Giving Karzai Aid and a 20 Percent Profit

An auditor of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan warned that a transition of all private security in the country to the Afghan Public Protection Force threatens to throw costs spiraling out of control and raises serious concerns about the safety of aid workers and ability for projects to continue.

President Hamid Karzai's mandate also means his government stands to nicely profit from the "significant" cost increase by the state-owned APPF even while receiving U.S. aid, the leaders of a House subcommittee heard Thursday.

"The transition to the APPF poses one of the most significant challenges that the U.S. government and its implementing partners have faced since the beginning of the reconstruction effort in 2002," Steven J. Trent, the acting special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told the Oversight and Government Reform National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

"I think this nation-building exercise is a huge debacle," said Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). "We need more exposure and oversight."

There's also no guarantee that rogue members of the Afghan protection forces wouldn't harm their western clients, though USAID told the committee that "there has been a dramatic overall decrease in our need for security."

J. Alexander Thier, assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said that it was largely a matter of "same guards, different uniforms" in the transition, yet as the process continues "we will continue to monitor costs and seek opportunities to reduce overall expenses without sacrificing security."

"Right now we do not have indication that there is any increase in insecurity," even after anti-American sentiment has been stirred by incidents this year, he said. "Our reliance on armed guards has dramatically decreased."

"I don't have a great degree of confidence in their ability," Ranking Member John Tierney (D-Mass.) said of the APPF, advising the optimistic USAID representative to "hope for the best but plan for the worst."

Thier said his agency has "detailed contingency plans," though "we continue to work in extremely dangerous locations side-by-side with their military."

The Afghan government put a March 20 deadline on the transition that puts all security for reconstruction and aid workers in its court.

"The APPF is rapidly evolving as it hastens to build the capacity to provide security services," Trent said, noting that by March 2011 more than one-fifth of all Department of Defense contracted personnel in Afghanistan were providing security services.

"The Afghan government’s decision in 2010 to disband PSCs has created new security challenges for U.S. agencies and their implementing partners."