Afghan roads: Take me home

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent over $15 billion in Afghanistan since 2002, rebuilding the country and aligning redevelopment goals with military ones in order to stabilize the region. Progress, however, has been slow because of delays caused by widespread insurgency, poor oversight, over-reliance on outside contractors, cost overruns and corruption, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Some key projects include:

“A $260 million effort to upgrade southern Afghanistan’s Kajaki hydro-electric dam has repeatedly faltered and remains incomplete. Meanwhile, a $300 million contract to build a major power plant outside Kabul cost more than twice the original estimate and remains largely idle as Afghanistan relies on cheaper power from its neighbors.”

Over $2 billion, the largest chunk of USAID funds, went to road projects in the war-torn country. One of largest beneficiaries of these funds was the U.S. non-profit the International Relief and Development (IRD). Founded by Arthur Keys in 1998, the group has received hundreds of millions of dollars through the Afghanistan Strategic Roads Project.

USAID and IRD officials say the main goal of the project was to win the support of locals by spreading jobs and money throughout areas of the country that harbor insurgents. Jobs, money and improved infrastructure to improve trade and communication were supposed to goodwill among locals, but the project ran into major hurdles, The Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum reports.

The $400 million project was supposed to create 1,200 miles of road, but three years and and $270 million later, less than 100 miles of road have been built. Additionally, 125 people have been killed and 250 others wounded in insurgent attacks on various construction sites, derailing the project and shutting it down in December. Afghan construction companies are still looking to receive millions of dollars in unpaid bills from IRD, and Afghan villages are now left with unfinished roads and empty promises, according to The Journal.

It’s estimated that each mile of gravel road in Afghanistan cost U.S. taxpayers over $2.8 million by IRD, the most expensive U.S. government-built roads in Afghanistan. The project also set aside millions of dollars to build soap factories, run reading programs for illiterate villagers, teach sewing and flower-arranging to Afghan women and dig wells. Yet it was later discovered that IRD staff were falsifying reports and overstating claims about the impacts of community programs.

Tensions also flared because IRD continued to build roads without complementary community projects. “You had these villages with no community ownership or buy in, and they just made the situation worse. … That’s when things really started going sour,” one USAID official told Nissenbaum.

One $3 million project in the Khost province on the Pakistani border went awry when only people from two of the five local tribes were chosen to work on the project. The tribes not chosen to work on the project looted the construction site and stripped it bare, and four people affiliated with the project were kidnapped, killed, and left out in public with a warning written by insurgents. This brought the construction to a halt. Other instances of violence and looting further angered locals and insurgents.

This project was part of the Afghan First initiative, which was meant to support Afghan companies instead of international firms. But IRD is still having problems with Afghan subcontractors it failed to pay, even though the project has been canceled. Tensions reached their height when Afghan subcontractors got arrest warrants for two IRD officials in 2010, and during the spring, IRD was forced to silently move one of its managers out of the country due to more threats.

USAID moved swiftly to shut down the project after it became clear in 2010 that IRD was failing to meet its goals. USAID claims it has learned from its mistakes with IRD and has tripled its staff in Afghanistan, strengthened its screening of Afghan partners and added more direct oversight and monitoring procedures for programs. USAID, however, hasn’t severed its ties with IRD. In fact, USAID awarded IRD nearly $140 million to complete three more projects in Afghanistan, though none of them were road projects.

Afghan subcontractors are still waiting to get paid and have been told by IRD that their grievances must be addressed by USAID, since the project has been canceled. The Journal reports that: “Afghan entrepreneur Delawar Faizan, meanwhile, says that IRD still owes him nearly $4 million for his work in constructing roads in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province.”

IRD gave him a check to settle some of the disputes, but the check bounced because IRD’s bank account was frozen. Now he has to get approval for payment from USAID.


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