US Spending in Afghanistan Plagued by Poor US Oversight

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McClatchy Newspapers

US Spending in Afghanistan Plagued by Poor US Oversight

by
Marisa Taylor

An Afghan villager passes US soldiers, members of the protection squad of a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction team) near Bargram Air Base, about 60 kms from Kabul. (AFP/Joel Saget)

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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