Commentary: Afghan aid at risk

Special to McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 9, 2013 

Billions of dollars worth of U.S. development projects in Afghanistan – from roads to clinics to police stations – may fail to serve any useful purpose, because U.S. troops have been rapidly withdrawn from many areas leaving insecurity, corruption and violence, a senior U.S. official said in Washington.

President Barack Obama has pledged to pull nearly all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and recently – at a meeting with President Hamid Karzai in Washington - said he would begin by spring this year to pull troops out of the countryside into fortified bases where they could train Afghan troops.

When U.S. troops are in the countryside, they create a security “bubble” also called the “golden hour,” allowing swift evacuation to medical care in case of injury. When U.S. troops are not nearby, it is no longer safe for U.S. officials to monitor the projects, said John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Sopko said he recently visited an Afghan customs police compound in Kunduz, built with millions of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars. It was intended to hold more than 100 Afghan officers but only a dozen occupied the compound. And they did not even have the keys to several of the buildings the U.S. built.

“Even in Kabul we cannot get the protection we need” to visit some of the nearly $100 billion in reconstruction projects, Sopko told a meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, on Feb. 4.

U.S. Embassy security officials dictate who can leave the protective bubble of the embassy compound and control the armored vehicles and security guards who must accompany U.S. officials away from the embassy and USAID compound. They say they can’t grant all requests to move in the Kabul area,” said Sopko, who was apppinted in July to take over the SIGAR office.

“Reconstruction projects exist with no U.S. oversight,” said Sopko. The World Bank also is unable to visit and monitor its aid and development projects.

Monitoring development projects can be done to some extent using Afghans who are able to travel the countryside at much less risk than Americans; or by using aerial surveillance. But that is “second best” to SIGAR sending out its trained, experienced, American assessors, said Sopko. The U.S. military said it would take the inspectors “wherever they go but how far will they go,” he asked. “I fear our programs” will increasingly be subjected to abuse, he added.

He was concerned about the Afghan National Security Force which includes – on paper—more than 300,000 police and soldiers. But those numbers “may be bogus,” Sopko said. It is unclear how many there really are, how well they are trained, and what kind of equipment remains on hand. Afghan officers, for example, were claiming funds for maintenance of vehicles that proved to be wrecked and inoperable or else totally missing. He also faulted some U.S. aid programs run by the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.S. military for focusing on how much was spent or built rather than asking “what did a program actually achieve.”

“Too often we focus on output and not on outcome,” he said.

Aid providers as well as those monitoring such aid need to answer seven vital questions about every aid and development program, he noted. They are:

1 – Does the program enhance U.S. national security (after all, we invaded Afghanistan to respond to the 9/11 attacks)?

2—Do the Afghans want and need the program?

3 – Have aid programs been coordinated with allies, Afghans and other U.S. aid programs (military, USAID, Department of Justice, Agriculture Department, etc.)?

4 – Is security good enough to ensure the program can be carried out?

5 – Are there safeguards to prevent corruption from tainting and undermining the aid program?

6 – Do the Afghans have the will and ability to take over and sustain the program for the next decade after U.S. troops go home?

7 – Has the aid agency carrying out the program developed ways to measure its success?

Sopko singled out for criticism two programs which had aimed to support the U.S. counter insurgency strategy (COIN) built around a “clear, hold and build” plan of action. He said the Local Governance and Community Development program “did not extend the legitimacy of the Afghan government or foster stability,” noting that the provinces where it was carried out experienced an increase in violence.

And the Afghan Infrastructure Program was faulted for being largely behind schedule, creating expectations and failing to obtain citizen support. Those who have worked in or visited Afghanistan have seen the huge cost of security necessary to carry out development work in a war zone. USAID officials who wish to visit schools, clinics, ministries, canals, nurseries, and training programs have to obtain armored vehicles and private security guards from firms such as DynCorps. The security costs can shrink the budget left for development assistance and at times surpass it. Afghanistan is a difficult place to carry out foreign aid. It is an environment where killers lurk just beyond the village ready to kill aid workers as well as Afghans who accept and work with aid.

Some unanswered questions remain as poignant today as they did in 2002 when the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan began.

  • Will U.S. aid try to reconstruct Afghanistan as a decentralized, backward country the way it was in 1979 when the Soviet invasion launched 30 years of warfare? Or are we attempting the impossible by insisting that Afghanistan implement human rights, women’s freedom, and other ideas that have not been well received by the culturally-conservative populace?
  • Aid programs launched by the U.S. government in the 1950s and 60s largely failed as Afghans lacked the funds, the will and the know-how to maintain them. How are the new programs to avoid that fate?
  • With Taliban and other anti-Western groups enjoying safe haven in Pakistan as they prepare to try and seize power after the U.S. departs, how can aid projects avoid being singled out for destruction?
  • Sopko noted that “2014 is not the end of the world. We will be there” after U.S. troops withdraw. U.S. assistance could continue into the future – perhaps even making a decisive contribution to the kind of country we will leave to chart out its own future.


    Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2013 by He can be reached at

    McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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