- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2014

As U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, one of the unsung victims increasingly is the American taxpayer.

In the latest evidence of costly nation-building gone awry, government investigators found that a U.S.-funded school built for Afghans at the expense of U.S. taxpayers is still incomplete after five years of work, and now needs repairs to fix “a leaking roof, defective electrical wiring, and an improperly sloped terrace roof.”

Plus, investigators for the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction are worried that the structure could collapse altogether, erasing any return on investment.

It’s yet another in a long line of unfinished projects that might not be completed or fixed before the U.S. withdraws all its forces, which is expected in the next year.

Since the beginning of combat operations in 2002, the U.S. has spent close to $100 billion on aid to help rebuild the war-torn nation. But funding has long been plagued by shoddy construction, corruption and poor oversight of contractors. Officials at SIGAR warn that they’re not sure of the exact amount wasted, but that it could be in the tens of billions of dollars.

The situation is expected to get worse. As U.S. personnel withdraw from the country, fewer people will oversee the problems and fix the existing issues, raising the specter that taxpayers could pay billions of dollars for half-finished buildings that sit unused and don’t benefit the Afghanistan people.

The school joins other examples of fiscal abuse on which The Washington Times has reported. In September, SIGAR found $190 million for a health care program could be at risk of being taken by corrupt officials. In April, inspectors said $18.5 million was spent on two hospitals without first consulting the needs of the local population. In February, investigators found that a $7.3 million police station was sitting unused.

Repairing and operating the buildings might not be feasible for the Afghan people once the U.S. starts to withdraw some of its support, the Special Inspector General John Sopko said in an interview last year.

“Sometimes we’re turning over bases, or we’re turning over hospitals, or clinics or whatever, and the cost of maintaining them is going to drive the Afghan government bankrupt,” he said.

The school, located in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, was part of a $17.1 million endeavor to build educational facilities around the country. But it still isn’t ready to be used, SIGAR said.

“Nearly five years after construction began, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is unable to transfer the facility to Afghan authorities,” the watchdog said in a report released Wednesday.

In addition to problems with the electrical wiring and leaking roof, investigators also found that sewage pipes near water sources weren’t well insulated, raising the risk of contamination. The school also needs a better road to allow students and teachers to get to it.

But investigators were perhaps most concerned about whether the roof and septic system are designed to hold the weight imposed on them, noting that officials cannot assure that the structure “will not collapse at some point in time.”

USAID disagreed that the building is structurally unsound. The Army Corps of Engineers, which built the school, has “rigorous procedures and requirements for the design and construction of its building projects,” the agency said.

That prompted SIGAR to ask for proof of the Army’s evaluation, saying they could find no evidence that the school was stable.

The aid agency did agree that work on the school is incomplete, and said any remaining problems with the building will be fixed.

“USAID will address the deficiencies identified in the report in the contract for final repair work, which is expected to be awarded within two months,” a letter from the agency said. In other words, taxpayers are going to pay more to a contractor to fix what wasn’t done right the first time.

The school has yet to be approved for use, but classes were held in the building last year. In response, USAID secured the facility to make sure no one used it, but SIGAR noted that Afghan authorities are not pleased about the delays.

Several school officials SIGAR spoke with said that no air conditioning had been installed in several parts of the building, making it likely classes could not be held in the summer heat.

The building could finally be handed over for use by the Afghan people by July at the earliest, investigators said.

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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