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Want to cut the budget? Start with aid to Afghanistan

The annual federal-budget fight is under way, and to reduce the deficit, Republicans want to slash Medicare, Social Security and other government services while delaying or killing the Affordable Care Act, which begins to take full effect next month.

They're willing to devastate tens of millions of Americans. Still, as always, one government program that wastes hundreds of millions of dollars each and every year is certain to sail through Congress without question or qualm. That's the annual appropriation for the United States Agency for International Development's Afghanistan aid programs.

Just one example from a new auditor's report shows the absurdity of this. So far, the agency has budgeted a total of about $236 million for Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Health to pay for doctors' salaries, immunizations, prenatal care and hospitals, among a gamut of health-care services -- all of it under a program called Partnership Contracts for Health. But USAID doesn't do much, if anything, to assure that the money is properly spent.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has published report after report about this and similar problems year after year, including this new one made public days ago. As always, USAID's response was a belligerent refusal even to acknowledge the problem. In sum, it said the inspector general had not proved that any of the money disbursed in Afghanistan was actually stolen -- this in a state tied with Somalia and North Korea for an unenviable title: The most corrupt nation on the planet.

That ranking comes from Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. In Afghanistan, evidence indicates that if you simply assume your money is being stolen, 99 times out of 100 you will be correct. As for this partnership contracts program, some of the money is distributed in cash, meaning there is no possible accountability. Much of the rest is deposited in the Central Bank of Afghanistan, which has reported that at least $4.6 billion was withdrawn and taken out of the country in a recent quarter.

Don't USAID officials see anything even the tiniest bit fishy in that?

But in the inspector general's report, USAID once again said it "takes strong exception" to "any implication that there is high risk of misuse of funds" in the health-care program, primarily because the report "provides no evidence" that "there have been incidences of waste, fraud or abuse."

Asked about that, John Sopko, the special inspector general, smiled as he said, "That's like saying, 'we haven't found Jimmy Hoffa's body, so how do you know he's dead?'"

In his report, the inspector general said a USAID official told the auditors that the agency "has no obligation to address the deficiencies identified" or "to verify any corrective actions" that Afghan officials may have implemented.

The report also points out that Mr. Sopko's office published a similar assessment of the health-care program in April 2012. Even then, it "identified significant internal control deficiencies that put U.S. funds" provided for the partnership contracts program "at risk of waste, fraud and abuse."

USAID's own inspector general came to a similar conclusion in 2010, saying the agency's corruption controls were inadequate. The inspector general said they consisted merely of personal observations, walk-throughs and document reviews. Now, three years later, the new report shows that, still, little if anything has been done.

In fact, USAID's own financial controller in Afghanistan told the auditors his agency "has not taken any steps to determine whether" the Afghanistan Ministry of Public Health has done anything it promised to do to fight corruption -- or whether any steps the ministry might have taken have proved to be effective.

That prompted the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction to say that "in our view, this is a reckless disregard toward the management of U.S. taxpayer dollars." Further, he recommended that USAID "provide no further funding" for the health-care program.

Of course, that's up to Congress, which gets these reports. They also go to the secretary of state and other government officials. So why do the Senate and the House continue to approve these wasteful expenditures?

Opinions vary on this question, but one I heard in Washington last week makes sense to me: If the Afghan war is judged a failure, as seems frighteningly likely at this point, Congress will be able to say: It's not our fault. Don't blame us. We gave you all the money you requested!

So, to save their tails, congressmen knowingly throw this money away -- while Republicans try their best to reduce or eliminate health-care coverage, food stamps and retirement benefits for most Americans.

They should be ashamed.

Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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