USAID to protect $17 billion worth of reconstruction projects in Afghanistan

Post Date: February 19, 2015 | Category: The Danger Zone

USAID has spent roughly $17 billion on reconstruction projects across Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded in 2001 to oust the Taliban regime. USAID’s success has been mixed. There have been undeniable gains in areas such as women’s rights, education, and healthcare.

Officials with USAID point to the 2014 Afghan presidential election as a step in the right direction, though it was bitterly contested over massive voter fraud. It was only settled with U.S. intervention that helped broker a power-sharing arrangement between President Ashraf Ghani and his election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who was named to the newly created post of chief executive officer.

But the aid effort in Afghanistan has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years for wastefulness, poor planning and lack of transparency, flaws laid out in stark detail largely by SIGAR reports. A prime example of a project that has not succeeded despite massive funding is the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan. Tens of millions of dollars over budget and 10 years over schedule, few outside of USAID expect the power project ever to be completed.

And in January, USAID suspended one of its largest non-profit contractors, International Relief and Development, for “serious misconduct” after giving the company $2.4 billion since 2007, much of it for reconstruction in Afghanistan.

The key to SIGAR’s efforts to shine a spotlight on aid initiatves in the country is the ability of investigators to get out in the field to see projects up close. That has become more and more difficult as U.S. bases closed and American security assets — from both the State Department and military — have shrunk.

“There’s no substitute for being there. There’s no substitute for being exposed to this place outside the walls,” Schwendiman said in an interview at the organization’s Kabul offices in the heavily-fortified U.S. Embassy complex.

That has become more difficult with the reduction of U.S. troops. In addition, the 2013 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador and three others were killed, has made regional security office advisers extra cautious, Schwendiman said.

“Benghazi has made the diplomatic security people and embassy people rightly nervous about having anything like that happen here and they’ll tell you openly this is one of the scariest places they operate,” Schwindeman said.

Both USAID and SIGAR are planning increased reliance on local staff and contractors to get to areas that would be treacherous for Americans.

“In some cases we do still have Americans come out and visit a program,” Sampler said. “In other cases, we may use technology, over-flights or crowd sourcing technology. We have to do that because we can’t get out to all parts of Afghanistan.”

Schwendiman sees another big loss in the drawdown of troops.

“When there were 100,000 people on the ground, there were 200,000 eyes and 200,000 ears that were listening and watching things that were going on, and they would report waste and fraud and abuse,” he said. “That 100,000 now is down to 10,000, so there are only 20,000 eyes and ears; we’re naturally going to hear less and see less through their eyes than we were seeing before.”

One thing unlikely to change is the tension between the two organizations. Over the past two-and-a-half years, SIGAR has often been locked in battle with American reconstruction organizations, especially USAID, over their handling of billions of U.S. tax dollars earmarked for the controversial rebuilding effort in Afghanistan.

“USAID hates our guts and they think that we’re a distraction and [they] oughtn’t have to put up with us,” Schwendiman said.

Privately, USAID officials complain bitterly about SIGAR, saying the inspector general organization criticizes with insufficient evidence and makes it even harder to carry out an already difficult reconstruction effort.

“Are we on the record?” Sampler joked when asked his thoughts about SIGAR’s criticisms of USAID, before taking a diplomatic line: “They ask these hard questions and force us to come up with answers.”

By: Heath Druzin Stars and Stripes

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