Iraq watchdog proposes new agency to manage reconstruction

Congress and the Obama administration should establish a new agency to manage contingency relief and reconstruction efforts in Iraq, a top auditor said on Monday.

There is "broad agreement" that the existing structure for managing stabilization and reconstruction operations, or SROs, has led to poor coordination, which has inhibited proper execution, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen told the Commission on Wartime Contracting. Bowen appeared before the commission to discuss the findings and recommendations of his office's report, "Applying Iraq's Hard Lessons to the Reform of Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations."

Audits from the Defense and State department inspectors general have indicated "the lack of a single, unified chain of command was a problem," Bowen said. He noted that in Afghanistan, Defense is responsible for training the entire civil police force, while in Iraq, the effort has been turned over to State. This is "resonant of the current discontinuities in SRO management," he said.

Bowen said the SIGIR office considered alternatives to a new agency, such as putting State, the U.S. Agency for International Development or Defense in charge of contingency reconstruction efforts.

"In the end, however, we believe that existing Cabinet agencies, if given the overall responsibility for planning and executing SROs, would put too strong a stamp on the effort and would not effectively use other talents and resources available across government," Bowen said. "The only way to truly achieve the whole-of-government approach is to fill the gaps between the existing agencies through a new organization."

In formal comments on the report, Michèle Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy, said SIGIR correctly identified underfunding, lack of capacity and lack of authorities at State and USAID as the primary obstacles to an "effective and flexible" response to stability and reconstruction operations. But she dismissed the establishment of a new agency as the proper solution.

"Since the issue is chiefly one of capacity and resources as opposed to structure, a key solution would be to fix and resource existing institutions rather than create a new one," Flournoy wrote.

She also noted that Congress is unlikely to support creating a new agency "in today's fiscally constrained environment."

Jacob Lew, deputy secretary of State for management and resources, said the proposal contained "many useful ideas," but was problematic on several fronts. It shows an "overly narrow view of the challenges that face U.S. foreign policy in the coming years," he said.

Bowen appeared unfazed by the lack of support from Defense and State.

"Being a novel concept impinging upon current jurisdictions, [the new U.S. Office of Contingency Operations] will be subject to criticism," Bowen said. "But I believe that if the Congress and the administration act boldly to address the core current SRO problem -- the lack of a clear point of accountability and responsibility for the preparation and execution of SROs -- then management of these critical interagency operations could be significantly improved, reducing the waste, inefficiency and ineffectiveness that so often burdened the Iraq program."

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