One way or another, all of the rapidly-dilapidating roads in Afghanistan lead to their node, downtown Kabul City.  They follow the money trail of operational incompetence and cultural ignorance.  This is why the title of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) report, Afghanistan’s Road Infrastructure: Sustainment Challenges and Lack of Repairs Put U.S. Investment at Risk, did not surprise me at all.

Figure 1. Building bridges that work; compacted trash put to good use as a neighborhood bridge. (All photos were taken by the author except the Figure 5.)

Among other details that SIGAR found are:

Since 2002, USAID and DOD have spent approximately $2.8 billion to construct and repair Afghanistan’s road infrastructure, and perform capacity-building activities. USAID spent at least $1.9 billion on eight programs dedicated to building Afghanistan’s road infrastructure. Additionally, USAID has developed plans to spend more than $150 million on three road-related programs. Finally, USAID implemented two broader stability programs—known as Community Development Programs—that provided at least $335 million for short-term employment programs, including road construction, in support of counterinsurgency efforts.

Although USAID could account for the program costs and locations for seven of the eight dedicated road construction programs, it could not provide precise location data for a $366 million Secondary Roads program [Emphasis mine]. For its part, DOD spent at least $847 million on road-related projects funded under the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP). SIGAR previously identified limitations in DOD’s tracking of certain projects, and these limitations prevented SIGAR from determining how much DOD spent on 462 of 4,687 road-related projects the department implemented.

The limitations included a lack of unique project identifying numbers that could be used to track the costs for each CERP project implemented between fiscal year (FY) 2004 and FY 2006, and an inability to determine what proportion each bulk-funded project was spent on road-related activities, an issue DOD resolved in FY 2010 and FY 2011. However, DOD was able to provide the required location information for SIGAR’s selection of 57 road-related CERP projects worth $126 million.

The forty-page document is worth reading for those who care about our involvement in Afghanistan.  In the concluding section, SIGAR comments on USAID’s feedback to this report:

USAID concurred with our recommendation and stated that the recommendation aligns with its ‘current approach, which ensures that any future road programs address the shortcomings of previous programs and increase the MOPW’s capacity to maintain Afghanistan’s roads [Emphasis mine].’ USAID also stated that the Afghan government has taken steps to demonstrate its commitment to reform, including formally endorsing the creation of a Road Authority, Road Fund, and Transportation Institute. Furthermore, USAID noted that ‘the newly released Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework specifically identified road sector reform as a key component of the energy and infrastructure development and growth strategy for the country.’ Based on this information, USAID Afghanistan requested that SIGAR close the recommendation.

While we are encouraged by USAID’s commitment to learning from the mistakes of prior programs, we disagree with USAID’s request to close the recommendation. As evidenced by the existence and goals of the RSSP, the establishment of an independent Road Authority, Road Fund, and Transportation Institute is necessary to reform the MOPW and ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

The above passages brought memories of my experience with the USAID and the Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Works.

U.S. in Aid

As it happened, one of my first tasks in Afghanistan was to inquire more about the results of USAID’s Strategic Provincial Roads program as the roads, from a geographic analytical aspect, related to counterinsurgency efforts.  Most people are unaware that the debacle of this program was instrumental in the White House diverting financial support from road construction to Afghanistan’s electrification.

Even the most optimistic people could not justify spending a half-billion dollar investment on 64 kilometers of roads completed (at the time), when the allocated budget was for the construction of 1,500 kilometers of roads.  International Relief and Development (IRD)—profiled by the Washington Post in USAID suspends IRD, its largest nonprofit contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan—was a non-profit organization in charge of construction operations for USAID.

[For more on IRD also see from the Washington Post “Doing well by doing good: The high price of working in war zones” and USAID’s Strategic Provincial Roads Program: Audit of Costs Incurred by the International Relief and Development, Inc.]

My colleagues and I went to downtown Kabul City to meet USAID’s chief civil engineer (his name is not provided for privacy reasons).  Greeted with a visibly nervous engineer, and his self-invited and equally nervous supervisor, we gathered around the table to discuss some aspect of the program.  After a while, after they realized that our intent was indeed related to research and analysis, rather than investigation and auditing, they both relaxed and the supervisor eventually left.  We engaged in a rather interesting conversation about the details of this program and its success.

This was my first experience in Afghanistan with a disappointed, exhausted, and almost broken down to tears person who wanted to do his best, but the system got the best of him.  From an engineering perspective he did everything he could—and gave me a full disk of material to illustrate that, 600 pages—but the operational aspect, implementation and construction, was outside of his control.  It was evident that he could not wait for random strangers to share his pain before finishing his work in Afghanistan.

We discussed a number of instances related to the construction of roads and bridges and all of them had a common theme—very little understanding of the local cultural conditions, i.e., cultural geography.  An incredible amount of money was wasted in the field for what ultimately was an abysmal performance.

