As the United States' special inspector-general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), Arnold Fields has the arduous task of preventing the "waste, fraud, and abuse" of US funds appropriated for Afghanistan. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, the retired Marine Corps major general weighs in on the rising concerns over corruption in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: In general, what is the mission of your organization and what major issues of concern have you identified in your work so far?
Arnold Fields: The primary purpose of our organization is to provide oversight -- meaning, looking for waste, fraud, and abuse in reference to the about $40 billion that the American taxpayer has made available, by way of our Congress, for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. This office was stood up during 2008, and some of the major issues that we have identified can fall into basically four categories: One, we need more accountability; two, we need more integration of the reconstruction effort; three, we need to build more capacity and sustainment among the Afghan community to up keep the reconstruction efforts; and [fourth], we need to address corruption.
RFE/RL: In your latest report, you mentioned that corruption harms the reconstruction effort. But are there concrete examples of how it is harming the overall war effort?
Fields: Let me reiterate that the corruption issue is a significant one. But I also acknowledge that it is one that has been recognized by the government of Afghanistan.
During the three meetings that I have been privileged to have with President [Hamid] Karzai, in each of those meetings he has mentioned the issue of corruption and he has made a request of my office -- the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. In so doing, [he has made] a request from the United States of America for assistance in dealing with the corruption issue....
We need to maintain confidence among those who are providing the funding for this reconstruction effort -- the United States about $40 billion [and] the collective international community about $63 billion. So in order for that confidence and those funds to continue to flow into Afghanistan, the donors need to be confident that those monies are, in fact, being used for the purposes for which the were made available.
Request From Kabul
RFE/RL: General Fields, you say that you have spoken to Afghan authorities. We hear quite a lot from the Afghan officials and they claim that the current corruption is largely due to outside influence, and that the greatest corruption results from big international contracts.
Fields: It's a mixture; it is not exclusively Afghanistan and it is not exclusively entities representing the United States of America....
We share the responsibility and accountability for corruption because some corruption exists in our own entities who are providing support to the reconstruction effort. But in terms of Afghanistan, it is felt to be a much more significant problem. And in order to implement the basic three elements of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy centering around security, governance, and development, there must be accountability for corruption inasmuch as it underscores all of the rest of the effort that the international community, including the United States, is trying to bring to bear upon Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: We now see that corruption and transparency are now at the heart of the discourse on Afghanistan. Do you see the necessary political will, resources, and legal mechanisms to deal with corruption in Afghanistan and among the donors funding projects there?
Fields: With the fact that the president of Afghanistan and his senior ministers are asking for assistance [to fight corruption], I think we should take that at face value. And to the extent that the international community can bring resources to bear upon helping the government of Afghanistan to rid itself of the corruption issue, I think we should do that.
RFE/RL: General Fields, we have been hearing about a list of the 100 most corrupt officials in Afghanistan. What kind of characters do you think we might see on such a list?
Fields: At this point in time, I am not prepared and our work is not advanced enough to actually put our finger on anyone. But we would wish, though, that, at some point in time in the near term, that we are able to identify officials. And not just that, but to also see either the government of the United States or the government of Afghanistan prosecute individuals who have wasted, frauded, and abused money made available for the reconstruction in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Regarding the concerns of Afghans, they commonly point to the processes under which funding is disbursed as the source of the corruption problem. What can be done to streamline the process and cut down on waste and corruption?
Fields: I would say at the top of the list is the issue of accountability, and we need to hold people accountable. Now, one of the other issues that has been brought to my attention everywhere I have gone in Afghanistan. And what do I mean by everywhere? I have visited no less than 13 provinces and I have talked to senior government officials both in Kabul as well as at the provincial level.
Everywhere I have gone, there has been this request that the people of Afghanistan be allowed to participate more in the reconstruction of their country. Some initiatives are under way, I know by way of the government of the United States, to help include more of the Afghans in the reconstruction of their own country. I think this is a step in the right direction.
RFE/RL: Do you envision the US following the British example of threatening to cut its assistance and call back its troops if Karzai does not end corruption?
Fields: As the need arises and as our audit and investigatory work may suggest, we may provide guidance and advice borne out of bona fide audits and investigations. And if our senior leaders determine that guidance and/or advice or our recommendations are relevant enough upon which to base political decisions, then I leave those matters to them.
RFE/RL: What lessons have you learned from the Afghan elections? Are you happy with the United States' investment in the exercise considering the messy outcome?
Fields: The good news is that there was a system in place primarily consisting of, first, the money that the international community made available for the elections; two, the mechanisms in place such as the elections commission to include the [electoral] Complaints Commission.
And, just from general observation, it appears that those mechanisms -- with a few wrinkles -- appear to have worked. And we acknowledge and applaud that these elections were essentially handled by the government of Afghanistan for the first time in the history of Afghanistan.
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.