In Afghanistan, Roads (And Power Lines) To Nowhere

on July 30 2012 6:14 PM
Soldier, man, donkey, and boy
A U.S. Paratrooper of the 509th Infantry Regiment looks on as a man, child, and donkey walk past in Paktiya Province in Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters

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A U.S. paratrooper of the 509th Infantry Regiment looks on as a man, child, and donkey walk past in Paktiya Province in Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters

It may not be a surprise, but now it's a notion that has official backing from an indipendent U.S. agency: state-building efforts in Afghanistan are in big trouble.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) -- meant to be an independent agency in the U.S. government set up to audit, inspect, and provide oversight of major infrastructure building projects in that country -- has released a damning report on U.S. efforts to give Afghanistan a network of basic infrastructure.

The projects were meant to play a critical role in state-building, and to display the benefits that American assistance and the government of president Hamid Karzai can provide to average Afghans.

Not only are those projects behind schedule, their failure to deliver real results is creating what SIGAR calls an "expectations gap," letting down populations, hurting the battle for hearts and minds, and ultimately damaging counter-insurgency operations in the country.

In a report released on Monday, SIGAR said that most components of the Afghan Infrastructure Fund (AIF), which is responsible for 7 major energy grid, transportation, and public facility construction projects, were behind schedule, sometimes by 15 months.

The key projects, worth nearly $400 million, cover power transmission lines, road paving, and the building of "provincial justice centers", the latter intended to improve the capacity for rule of law.

It is now expected that many of those projects will only be completed by late 2015 or 2014, when U.S. forces have already left, or will be in the process of withdrawing. The report says that makes the efforts generally unsustainable. They will be left in the hands of Afghan government entities with "questionable capacity" that "lack the resources - financial and otherwise - necessary to fulfill these commitments."

The report cites requests from the Afghan government's own Deputy Minister of Public Works, who has asked U.S. forces to stop building roads since his own government will be unable to maintain them.

In addition, SIGAR says existing energy projects for Afghanistan suffer from having no "master plan". In current projects as well as similar ones run in the past by the Army Corps of Engineers, USAID, and the Air Force, cost overruns have hindered a reliable timeline for completion. Costs rose as security concerns resulted in contractors bidding with higher estimates. The nature of the AIF projects, which require interagency cooperation and shared tasks, is also hampered by bureaucratic delays from the transfer of funds from groups within the Defense Department to those of the State Department. In many cases the costs of sustaining a key project beyond completion date went uncalculated, due to "staff and capacity limitations" in U.S. forces in charge of the project.

In the last ten years, Congress had given $89.4 billion to the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.

In fiscal year 2011, it specifically appropriated $400 million for the creation of the AIF, with an additional $400 million given in fiscal year 2012.

SIGAR summarizes that management of the projects has been problematic, since "the lack of comprehensive and shared project information and unclear guidance on agency roles in project execution limit congressional oversight and interagency coordination."

The report warns that "If goals are set and not achieved, both the U.S. and the Afghan governments can lose the populace's support."

The success of the projects is likewise interlinked and mutually supporting but rely on "unfunded infrastructure projects and the successful, timely completion of other projects that the U.S. government has been unable to complete for more than 7 years."

The Office of the Secretary of Defense has argued against the conclusions made by the SIGAR, calling them premature.

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