The program was not just about designing and paving the roads, but also winning hearts and minds.  It was a technical as much as cultural geographic project.  It ranged from paying for the land on which to build the roads, to providing various services in rebuilding communities located in the vicinity of each road.  Anyone who knows something about Afghanistan is well aware that the latter aspect, community services, is hardly a domain of civil engineering even when part of physical construction.  Engineers are not experts on physical and cultural geography and tribal business of eastern and southern Afghanistan.  But the money was spent through IRD and its subcontractors regardless, while USAID had little to show to the White House.

Our next stop was the Ministry of Public Works, also referenced in above report. This is where I observed a type of cultural interaction I thought now only existed in books.

The Ministry of Public Works: Enter the Dragon’s Lair

My team and I attended a donor conference at the Ministry of Public Works.  The Minister, who shared a remarkable physical resemblance and personal demeanor with numerous communist era officials in my country of birth, Croatia, asked for more money without hesitation.  More money in this context meant millions more.  One topic of discussion was the financing of the Kabul Ring Road.

Then the question of accountability arose from a Japanese delegation about the Afghan Government not delivering on its promise of providing information about the land purchases on the planned route.  I witnessed, in a public setting, an extremely rare event of a Japanese man’s outburst and loss of patience.

The Japanese donors, too, disliked financing empty promises, and were upset about the progress of the project.  [The Japanese also had a larger project in their mind, the construction of New Kabul City, which was an idea championed by Ms Sadako Ogata.] If there ever is an empty promise it is to promise purchasing the deeds from the thousands of homeowners in Kabul—where 70 percent of housing is illegally built anyway—and actually deliver it.  Yet, the Minister assured us that everything was under control.  The road was never built.  And I have no idea what happened to the money donated.

Figure 2. The map of Kabul City with an outline of a planned Ring Road I took while waiting for a meeting with a Minister of Urban Planning and Development.  To my knowledge, this is the only Ring Road the residents of Kabul have “seen” thus far.

Blue Ribbon for Participation

In a real world, fraud, waste, and abuse results in law suits, firings, and lengthy prison sentences.  But not within the governmental bureaucratic sphere; there, everyone receives a blue ribbon for participation, for doing good and feeling warm in his/her heart.

When progress is measured under monopolistic conditions, i.e., government business, the monopolist will do anything possible to avoid admitting failure.  After all, the road to failure is paved by good intentions as is—the monopolist would say—the road to success.  Hence, any kind of failure in Afghanistan can be turned into success by the Government’s standard, regardless of overspending and under delivering.  It is very easy to spend someone else’s money on someone else and not worry about it, as the economist Milton Friedman explained.

Figure 3 (Source).  Milton Friedman’s four ways to spend money.  Who should care when it comes from someone else’s pocket?  Friedman, to paraphrase him, also reminded us to judge the success of our projects—such as road construction projects in Afghanistan–if I may add, based on project outcomes rather than intentions.

Between the Cracks

After years of monitoring conditions in Afghanistan, I conclude that there certainly is no light shining at the end of the proverbial tunnel.  The outcome of previous and current efforts, since 2001, leads to a wall at the end of a tunnel.  Many, perhaps, would disagree, pointing in a direction of various successes as they interpret them.

From my observations, the successes should be attributed not to overall policy; rather, they fell between the cracks because of smart individuals capable of accomplishing something positive during their deployments.  In some instances, but certainly far from all, that occurred through allocation of resources via the Commander’s Emergency Response Fund (CERP).  This is the third aspect of the above SIGAR’s report.

One of those instances is detailed in my downrange reflections Photographic Memory of Kabul City: A Deployed Geographer’s Perspective.  Despite being the guests in our corner of Kabul City for years, we did not bother to help our neighbors who assisted us in a security of our base.  That eventually changed.  It took the commanders who listened, and their staff who implemented, to allocate the resources that made a difference.  And the brand new asphalt was laid down in Kabul’s Qala Muslim, a stone throw from the walls of Camp Julien, contributing to our and our neighbors’ improvements in preservation of life.

Figure 4.  A dirt road in Qala Muslim, Kabul City.  Imagine how it looks after the arrival of torrential rains for people who walk in sandals in a village where raw sewage can flood the streets.

Figure 5.  Qala Muslim after the completion of another road project in Afghanistan. It makes a difference. (Photograph courtesy of L. Jackson.)

War and the Rocks

A great amount of people have witnessed fraud, waste, and abuse in Afghanistan’s road construction projects.  Yet only a small amount of people are behind bars for such activities.  They are certainly not breaking rocks on a chain gang, assisting in a road construction project near some federal penitentiary.  One would have to be an incredibly optimistic, or naïve, to believe that future wars will be any different when it comes to spending someone else’s money on someone else.

Tears-Soaked Afghan Roads: Reconstruction Potholes and Utter Incompetence