Skip to content

Keeping America Accountable in the War Zone | Commentary

The House Foreign Affairs Committee heard a compelling case recently for better oversight and accountability of war funding. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen delivered the agency’s final oversight report to the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. The takeaway: More oversight is needed or more money will be wasted.

The numbers are astonishing. More than $1.4 trillion has been enacted by Congress for the “Global War on Terror” since 2001. The U.S. has spent about $826.2 billion on military and reconstruction operations in Iraq. This is less than one-fourth of what will eventually be spent (because of added costs from veteran care, etc.). Almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed and almost 33,000 have been wounded. Millions of Iraqis have been killed, wounded and displaced.

Despite these devastating losses, the U.S. has left Iraq with very little to show for it. Meanwhile, Washington seems to have nearly forgotten about Iraq altogether.

How did so much get spent with so little to show for it?

War funding for both Iraq and Afghanistan shifted in 2009, from “emergency supplemental” to a category known as Overseas Contingency Operations. And while the U.S. military is largely out of Iraq and set to be (mostly) out of Afghanistan by 2014, no one in Washington expects OCO funds to go away. From SIGIR’s perspective, this will lead to more waste and more corruption, which is why Bowen and Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Steve Stockman, R-Texas, are now calling for a U.S. Office for Contingency Operations.

That office, as articulated in HR 2606, would have within it a permanent inspector general to provide oversight and accountability of war funds designated for reconstruction and stabilization, something we currently do not have. If Overseas Contingency Operations are here to stay, so too should stay an effective and trustworthy inspector general, whether as an independent Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations or within the office called for by Welch and Stockman. Either works.

Expecting contractors to provide oversight and accountability on their own projects is like putting a fox in charge of the hen house. A SIGOCO could provide the kind of independent oversight needed to keep the system honest.

First, this would undoubtedly save money for American taxpayers. In just five years, schemes uncovered by the work of SIGIR have helped return $200 million to taxpayers. SIGIR expects to reclaim $300 million and to reap $1.6 billion in financial benefits from audits by the end of this fiscal year. The U.S. also has a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction doing similarly good oversight.

What’s the cost to all of this benefit? SIGIR’s fiscal 2012 budget, for example, was a mere $18.5 million, a fraction of what has been, and will be, saved. The future of war funding through OCO will have a huge transparency hole if there continues to be no specifically mandated, independent inspector general.

Second, this inspector can fix systemic failures fostering federal and contractor waste, fraud and abuse. The problem of excessive and unsupervised private contracting must be addressed because it’s not going away anytime soon. The Obama administration may be pulling out of Afghanistan, but it’s rapidly pulling into a number of African countries.

Right now, the U.S. is operating in as many as 15 African countries and has spent at least $600 million on various military operations in sub-Saharan Africa alone. These developments are receiving little congressional interest or oversight.

This increase in military engagement will assuredly bring an increased influx of development aid. But trying to do development in a war zone is like trying to hang shutters on a house during a hurricane — doable in theory, but entirely foolish and never done well.

If there is no mechanism in place to oversee that funding, and if we wait until operations are up and running on the African continent, we’ll be building a “plane in flight” as Bowen said.

Wars are not inevitable, but corruption during wars appears to be. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been embezzled or wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan, and millions more stand to be wasted as the U.S. military prepares for — or looks for — the next war.

The U.S. departments of Defense and State, and their contractors, cannot continue to waste large amounts of taxpayer dollars, as they have over the past decade of war. We need real oversight of these funds moving forward and a permanent inspector general for Overseas Contingency Operations could provide it.

Michael Shank is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Matt Southworth is a veteran of the Iraq War and a legislative associate for foreign policy at FCNL.

Recent Stories

Florida’s Rick Scott enters race to be next Senate GOP leader

Louisiana abortion drug bill latest front in post-Dobbs fight

Capitol Lens | Grant-ing access

Democrats refer ‘big oil’ investigation to Justice Department

Congress appoints Army veteran Thomas Austin as new architect of the Capitol

Bynum’s primary win boosts Democrats’ chances to flip Oregon seat