THE WISDOM FUND: News & Views
November 20, 2005
The Washington Post

A Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks

After the routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Bush administration launched a $73 million program to construct schools and clinics. But design flaws and other problems soon plagued the effort.

by Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway

In September 2002, nearly a year after an American-led coalition deposed the Taliban, the United States launched what would become an aggressive effort to build or refurbish as many as 1,000 schools and clinics by the end of 2004, documents show. However, design flaws and construction errors caused the initiative to fall far short.

By September 2004, congressional figures show that the effort's centerpiece -- a $73 million U.S. Agency for International Development program -- 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 finished and turned over to the Afghan government.

Internal documents and more than 100 interviews in Washington and Kabul revealed a chain of mistakes and misjudgments: The U.S. effort was poorly conceived in a rush to show results before the Afghan presidential election in late 2004. The drive to construct earthquake-resistant, American-quality buildings in rustic villages led to culture clashes, delays and what a USAID official called "extraordinary costs." 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 U.S. construction methods sometimes produced shoddy work.

At the outset, USAID and its primary contractor, New Jersey-based Louis Berger Group Inc., failed to provide adequate oversight, documents state. Federal audits show that USAID officials in Kabul were unable to "identify the location of many Kabul-directed projects in the field." Officials at contracting companies and nonprofit groups complain that they were directed to build at sites that turned out to be sheer mountain slopes, a dry riverbed and even a graveyard.

Employees of a Maryland-based nonprofit relief agency hired to monitor construction quality demanded a $50,000 payoff from Afghan builders -- a scene captured in a clandestine videotape obtained by The Washington Post.

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

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

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Eric Margolis, "Deja Vu in Afghanistan," Toronto Sun, December 19, 2002

Andrew North, "Doubts grow over US Afghan strategy," BBC News, November 23, 2005

Ann Jones, "Why it's not working in Afghanistan," Asia Times, August 30, 2006

Kim Sengupta, " Afghanistan: Campaign against Taliban 'causes misery and hunger," Independent, September 6, 2006

"Afghanistan, Inc.: A CorpWatch Investigative Report," corpwatch.org, May 2, 2006

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