The Afghan Report That Could Have Saved the U.S. Billions
Policy + Politics

The Afghan Report That Could Have Saved the U.S. Billions

REUTERS/Andrew Burton

U.S. development initiatives in Afghanistan are riddled with overly ambitious projects that lack the necessary labor for implementation and sustainability, according to a report detailing infrastructure efforts there.

“In many ways the [U.S. assistance] program was larger than could be effectively administered by either the U.S. or Afghan governments,” the report said. “U.S. expectations of the time required to achieve effective project results in Afghanistan were generally unrealistic. Construction was far too often in advance of plans for institutional adaptation in the use of the facilities and the training of personnel for their effective operation.”

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While that assessment may sound like the latest missive from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, it isn’t. The critique, recently highlighted by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent nonprofit research organization, was published in 1988 for the United States Agency for International Development under the title, “Retrospective Review of U.S. Assistance to Afghanistan: 1950-1979.”

Some experts now ask whether the U.S. has failed to learn from the past and is therefore doomed to repeat it.

“I don’t think that the U.S. government has learned from the mistakes of the past,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. He noted that while USAID can claim successes in promoting girls’ education and expanding a mobile phone network, the big-ticket items tend to fall short.

“These big-ticket, high-profile projects don’t always work out as planned,” he said. “It’s basically built, looks great, but it’s not operational.”

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That’s certainly the case with two major projects, including one that the U.S. began during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. USAID recently abandoned plans to pump $266 million into repairing the Kajaki Dam in Helmand province by installing turbines designed to provide electricity. The U.S. began construction of the dam in the early 1950s, and now the responsibility for further improvements has been handed off to an Afghan power company, at a cost of $70 million.

Last month, a $60 million hospital funded by the U.S. and designed to be the biggest in the country still hadn’t opened, despite its targeted completion for 2009.

The sustainability of other initiatives is also in doubt.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director and co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, noted how bigger projects draw more attention from the Taliban, both during and after construction.

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“You might have the roads finished, but you can’t use them because there are so many attacks going on,” he said, disproving the theory that the insurgency starts where the road ends. Instead, he said, “Where you build a road, often the insurgency starts.”

From a budgetary perspective, the effort to win the hearts and minds of Afghans is waning. While the administration hasn’t yet released its country-level funding requests for fiscal 2015, the top level figures show a downward trend, with assistance halved in recent years. Disbursing that money could also prove problematic after the U.S. draws down its troop presence there.

“The fact that these funds will need to be administered in a very different security environment gives a lot of folks pause in terms of how successful USAID can be with these projects,” said Casey Dunning, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development.

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If the U.S. and Afghanistan don’t sign a new security agreement, however, all bets are off. President Obama has threatened to withdraw all U.S. forces – a move known as the “zero option” – if a deal isn’t reached by the end of the year. Virtually all U.S. led development projects would grind to a halt if that happens.

With almost $100 billion spent on U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, USAID can certainly point to success stories, such as increasing the life expectancy rate and lowering maternal mortalities, according to Dunning. “It was kind of these incredible movements on social aspects in such a short amount of time, and that’s because USAID poured a ton of money into the health sector.”

Repeating costly mistakes from the past isn’t just embarrassing to the U.S.; it also puts future development efforts in jeopardy.

“It makes it so much more difficult to justify long-term funding when you see all this wastage and inefficiencies,” Kugelman said. “It’s difficult for folks on the Hill to justify these expenditures to taxpayers given this track record.”

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