GHAZNI, Afghanistan — Heading back from a remote section of Ghazni province in September, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Tristan Rizzi radioed his base in eastern Afghanistan and said he wanted to take a slight detour.
Rizzi had his Chinook helicopter fly over the site of a long-stalled, U.S.-financed road project on which the Afghan contractors had pledged repeatedly to resume work. From the air, Rizzi saw a vacant site and no sign of the contractors. Once on the ground, he dialed one of them from a cellphone and asked where they were.
The contractor said they were working on the road — to which Rizzi replied, "No, you're not."
Two weeks later, alleging corruption and theft, U.S. officials in Ghazni terminated the $10 million road contract, pulling the plug on a closely watched infrastructure project in this strategic province and putting themselves at odds with a powerful governor who coalition forces had hoped would be a key ally.
From 2008 to 2010, the U.S. government paid $4 million to RWA, a consortium of three Afghan contractors — only to see it pave less than two-thirds of a mile on a road that's supposed to stretch 17.5 miles. The contractors said the area had become too violent to work in, but U.S. and Afghan provincial officials think that two of the principals absconded to New Zealand and the Netherlands, having pocketed much of the cash.
U.S. officials describe the Ghazni affair in positive terms: They saved the $6 million that remained on the contract for other projects, terminated RWA's existing contracts and blackballed it from future work, and say they're ready to cooperate with Afghan investigators should they decide to pursue legal action against the consortium.
But it's also a reminder that corruption, violence and political disputes continue to plague U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
Even before the failed road project, RWA was notorious in Ghazni because one of its principals, Ghulam Seddiq Rasouli, served jail time about three years ago after Taliban insurgents ambushed one of his construction teams and his security guards fired back indiscriminately, killing at least one civilian, according to Afghan intelligence officials. U.S. officials — who've awarded Rasouli multiple construction contracts — apparently were unaware of his legal difficulties.
As the U.S.-led military coalition plans to hand control of the nation's security to Afghan forces in three years, American diplomats and military officials say they're trying to clean up a contracting system in which hundreds of millions of dollars meant for reconstruction were misspent or allocated to unsavory characters, including those tied to violence against civilians or coalition forces.
Last year, a McClatchy investigation found that U.S. government funding for at least 15 large-scale Afghan programs and projects ballooned from just over $1 billion to nearly $3 billion — despite questions about their effectiveness or cost — in the headlong rush to rebuild the country and shore up its struggling government.
"Those kinds of early-on things are largely a matter of the past, and I think I could say that truthfully," said one U.S. official with knowledge of the Ghazni project, who wasn't authorized to be quoted by name.
"It's 2011. We're well involved in transition now, and it's time for our partners — they must step up to the plate as well."
But in Ghazni, those efforts carry political risks and threaten a fragile partnership with the influential governor, Musa Khan.
The project is a major priority for Khan, an Islamist who's emerging as a major power broker in eastern Afghanistan. Coalition forces have sought his help fighting Taliban insurgents in his province, situated two hours' drive south of Kabul, the country's capital, and just west of the volatile Pakistani border region.
On Oct. 23, three weeks after the road contract was canceled, Khan met with Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, arguing for the project to be reinstated. Diplomats who were briefed on the meeting said Allen hadn't yet made a decision.
The coalition's relationship with Khan appears significantly strained, but the U.S. official stressed that, "aside from this particular project, we plan on working closely with the governor in the future."
Perhaps aware of Khan's sway, the U.S. provincial reconstruction team in Ghazni — a mix of diplomats, civilian specialists and military officers including Rizzi, the Navy commander — assembled a seven-page timeline of its dealings with the contractors to make its case for killing the contract. In it, American frustration almost leaps off the page.
The road was intended to link Qarah Bagh, an increasingly violent district south of the provincial capital, with the peaceful but isolated mountain district of Jaghori. RWA — named for Rasouli and his partners, Zia Uddin Wardak and Zia Alifi — received the first $1 million installment in October 2008, according to records, but seven months later it began complaining of security problems and financial hardship.
Contractors graded the length of the road but had paved only about two-thirds of a mile by mid-2010, when U.S. officials, having paid them another $3 million, began threatening to end the project.
Almost a year passed as RWA promised to restart work, then offered to begin paving from the safer western end of the road, then said it had run out of money, then divulged that Alifi had traveled to the Netherlands with cash from the company account.
McClatchy's repeated attempts to contact representatives of the consortium were unsuccessful.
Last spring, after Rizzi's team arrived in Ghazni, the project appeared to become a target for insurgents, as workers over three months removed more than 100 roadside bombs that had been planted along the first two miles outside Qarah Bagh. In July, gunmen reportedly ambushed the crew, wounding four workers.
After several meetings with U.S. officials, RWA said in September that it had raised enough money to pave two more miles. Little work was done, however, and after insurgents attacked an Afghan National Police installation in Qarah Bagh later that month, workers never returned to the site.
U.S. officials don't dispute that violence has worsened in Ghazni; coalition fatalities this year reached their highest level of the decade-long conflict, due largely to a surge in roadside bombs. But they argue that security costs were built into the contract.
"There are many other road projects and different contracts that are just getting paved right along" in Ghazni, the U.S. official said.
Members of the Ghazni provincial council, an elected advisory board, were blunter in their criticism of the governor and the U.S.
"If he wanted the road to be built, it would have been built," said Hamida Gulistani, a council member from Qarah Bagh. "But this is what happens when the U.S. and NATO deal directly with the governor. They never came to the provincial council or discussed this with us. Local people were ready to help provide security."
A second U.S. official with knowledge of the project said the coalition couldn't choose which Afghan leaders it dealt with.
"Sometimes, when you see something that should have worked and it didn't, it's not about what the Americans did," the official said. "It's about how Afghans are trying to work out their own self-governance, and we all know there's a long way to go."
For Gulistani, however, the issue isn't academic. She said the road could help connect people in five districts, improve commerce and allow Afghan security forces to extend their reach west from Qarah Bagh.
"If they cancel this project," she said, "it only hurts the people."
(McClatchy special correspondent Habib Zohori contributed to this article from Kabul, Afghanistan.)
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