From the Archives

A Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks

By Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 20, 2005

MADRASAH, Afghanistan On a humid morning, scores of women and wailing babies crowded into the dirt courtyard of a private home a day's journey north of Kabul. They squeezed into a sliver of shade against a mud wall, the only refuge from the intense sun on a summer day when the temperature reached 120 degrees. Across the courtyard, inside a canvas lean-to, a doctor vaccinated infants atop a dusty plastic cooler.

A veiled woman named Tela squatted in the sun, lifting her black robe to create a bit of shade for her 9-month-old daughter, Shoghla, dehydrated from severe diarrhea.

"I have been here one hour and still I am waiting," said Tela, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "It is very, very crowded. We don't have anywhere to sit."

Next door, a large U.S.-financed health clinic, a brand-new building of concrete and steel, sat empty and locked.

"They should finish that clinic and we should be there," she said. "There would be a lot of places to sit over there."

The clinic in Madrasah is not just a building. It is part of a remote battleground in the war on terror, an attempt to win hearts and minds in the nation that was once al Qaeda's stronghold.

In September 2002, nearly a year after an American-led coalition deposed the Taliban, the United States launched what would become an aggressive effort to build or refurbish as many as 1,000 schools and clinics by the end of 2004, documents show. However, design flaws and construction errors caused the initiative to fall far short.

By September 2004, congressional figures show that the effort's centerpiece -- a $73 million U.S. Agency for International Development program -- had produced only 100 finished projects, most of them refurbishments of existing buildings. As of the beginning of this month, only about 40 more had been finished and turned over to the Afghan government.

Internal documents and more than 100 interviews in Washington and Kabul revealed a chain of mistakes and misjudgments: The U.S. effort was poorly conceived in a rush to show results before the Afghan presidential election in late 2004. The drive to construct earthquake-resistant, American-quality buildings in rustic villages led to culture clashes, delays and what a USAID official called "extraordinary costs." Afghans complained that the initial design for roofs made them too heavy to build in rural areas without a crane, and the corrected design made them too light to bear Afghan snows. Local workmen unfamiliar with U.S. construction methods sometimes produced shoddy work.

At the outset, USAID and its primary contractor, New Jersey-based Louis Berger Group Inc., failed to provide adequate oversight, documents state. Federal audits show that USAID officials in Kabul were unable to "identify the location of many Kabul-directed projects in the field." Officials at contracting companies and nonprofit groups complain that they were directed to build at sites that turned out to be sheer mountain slopes, a dry riverbed and even a graveyard.

Employees of a Maryland-based nonprofit relief agency hired to monitor construction quality demanded a $50,000 payoff from Afghan builders -- a scene captured in a clandestine videotape obtained by The Washington Post.

Last year, the head of the State Department's Afghanistan Reconstruction Group, Phillip Jackson "Jack" Bell, ended his tour at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul by delivering a blistering rebuke to USAID.

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