Contractor leaves Afghan police stations half-complete

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 14, 2010 

The lone security guard at an unfinished new police compound in Sharhi Buzurg uses a mud mixture to seal an open window at the failed project.

DION NISSENBAUM/MCT

SHAHRI BUZURG, Afghanistan — When police officers in this isolated Afghanistan village moved out of their dilapidated headquarters in 2008 to make way for U.S.-funded construction crews, they were expecting to return within a year to a prominent new half-million-dollar compound.

The project was supposed to showcase America's ambitious, multibillion-dollar campaign to transform Afghanistan's ragtag security forces into professional fighters capable of defending their country.

It didn't take long for things to go awry.

Almost immediately, the Afghan construction company hired by the U.S. to build this police station — and five others in northern Afghanistan — ran into financial problems.

Kainaat Construction, Logistics & Trading Co. quickly fell behind schedule. Unpaid subcontractors stopped showing up for work and walked away with Kainaat equipment left on the construction sites. One local power broker even held Kainaat engineers hostage until the company paid its debts.

Eventually, with little American oversight, the project went belly up.

In May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally fired Kainaat and started looking for someone else to take over the $4.6 million project.

Kainaat's failures created a swath of political and economic wreckage that has undermined a central pillar of President Barack Obama's plans for extracting America from a decade of war in Afghanistan.

Everyone from the guard at the Shahri Buzurg police station to the local construction company hired to build the compound is still waiting to be paid. Dispirited police officers are resigned to spending another year working out of the mud home across the street from the unfinished police station.

Also, with Afghanistan's frigid winter settling in, police officers who've spent months sleeping in the dirt courtyard have moved into the failed project, where they'll have some protection from the cold.

While the American military has made steady strides in recruiting thousands of Afghans to join the country's security forces, the push to build housing for the expanding force hasn't kept pace with demands.

The Afghan military estimates that tens of thousands of soldiers who should be housed in new U.S.-funded barracks are still living in tents or temporary housing. And hundreds of Afghan police officers who should be based in new stations are instead squatting in cramped houses and abandoned shops.

"This is a matter of protecting American prestige," said Gen. Aga Noor Kentoz, Badakhshan's provincial police chief.

Nowhere are the problems more evident than Badakhshan, the wishbone shaped province that once served as a pivotal base of operations for Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader killed by al Qaida militants as Osama Bin Laden made final preparations for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Construction of new police compounds in 18 of the province's 28 districts is behind schedule, local officials said. On average, work on the 18 sites is 56 percent complete, according to figures from the Badakhshan police.

While other Afghan provinces are filled with insurgent fighters who routinely attack U.S.-funded construction sites, Badakhshan has avoided most of those problems. The bigger challenge for builders is getting material, equipment and workers into inaccessible areas like Sharhi Buzurg, a tiny mountain community with about 40,000 residents living near the Tajikistan border.

After years of working as a subcontractor with international firms, Kainaat won its biggest solo contract from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in April 2008 — a $4.6 million deal to build the six Badakhshan police stations.

Like many firms doing business in Afghanistan, Kainaat then hired subcontractors in Badakhshan to build the police stations. However, Kainaat's financial stability already was on shaky ground.

At the time, Kainaat was embroiled in business disputes with its two biggest international partners: DynCorp International, the Virginia-based defense contractor, and Krima Construction Corp., a South Korean firm that had launched a major joint venture with Kainaat.

Kainaat executives accused the companies of siphoning off millions of dollars in profits or refusing to pay legitimate expenses that left the Afghan firm with no money to pay its own debts.

In October 2008, six months after Kainaat won the contract to build the six police stations, DynCorp fired the Afghan company as a subcontractor at a military base in Jalalabad built to house thousands of Afghan soldiers.

Kainaat workers staged their own protest in front of DynCorp and accused the U.S. firm of forcing them off the worksite at gunpoint.

DynCorp categorically rejected the allegation and said that it stepped in to directly pay Kainaat workers at the Jalalabad base who hadn't been paid by their own company.

At the same time, Kainaat accused Krima of skimming off millions of dollars in profits the Afghan firm needed to pay for its other projects.

Joseph Dirik, a lawyer for Krima, said that Kainaat was the one to unilaterally walk away with more than a million dollars from the join venture accounts.

Meanwhile, work in Badakhshan ground to a halt.

Why the U.S. military waited until this spring to fire Kainaat isn't clear.

Figures provided by the Army Corps of Engineers indicate that the U.S. military maintained little direct oversight of the projects.

Over the course of the two-year contract, officials paid only one visit — in October 2009 — to the Sharhi Buzurg construction site, according to the U.S. military.

Periodic reports from an Afghan monitor hired to keep tabs on all six police stations consistently showed little progress at the Badakhshan sites, and American officials sent repeated warning letters to Kainaat about the shortfalls, according to the Corps.

By the time the Corps fired Kainaat from the police station projects in May, the Afghan company had completed about 40 percent of its work on the six sites in two years, according to the Corps.

Col. Thomas H. Magness, the head of Corps' operations in northern Afghanistan, said there's an inherent danger in relying on untested Afghan companies.

"We have to be wiling to take some risks and, in the business of risk taking, sometimes you will fail," said Magness, who took over the job in July. "But my people are fully committed to doing what it takes to make these guys successful."

In the meantime, District Police Chief Rajab Mohammed and his 50-member police force in Sharhi Buzurk are still using the dark, four-room home across from the unfinished police station.

Back in Fayzabad, Gen. Qader, the head of the local company hired to build the Sharhi Buzurk police station, said that Kainaat owes him more than $400,000. Kainaat executives said the company never hired Qader and that he might have been illegally hired by their subcontractor in Badakhshan.

Qader, who like many Afghans goes by a single name, said that Kainaat blamed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for not giving them the money needed to pay its subcontractors.

"People have a kind of hatred towards the government and Kainaat," said Qader, who once served as the head of security for Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan. "It makes people upset with the Americans."

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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