Iraq, Afghanistan News Examined

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The Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction says the U.S. government can't account for $8.7 billion in reconstruction funds for Iraq. Also, Gen. James Mattis, in his confirmation hearing, told senators that if confirmed as chief of U.S. Central Command he will immediately focus on the Afghan fight.


We know the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are costing the U.S. tens of billions of dollars. In Iraq, $50 billion has been spent on rebuilding that country since the war began in 2003. Now a report by the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction says that the U.S. government can't account for $8.7 billion of that money. Joining us to talk more about this is NPR's national security correspondent, Rachel Martin.

Good morning.

RACHEL MARTIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, huge number - $8.7 billion lost. That's more than 15 percent of the money allocated in reconstruction funds for Iraq. It's essentially gone missing. How did the inspector general's audit explain this?

MARTIN: Well, according to their audit and the report, this is basically, Renee, a severe case of leaving so many people in charge of something that in the end no one is really in charge.

And they pointed - the biggest problem, they say, was that the Department of Defense never established one primary agency that was supposed to oversee and manage all of these funds. So as a result, they didn't follow certain accounting rules and protocols weren't followed. And the money just got moved around from place to place and program to program and was never properly accounted for, even to this day.

And some of that money - roughly $34 million - is actually still being held by the U.S., even though the reconstruction funding program actually ended in 2007 and any remaining money was supposed to go back to Iraq. But Stuart Bowen, the inspector general, told me that at one point in this auditing process, U.S. Army officials said that they had no idea the program had even ended and that they were supposed to return that cash to Iraq.

MONTAGNE: And this is not the first time we've heard about billions of reconstruction dollars for Iraq being mismanaged.

MARTIN: No, thats right. That same office, the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, found in another audit back in 2005 that the temporary U.S.-led Provincial Authority - the temporary government running Iraq at the time, after the invasion - had essentially lost track of another $9 billion for similar reasons. So bad accounting and poor oversight again.

MONTAGNE: And the Pentagon's response to this?

MARTIN: Well, a Defense official familiar with the audit told me that just because the Department of Defense can't account for the money doesnt automatically mean that it was misspent. But they have accepted the recommendations that the inspector general has offered. And that office has recommended that a specific agency be set up explicitly to take charge of reconstruction funds like these, and to put in place stronger oversight and accounting mechanisms to prevent such gross mismanagement from happening again, in their words.

But in some ways, Renee, it is like closing the barn door after the horse has already ridden off into the sunset.

MONTAGNE: And Iraq falls under the prevue of the commander of U.S. Central Command - that was General David Petraeus. Petraeus is now the top commander in Afghanistan, and the president has tapped Marine Corps General James Mattis to take his place. The confirmation hearing for General Mattis was yesterday. Talk to us about that. Did he face any real opposition?

MARTIN: Not really. General Mattis enjoys an awful lot of support, not only from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff's Chair Admiral Mike Mullen, but also the White House and troops on the ground.

He was pushed, however, by Republicans who tried to goad him a little bit into expressing some dismay over the timeline that the president has articulated, to start withdrawing troops in July 2011. This is something that Republicans have said will only embolden the enemy. They say that defining such a timeline is dangerous strategy.

General Mattis, though, wouldnt bite. He said he supports the president plan. U.S. commanders really have spoken with voice on this issue. But he did emphasize that the withdrawal in July 2011 is going to be a gradual process, not, as he put it, like, quote, "handing off a hot potato and pulling out altogether." So again, he made sure to drive home the point that this is going to be a long process.

MONTAGNE: Well, also just briefly, did - General Mattis has, you know, kind of history. He's said a few controversial things. Did that sort of thing come up?

MARTIN: You know, it did only insofar as Republican John McCain said that General Mattis does have this reputation as being kind of a straight talker...

MONTAGNE: Straight talker, meaning things like, you know, it's fun to kill...

MARTIN: Well, exactly. A speech...

MONTAGNE: ...the enemy.

MARTIN: ...he made in 2005, which got him into some hot water. It didnt come up at the hearing though. John McCain only referenced it by saying that such straight talk in general was something that he applauded.

MONTAGNE: Rachel, thanks very much.

MARTIN: You're very welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's national security correspondent, Rachel Martin.

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