AKI/DAWN, November 21, 2005

The US Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks

Inquiry reveals serious flaws in the US efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, suggesting that corruption and inefficiency caused millions of dollars to be wasted on useless projects.

Nov. 21 (AKI/DAWN) - An inquiry by the US daily, the Washington Post (Nov.20, 2005), has discovered serious flaws in the US efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, suggesting that corruption and inefficiency caused millions of dollars to be wasted on useless projects. A clandestine videotape obtained by the Post shows that employees of a Maryland-based non-profit relief agency hired to monitor construction quality demanded a 50,000 US dollar payoff from Afghan builders.

In September 2002, nearly a year after deposing the Taliban, the US launched an aggressive effort to build or refurbish as many as 1,000 schools and clinics in Afghanistan by the end of 2004, documents show.

However, design flaws and construction errors undermined the initiative.

By September 2004, the effort’s centrepiece - a 73 million-dollar US Agency for International Development programme - had produced only 100 finished projects, most of them refurbishments of existing buildings. As of the beginning of this month, only about 40 more had been completed and turned over to the Afghan government.

"The US effort was poorly conceived in a rush to show results before the Afghan presidential election in late 2004," said the report in the US daily. "The drive to construct earthquake-resistant, American-quality buildings in rustic villages led to culture clashes, delays and, what one USAID official called, extraordinary costs."

USAID is an independent US federal government agency that conducts foreign assistance and humanitarian aid to advance the political and economic interests of the United States.

Afghans complained that the initial design for roofs made them too heavy to build in rural areas without a crane, and the corrected design made them too light to bear Afghan snows. Local workmen unfamiliar with US construction methods sometimes produced shoddy work, the report says.

At the outset, USAID and its primary contractor, New Jersey-based Louis Berger Group Inc., failed to provide adequate oversight.

Federal audits show that USAID officials in Kabul were unable to ‘identify the location of many Kabul-directed projects in the field’.

Last year, the head of the State Department’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Group, Phillip Jackson ‘Jack’ Bell, ended his tour at the US Embassy in Kabul by delivering a blistering rebuke to USAID.

“The most important programmes - including roads, schools and clinics - are in serious trouble,” Bell wrote, according to a draft of his previously undisclosed memo. “The health programme was well on its way to becoming a disaster.”

Afghan officials, contractors and citizens expressed anger about the delays, which have disappointed the rural Afghans who initially embraced international help.

USAID declined to disclose the price of individual schools and clinics.

The estimated cost for the Berger buildings averages 226,000 dollars per site. Afghan officials said they initially expected a basic health clinic to cost 40,000 to 60,000 dollars, the amount that Afghan and European non-profit groups had been spending.

In a previously undisclosed May 2004 memo to USAID, Zalmay Khalilzad, then the US ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote that the construction delays had created problems.

“These problems are now beginning to interfere with the credibility of the US,” he wrote.

Within months of the awarding of the contract, US officials raised their sights from 420 to 1,000 schools and clinics by the end of 2004, an inspector-general’s report shows.

Last summer, Post reporters made an unannounced visit to the 15-month-old clinic, which was filled with patients. Mould and mildew stained the ceiling.

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