Up in Arms

Published — January 31, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

More waste found in Afghanistan as US heads for the exit

The US effort in Afghanistan has been repeatedly tainted by poor planning and corruption, says inspector general


When U.S. defense department auditors arrived at the large new Imam Sahib Border Police Company headquarters in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province last fall, they discovered just a dozen men, only half of them in uniform, and two-thirds of the compound’s green masonry buildings unoccupied and apparently empty.

A U.S. soldier teaches a class on room clearing to Afghan National Police officers at Pole-Elam District Center in Logar province, Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo

The facility, completed two months earlier at a cost to the United States of $7.3 million, was designed to provide a base for 175 border police to help provide security along Afghanistan’s rugged frontier with Tajikistan, an infiltration route for militants and perhaps the most important transit corridor for Afghan heroin headed to Russia.

But according to the latest report by John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, inspectors found a nearly deserted compound. All but three of the 12 buildings were locked, and no one had keys. The inspectors wrote that they were forced to judge construction quality by peering through the windows.

The findings echoed those in a July 2012 inspection of four other Afghan Border Police facilities in Nangarhar Province, bordering Pakistan, where many buildings were empty or used for something other than what they were designed for – one structure housing a well doubled as a chicken coop. “It is difficult to consider a project as wanted and needed if its intended recipients are not using it or are using it for an unplanned purpose,” the report notes.

As the U.S. approaches the December 2014 deadline for withdrawing most of its 71,000 troops, Washington is trying to beef up Afghanistan’s security forces with training, equipment and bases like Imam Sahib. The U.S. has spent almost $90 billion on Afghanistan reconstruction, more than on rebuilding any other nation.

But Sopko, in a recent speech at the Stimson Center, said too much of the U.S. effort has been marked by poor planning, poor quality assurance, poor security, and corruption. In his report, he wrote that the United States and NATO allies should work harder to focus their remaining reconstruction efforts on projects that the Afghans need and want, and also have the money, training and political will to maintain.

In addition to the deserted border control post, for example, SIGAR auditors discovered that the sprawling $17.7 million Kunduz police headquarters, a collection of 37 separate buildings located in the heart of the busy provincial capital, included poor welding, unstable soils, and collapsing buildings.

SIGAR also noted that the headquarters wasn’t prepared to handle the 625 or so police officials expected to work and, in some cases, live there. The compound, the report said, has a single diesel generator to provide power, and the base is not connected to the local electrical grid. Neither were there plans to train Afghans to maintain the equipment. The SIGAR report said that because of these and the project’s other problems, the U.S. investment in the compound “may be at risk.”

The special inspector general has also warned that the shrinking American military presence is already making it more difficult to visit remote reconstruction projects for audits and inspections, complicating efforts to fight waste and abuse in the sprawling U.S. aid program. And he said the problem could get worse.

SIGAR said it asked the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to check the location of 227 USAID-funded roads, schools, clinics, hospitals and public buildings on a list that included their geographic coordinates. But the agency, which analyzes spy satellite data, was unable to find about twenty percent those structures. The U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies rely on the list to track development efforts.

The United States and some of its allies have pledged to shore up the Afghan government with $4.1 billion a year in aid after 2014. Secretary of Defense-nominee Chuck Hagel remarked during his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 31, however, that he has been astounded by the billions of dollars in aid funds already lost to waste, fraud, abuse and corruption in the region. He promised to produce a new study for Congress about how the Pentagon’s efforts have gone awry, explaining that “we owe it to the people of this country who pay the bills.”

“Where is the accountability?” Hagel asked, adding that this is an issue that the Pentagon needs to take a closer look at. He added that much of the blame stemmed from overloading military personnel with too much nation-building responsibility during wars, promising that this would be “sorted through” if he is confirmed.

President Obama, at a joint appearance with Aghan president Hamid Karzai at the White House on Jan. 11 that previewed the American withdrawal, said, “Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. You know, this is a human enterprise, and, you know, you fall short of the ideal. Did we achieve our central goal? And have we been able, I think, to shape a strong relationship with a responsible Afghan government that is willing to cooperate with us to make sure that it is not a launching pad for future attacks against the United States? We have achieved that goal. We’re in the process of achieving that goal.”

But Sopko is still concerned specifically about what will happen to U.S.-built projects after NATO troops withdraw if the Kabul government doesn’t try to maintain what the U.S. and others have built.

A 2011 SIGAR report found that $44.6 million in asphalt roads in Laghman Province were “at risk” because there was no program to maintain them, for example. The report said there are “real concerns that Afghanistan will simply lack the fiscal, operational, and technical capacity to provide for security and other basic government functions, much less to maintain and operate the hundreds of programs and projectsthat the United States and other donors have established there.”

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