Senators question military spending on Afghanistan infrastructure

July 5, 2011

Military commanders in Afghanistan tapped a new $400 million Defense Department infrastructure fund to bring electricity to Kandahar and begin building provincial justice centers as part of the military’s program to secure Kandahar and Helmand provinces, according to senior administration officials.

“General [Stanley A.] McChrystal — and then after he took over, General [David H.] Petraeus — made very clear that increasing and making sustainable an electricity supply for the city of Kandahar was an essential part of our campaign plan and in order to defeat the Taliban,” David S. Sedney, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, told a Senate committee on June 30.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairman of the contracting oversight subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, questioned why the new Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund was being used for long-term construction programs that usually would be funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department.

McCaskill focused on the Pentagon’s payments of $40 million for imported diesel fuel to power generators in Kandahar city, $86 million for power transmission between the cities of Chimtal and Gardez, and $20 million for provincial justice centers, all from the new fund.

Sedney said the commanders determined that battlefield success required “certain economic inputs,” and quickly supplying electricity for Kandahar was one of them. As for the justice centers, he said, “we believe [they] are so important to the success of the campaign that if it’s not possible for USAID to be funding those at this time, they are included in the Afghan infrastructure fund.”

J. Alexander Thier, director of USAID’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, testified at the hearing that it was a joint military-USAID decision “to invest in some short-term power generation, diesel fuel, which . . . is not a long-term sustainable effort, to turn the lights on in Kandahar.” He said 50,000 people received electricity “so that the people of Kandahar, as well as the people of Helmand, are going to see the positive results of this effort.”

In all cases, Sedney added, “this is a combined civil-military effort discussed extensively with our colleagues at the U.S. Embassy and USAID.”

McCaskill responded, “It looks like to me that the military is deciding what projects need to be done, and if USAID doesn’t have the money, we just find the money in our budget.”

She and the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), also focused on the sustainability of Afghan reconstruction projects.

When McCaskill asked Sedney whether the Defense Department had “a certification process for sustainability before we spend any American money in Afghanistan,” he said he did not know but would pass the question on to his bosses.

Portman questioned the necessity of a $300 million dual-fuel power plant outside Kabul. USAID’s inspector general had determined that the plant was not sustainable because the diesel fuel required was too costly and because the Afghans did not have the capability to maintain and operate its complex equipment.

Thier said the plant was built as a “peaking power plant” — a backup to provide electricity to Kabul when power requirements exceeded what was being supplied through lines from Uzbekistan.

Portman questioned $300 million in USAID money being spent on a backup, but Thier insisted that “when the decision to build that plant was made, there was no assurance that this line coming down from Uzbekistan would, in fact, be available. And even once the plant was built, a landslide, for example, cut out that power line, allowing the [backup plant to be the] only reliable source of power.”

A self-described “deficit hawk” and director of the Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration, Portman was not satisfied. He asked Thier: “Could you provide us, the committee, some data to back up the assertion that this was built as a backup power plant for peaking only, and with regard to the sustainability? We’d love to see more information on that.”

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