- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

SHOWKHEI, Afghanistan — Most mornings, boys from this village walk to a mud-brick school built two years ago, compliments of U.S. taxpayers. But the building is already in disrepair, its walls crumbling and its roof pitted by termites chewing into untreated wooden beams.

Village elders in Showkhei, some 20 miles from the main U.S. military base at Bagram, were unanimous in the summer of 2003 when soldiers arrived and asked what they needed: a bigger school for their children. The soldiers sent a construction firm called Ahmad Jamil Construction to Showkhei to double the size of the existing school from five rooms to 10.

But no one from the military came back to inspect the quality of materials or the company’s work, villagers said. The next time they saw the soldiers was weeks later at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. U.S. officials took pictures of the new building and then left, said school principal Said Rakhman.

Two years and $20,000 later, the locally made mud bricks crumble to the touch, and termites have infested the roof beams, leaving villagers with the morbid pastime of guessing when the ceiling will fall.

“Do they just care about photographs?” asked Mr. Rakhman. “My children have to stay in this building, their children don’t.”

Use of inferior construction materials is just one of myriad complaints lodged by auditors and aid workers who are critical of U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.

Four years after American forces invaded Afghanistan to purge the Taliban, the United States has spent more than $1.62 billion to reconstruct this war-ravaged Central Asian country.

Vital, visible results

Some vital and visible results of the U.S. intervention are evident. After 25 years of open warfare, millions of Afghans have returned home, voters have elected a government and many women are back at work.

But a report published in July by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) cited bureaucratic squabbles, poor planning, and a lack of coordination and oversight in the spending of U.S. reconstruction money in Afghanistan. The effect is that building and public works projects by the State Department and the Pentagon have had little impact on improving the country’s long-term reconstruction, the GAO said.

For Afghans, this is cause for despair. In a country ranked among the world’s worst in terms of poverty, literacy and infant mortality, the slow reconstruction endangers short- and long-term stability.

No one expected Afghanistan to transform its bomb-scarred, medieval landscape into a modern nation overnight. But analysts, aid workers and many Afghans are questioning how effectively the millions of U.S. dollars meant to improve the country have been spent so far.

“You say time equals money. In this case it’s true. We Afghans don’t have the luxury of time,” said Mohammed Sidiq Patman, the deputy education minister. “I know that America has a desire to help, but the U.S. government isn’t doing things in the best way.”

The government of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai, still heavily dependant on international assistance, is being further undermined by more frequent and deadly attacks by the Taliban and insurgents. The continued presence of warlords means the authority of the central government doesn’t stretch much beyond the capital, Kabul.

2006 U.S. troop cut

Despite pledges by President Bush to stay the course, the United States is reportedly planning to pull out 20 percent of its 18,000 troops next year.

Quayum Karzai, a brother of the president recently elected to parliament, said withdrawing even 50 U.S. troops would send a signal to ordinary Afghans and extremists alike that “the commitment isn’t there.”

In the effort to deliver roads, schools, clinics, irrigation canals and other public works, U.S. agencies fell short of most of their own targets and glossed over their lack of progress for decision makers in Washington, according to the GAO, an investigative arm of Congress whose July report covered reconstruction results through May 2005.

For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has pointed to the repair and construction of miles of irrigation ditches and canals as a reflection of booming Afghan farms. But the GAO found that the contractor responsible for overseeing these projects, Chemonics International Inc., did not fully collect or report information on progress. More important, U.S. efforts weren’t steered with the aim of helping Afghans produce specific crops or getting those crops to market.

Local roads ignored

While a Kabul-to-Kandahar highway is nearing completion, cutting travel time from three days to six hours, relatively little attention has been paid to fixing or building smaller roads, so moving crops — or people, money or even the Afghan army — around the country remains difficult.

“People told us ‘I hear there’s a clinic but I can’t get to it,’ ” said Morgan Courtney, a researcher for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She conducted an independent survey this year of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan: The clinic may only be a mile or two away, but “they say the roads are so bad that if we carry our family on a cart, we’ll dump it on the way there because it’s way too bumpy for us.”

The handful of health clinics built last year weren’t located where trained doctors are because contractors didn’t consult local officials or the Health Ministry, which wanted to ensure that the clinics were being put in places of need, the GAO reported.

Plan is now in place

Peggy O’Ban, a spokeswoman for USAID, said the agency agrees with the GAO’s assertions and notes that a comprehensive strategy for reconstruction in Afghanistan, lacking until this past summer, is now in place.

“It would’ve been a lot easier to import [workers] from abroad but — depending on project and level of skill — what you’re trying to do is train people,” she said. “But if the imperative is to get everything done as quickly as possible, that creates a challenge.”

Improving primary education, by building schools, revamping inadequate curricula and training teachers, is a goal embraced by all international agencies working in Afghanistan. Yet some of the U.S. government’s most abysmal reconstruction results came in education.

Since 2002, 3,500 schools have been refurbished or built from scratch. For all Afghan children to study in covered buildings instead of tents or open-air schools, however, another 2,000 schools will need to be built, according the Education Ministry.

The U.S. government has funded a relatively small number of these needed school projects.

USAID had projected that it would refurbish or build 286 schools by the end of 2004, but its contractors had only completed eight by that deadline and refurbished about 77 others, with a coat of paint sometimes counting as a refinished school, the GAO reported.

As of Sept. 1 this year, according to USAID, its contractors had completed 314 school projects since reconstruction began after the U.S.-led invasion.

USAID officials say such lackluster performance was largely a result of being initially too optimistic about Afghanistan’s political and security climate. They said they set targets that were too high given how unstable the country became months later. Many areas of the Texas-size country are considered unsafe for humanitarian workers.

Risks deter contractors

Deteriorating security played a major role in slowing or shelving plans in at least six of the country’s provinces, mainly along the Pakistani border, officials said. They blamed a lack of contractors willing to work in risky areas for allocating only $6 million of its $49 million budget for schools and clinics in fiscal year 2003.

Eighty-one aid workers were killed last year, the GAO reported, and attacks by the Taliban and its sympathizers left more than 1,200 dead — including U.S. and NATO soldiers, Afghan military and civilians and foreign workers, in the six months leading up to the Sept. 18 parliamentary election.

U.S. officials also note they had to coordinate their actions with the Education Ministry, a challenge considering the Afghan government didn’t even have pens, desks or computers — let alone a working staff — until mid-2002.

“Building the capacity of the new government to deliver is as important as the buildings, and it takes time,” said Alonzo Fulgham, the USAID mission director in Afghanistan.

Under the same difficult conditions, however, other international lending agencies such as the World Bank and nonprofit organizations have demonstrated better results.

Atlanta-based CARE International, which has worked in Afghanistan for 44 years, built 40 schools in 2004, which in most cases cost between $10,000 and $20,000 less than U.S.-sponsored projects. Schools constructed by USAID contractors cost between $60,000 and $80,000.

CARE’s faster pace was possible in part because it already had relationships with Afghan villages and businesses with which to organize and build.

Distributed by New York Times News Service

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