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US will stand by Afghanistan, Panetta tells Karzai
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Jan 10, 2013

Billions in Afghan aid could be wasted: US inspector
Washington (AFP) Jan 10, 2013 - Billions of dollars in American assistance to Afghanistan could ultimately go to waste without better planning and security in the war-torn nation, a US investigator said Thursday.

John Sopko, the congressionally mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, aired his concerns as Afghan President Hamid Karzai held talks in Washington to prepare for next year's withdrawal of US combat troops.

"We are at a risk now of wasting billions of dollars if the agencies charged with implementing new programs and constructing new facilities do not first answer some basic questions," Sopko said at the Stimson Center think tank.

Despite US commanders' talk of progress in Afghanistan, Sopko said that it was becoming more difficult for inspectors to head into the field to ascertain that US money was being well spent.

"As the military draws down, we too find that there are fewer places that we can go to safely in Afghanistan to monitor projects," he said.

Sopko accused both the Pentagon and the US Agency for International Development of lacking long-range plans on where and why they were building projects and of often failing to ensure quality standards.

He pointed to a $70 million US-funded garrison for Afghan troops in northern Kunduz province that was rendered unusable because it was built on unstable soil with roofs that collapsed due to improper welding.

The United States has appropriated more than $90 billion for Afghanistan's reconstruction since 2001, when a US-led coalition ousted the hardline Taliban regime following the September 11 attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda.

Sopko said the assistance amounted to $28 million a day and was more than the United States has spent on any nation since World War II.

He also pointed to concerns over graft. In its latest annual survey, Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International ranked Afghanistan worst -- in a tie with North Korea and Somalia -- on perceptions of corruption.

President Barack Obama's administration has voiced concern to Karzai over corruption, leading to sometimes rocky relations.

Obama meets Karzai on Friday as the US administration debates how many troops to leave in Afghanistan. Opinion polls have shown that the US public wants to end America's longest war and pull out the 66,000 combat troops.

Some US officials want to keep just a few thousand US troops to train Afghans and take part in operations against Al-Qaeda. The White House has left open the option of withdrawing forces completely.

The United States sought to assure Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday that it would remain committed to his country even as US officials weigh a major withdrawal of American forces.

After an elaborate military ceremony outside the Pentagon on the eve of Karzai's White House talks, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told his "distinguished visitor" that more than a decade of war had paved the way for Afghanistan to stand on its own.

"After a long and difficult past, we finally are, I believe, at the last chapter of establishing a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future," Panetta said.

"We've come a long way towards a shared goal of establishing a nation that you and we can be proud of, one that never again becomes a safe haven for terrorism."

Panetta later told reporters he had met alone with Karzai for about an hour, adding: "I think it's fair to say that we made some very good progress on all of the key issues that we discussed."

Since US-led troops toppled the Taliban in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, the Afghan president has had a stormy relationship with his US allies.

The Panetta talks came ahead of Karzai's crucial meeting on Friday with President Barack Obama at the White House, which is expected to focus on how many American troops will remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 drawdown.

Obama, newly elected to a second term, is charting a plan to pull most of the 66,000 US troops out of Afghanistan -- well down from a high of about 100,000.

The United States and its NATO allies have already agreed to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014, but questions remain on a US training and security role after that.

Throughout his visit, Karzai is expected to push for a substantial US military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

But some White House officials favor only a light footprint of several thousand troops, and Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, even suggested Tuesday the United States might pull out all of its troops.

US military officers privately acknowledged those comments about a total withdrawal were primarily designed as a tactic in negotiations with Kabul.

Karzai also met later Thursday with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for talks and an official dinner.

Among the issues topping their meeting were progress on reconciliation talks with the Taliban, as well as the distribution of US aid to Afghanistan.

Karzai has pressed for more US assistance to be channeled directly into Afghan coffers, instead of being distributed via non-governmental and aid organizations.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said discussions were underway, but corruption remained a major concern in Afghanistan.

The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, also warned Thursday that vast amounts of US aid could be wasted without better planning and security.

"We are at a risk now of wasting billions of dollars if the agencies charged with implementing new programs and constructing new facilities do not first answer some basic questions," Sopko told the Stimson Center think tank.

Clinton welcomed Karzai at the State Department and hosted a small dinner attended by only around 15 people including Panetta and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

"This is a great opportunity for us to attempt in a very small way to repay some of the hospitality I've enjoyed over the years," she said as they sat down around an ornate dining table set with the best glassware and flowers.

Karzai thanked Clinton, after earlier telling Panetta he was hopeful the two countries would work out a deal for a future US military role beyond 2014.

"Afghanistan will, with the help that you provide, be able to provide security to its people and to protect its borders; so Afghanistan would not ever again be threatened by terrorists from across our borders," he said.

Karzai also voiced confidence the two countries can "work out a modality for a bilateral security agreement that will ensure the interests of Afghanistan and also the interests of the United States."


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