GOP's Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Wants Oversight of Taxpayer Spending in Afghanistan

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Congress' new House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is planning to bring greater oversight to aid and reconstruction in Afghanistan -- a prospect that could ultimately change the president's Afghan War strategy by scaling back funding for U.S. civilian efforts there.

In the face of a record $14 trillion national debt, Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., plans to examine spending on civilian aid and reconstruction in Afghanistan, which has cost U.S. taxpayers $56 billion since 2002.

"Oversight is going to be a major focus of the chairwoman," Ros-Lehtinen's communications director for the committee, Brad Goehner, said, adding that the recent resignation of special auditor for Afghan reconstruction Arnold Fields "obviously illustrates how extraordinarily important it is to have proper oversight."

Goehner said the chairwoman plans to step up the committee's role in oversight of U.S. programs in Afghanistan via hearings, and by working closely with the new special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, who has yet to be appointed. But no decisions on funding would be made without consulting commanders on the ground, he said.

Last month, Ros-Lehtinen issued a statement saying she had identified and will propose a number of cuts to the State Department and Foreign Aid budgets.

"All of the programs that we implement regarding foreign aid all need to reflect the reality that our current economy faces," Goehner said.

Aides to the committee's former chairman, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., agreed that there needs to be reform and oversight, but said Congress' international affairs budget is too small to make nothing more than a dent in the deficit if reduced.

So far, Democratic aides say, they have not seen specific amounts, and are unsure whether the cuts would be to personnel, funds for the embassy, programs, or whether any proposed cuts would come through a bill or the appropriations process.

One aide said that cutting funds for aid and reconstruction in Afghanistan would be "detrimental to what we achieve there."

Successful counterinsurgency theory calls for aid and reconstruction as the other half to a military campaign: As the military pursues victory on the battlefield, civilian advisers and aid workers win the hearts and minds of civilians, who then align with pro-government forces against the insurgents.

New Congress Could Cut Spending on Afghan War Reconstruction

But while civilian reconstruction programs may be important to the overall strategy in Afghanistan, reports of corruption and ineffectiveness have marred the civilian effort.

Outgoing inspector general Fields said last month that the cost of U.S. assistance funding diverted or squandered since 2002 could reach "well into the millions, if not billions, of dollars, and that "there are no controls in place sufficient enough to ensure taxpayers' money" is used for intended purposes, according to Reuters.

"It is in the government's interest to inflate that number, because they want it to seem like we're not just shooting our way out of Afghanistan, and nation-building is a component of that," said Chris Hellman, communications Liaison with the National Priorities Project, and a former military analyst.

The NPP's website features a count of dollars spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars; a total it estimates at more than a trillion taxpayer dollars.

Rajiv Shah, administrator of United States Agency for International Development, admitted the need for better evaluation of the agency's programs but touted progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"I visited both countries multiple times over the last year, and I can tell you, whether it's establishing basic health services for Afghans or whether it's creating local shuras in northwest Pakistan to promote viable sub-national governance, USAID's work is absolutely critical to keeping us safe and secure," Shah said Friday.

To what extent cuts to reconstruction would hamper the overall strategy and progress in Afghanistan is unclear, but the driving idea behind the civilian effort is that without a functioning Afghan government and economy by 2014 -- when full transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan authorities is expected -- the country could relapse to Taliban rule.