Afghanistan reconstruction auditor resigns

KABUL Tue Jan 11, 2011 2:54am EST

KABUL (Reuters) - A U.S. auditor for Afghanistan reconstruction, who said waste and fraud in efforts to rebuild the war-torn country may have cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, resigned on Tuesday.

Arnold Fields, a retired Marine Corps general, said he would step down on February 4 after nearly three years as the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) overseeing tens of billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan.

In September, a top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, three Republican senators and non-profit group Project on Government Oversight, urged U.S. President Barack Obama to fire Fields, who they accused of failing to do his job.

"At this time, having had this opportunity to contribute to the U.S. mission to Afghanistan, I depart confident in the knowledge that SIGAR is positioned to provide essential support to the President's strategy," Fields said in a statement.

Fields has previously defended the work of his agency, which estimates that the United States has spent $51 billion on Afghanistan reconstruction since 2002, and that the number is set to rise to $71 billion by next year.

"Under General Fields' tenure, SIGAR produced numerous critical reports that have improved reconstruction efforts, and helped insure that U.S.-funded programs are achieving their objectives," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

U.S. reconstruction activities are a major component in an even bigger outside assistance effort involving dozens of donor countries and hundreds of aid groups, large and small. Field's office described in a report late last year a "confusing labyrinth" of agencies and contractors in that aid effort.

Experts believe it will take years to build an effective government that can provide basic services in Afghanistan, where corruption and the lack a functional justice system has boosted support for the Taliban.

The Taliban is at its strongest since U.S.-backed Afghan forces ousted the Islamist government in 2001 after it refused to hand over al Qaeda militants, including Osama bin Laden, following the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Violence is at its worst in the near-decade long war and the insurgency has spread out of its traditional strongholds in the south and east over the past two years into once-peaceful areas of the north and west.

A war strategy review released by Obama in December found U.S. and NATO forces were making headway against the Taliban and al Qaeda but serious challenges remain and it cautioned there was more to be done on improving governance and curbing corruption.

Obama is under pressure to show results in Afghanistan, so he can start bringing U.S. troops home in July as planned. NATO leaders agreed in November to end combat operations and hand security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

(Editing by Alex Richardson)

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