How Not to Rebuild a War-Torn Country

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ISAF Photo / Air Force TSgt Laura K. Smith

U.S.-funded construction projects, like this Afghan army base in Farah province, are plagued by poor planning, poor quality, poor security and corruption, a top U.S. official says.

The new Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stopped by a Washington think tank Thursday to let assorted foreign-policy types how things are going.

“Two months ago, when we picked this date out of the blue, little did I know that it would be the week, Afghanistan week, that a certain president from a certain country would be in town,” John Spoko said, referring to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s trip to the U.S. this week – and his meeting Friday with President Obama.

Spoko – he’s been on the job since July — told the audience at the Stimson Center that the U.S. “has spent more money to rebuild Afghanistan than it has spent on the reconstruction of any other single nation, including Germany following World War II.”

Then he spoke about a 2008 Pentagon contract to build a $70 million Afghan National Army garrison in the northern province of Kunduz. The fort would house some 1,800 Afghan troops. The facility is vital because it’s designed to protect an important supply route “critical to our national security interests,” Spoko said.

He continued:

This was a multi-building garrison, and it was supposed to be completed in June of 2009. But in April 2010, it still was not completed.
To make matters worse, the construction had been completed — that had been completed had major problems. Roofs were sagging or collapsing because the contractor had used improper welding and priming techniques.
Worse yet, the site was constructed on unstable soil. And because the contractor had not adequately prepared the site and stabilized the soil and constructed proper foundation, the buildings were collapsing.
They were literally sinking into the ground, causing structural failure and making them unusable.
In 2010, we inspected the site. We found the problems, and we told the Defense Department to fix it. They promised to do so.
However, last year we returned, and we found the site in deplorable condition. Although some structures had been fixed, the underlying problems of the collapsible soil had not.
As a result of the soil instability, buildings had failed, buildings had sunk, holes had developed, and more facilities faced likelihood of structural failure.
We saw gaping holes in buildings, because of the structural failures, so large you could stick your arm through the side and walls of the buildings. The sinkholes were so bad that the transformers and electrical systems used to supply power to the facilities were about to collapse into the soil.
Moreover, even those facilities that didn’t have deficiencies were not being used for the intended purpose or were not used at all.
Now, I’d like to report that the contractors responsible for this problem were held accountable. But that’s not the case.
Instead, as we seem to be finding time and time again, for some inexplicable reason, which they still haven’t been able to provide justification for, the Defense Department released the contractor from all further obligations under the contract, including all warranties to fix all the problems, and paid the contractor in full.

As he went through this litany of woe, you kept waiting for him to stop and say: just kidding!

But he never did. Instead, he detailed the five reasons he said things like this keep happening:

These problems, these core issues, can really be boiled down to five separate but interrelated issues: first, inadequate planning; second, poor quality assurance; third, poor security; fourth, questionable sustainability and lastly, corruption.

Other than that, all is well in Afghanistan.