U.S. spending in Afghanistan plagued by poor U.S. oversight

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 15, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. has spent more than $732 million to improve Afghanistan's electrical grid since 2002, but delays and rising costs have plagued many of the projects in part because of poor oversight by the American government, a watchdog agency reports.

Of six projects under way in 2009, only one has been completed on time.

In the report released Friday, auditors with the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction blamed poor communication between U.S. officials and the two companies that are working on the majority of the projects.

While the U.S. Agency for International Development has relied on the companies, Louis Berger and Black & Veatch, for updates on projects, "that reporting has not always been timely or sufficient," the auditors said.

The companies also had trouble meeting deadlines for projects because of dangerous conditions.

In addition, Afghanistan began rebuilding its electrical grid without a concrete plan for how to approach such a complex effort, the auditors said.

In 2006, the USAID awarded the two U.S. companies a five-year, $1.4 billion joint contract to build many of the roads and energy projects that now are under way in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's electrical capacity has increased in the last eight years from 430 megawatts to more than 1,028 megawatts, a significant achievement in a country in which only about 6 percent of rural citizens have electricity, the auditors said.

However, it's unclear whether Afghanistan will be able to operate the system without foreign aid, they said.

One major hurdle is collecting enough money to keep the grid running, the report said. The reason: systemic corruption.

Afghans are more likely to try to bribe officials or rely on personal favors to connect to the system because of the country's byzantine bureaucracy. To get electricity legitimately, Afghans have to obtain as many as 25 signatures.

Friday's report came after another watchdog, the inspector general for the USAID, last fall found cost overruns and delays in two power plant projects overseen by Louis Berger and Black & Veatch.

In one case, a $300 million Kabul generating plant might not be able to operate to capacity because the Afghanistan government can't afford the diesel fuel to power it, which auditors said indicated poor planning by the U.S. government.

Auditors also blame lackluster oversight for about $40 million in cost overruns on the Kabul project. The U.S. government still can't calculate how much was lost on other projects because of inefficiency and waste, the officials said.

The audits confirm a McClatchy report in October that delays and cost overruns had plagued projects by Louis Berger and Black & Veatch.

The companies and the USAID say they've since taken steps to improve their oversight.

Afghanistan Reconstruction Inspector General Arnold Fields told McClatchy that his agency should have been created before 2008 so that waste and fraud could have been better detected.

The U.S. government "should have been more aggressive years ago," he said. "We're behind in terms of providing the oversight."

His agency currently has 41 ongoing investigations.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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