WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A surge of U.S. civilian advisers into Afghanistan has cost nearly $2 billion so far, a U.S. government watchdog said on Thursday, calculating the price of an important part of President Obama's war strategy.
U.S. development experts are not much cheaper than the cost of sending soldiers to Afghanistan, according to data in the audit by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.
The report said it was costing between $410,000 and $570,000 to deploy one civilian U.S. government employee to Afghanistan for a year.
By comparison, costs per U.S. soldier per year in Afghanistan grew to $697,000 this year from $667,000 in 2010 and $507,000 in 2009, the Congressional Research Service says.
The Obama administration announced an increase in civilian advisers -- experts on matters ranging from agriculture to courts -- to Afghanistan in 2009 to accompany an influx of over 30,000 U.S. combat troops there.
Part of what was dubbed a "smart power" strategy, the idea was to build on military gains with improvements in the lives of ordinary Afghans. Diplomats and development experts were sent to help boost economic growth as well as improve Afghan governing capacity and the rule of law.
The number of U.S. civilian employees in Afghanistan increased to 1,040 by June of this year from 320 in early 2009, said the audit by SIGAR, undertaken with the State Department's inspector general.
In June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress the civilian surge had peaked. But she did not discuss how quickly the numbers might be drawn down.
The SIGAR report comes as pressure is building in Congress to cut unpopular foreign aid programs in a time of austerity.
Lawmakers have already reduced some Afghan aid due to corruption concerns, and may slash further if they feel programs are too pricey. Many lawmakers are tiring of the war, which is costing the United States $110 billion this year.
Republican Senator Bob Corker said on Thursday he thought the United States had actually harmed Afghanistan with too much aid, distorting its economy and culture.
"I think this whole nation-building effort has been put on steroids. ... I think we have done tremendous harm to the people of Afghanistan with the huge amounts of U.S. dollars that have flowed into the country," Corker told colleagues.
Obama announced a plan in June to start bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. But the SIGAR report suggests that handing off to U.S. diplomats and civilians in Afghanistan will not be inexpensive either.
"The U.S. military's withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely lead to cost increases for (the) State (department) due to key military security functions that State will assume," the audit said. Plans to open two new consulates in Afghanistan could increase costs, it said.
A congressional Democrat called on Thursday for reforming the way U.S. foreign aid is organized, saying that would be better than just "cutting blindly."
Representative Howard Berman said the system should be changed so the U.S. government can more easily transfer funds from one region to another during crises -- and opportunities like the "Arab Spring" uprisings against authoritarian rulers.
Editing by Peter Cooney