purposes, private armies.
The commission made 15 recommendations, some of them so obvious you wonder why they weren't done years ago, such as: having an inspector general monitor war-zone contracting operations; installing a senior government official, in effect, a czar, to coordinate planning among federal agencies; reducing the use of private security companies; and changing the way the government awards and oversees contracts.
The recommendations have been incorporated in bills before Congress, one of them by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chairs the Senate's contracting oversight subcommittee.
Bipartisan commissions are much derided in Washington, but for the most part they come up with sensible and useful recommendations. This one has. Congress should act quickly on its proposals or, failing that, extend the life of the commission beyond its Sept. 30 expiration date.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer of Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).