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A Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks

"The most important programs -- including roads, schools and clinics -- are in serious trouble," Bell wrote, according to a draft of his previously undisclosed memo. "The health program was well on its way to becoming a disaster."

Bell, now a senior Pentagon official, did not respond to requests for an interview. USAID declined to release a copy of the final memo but did not challenge the authenticity of the draft.

Afghan officials, contractors and citizens expressed anger about the delays, which have disappointed the rural Afghans who initially embraced international help.

The need is great. By the time the Taliban fell, decades of fighting had damaged or destroyed eight out of 10 Afghan schools, leaving half of all school-age children with no access to education. Four out of five adult women were illiterate. Health conditions ranked among the world's worst, with a life expectancy of 43 years. One in four babies died before turning 1.

"People need these clinics, and right now they are angry about it," said Azizullah Safar, a health director in northern Afghanistan. "People come to me and tell us, 'You cheated us. You took our land and there is no clinic.'

"Tell the Americans that the money they would otherwise be spending on their children and their schooling, that has been sent to the Afghan people-- it has been wasted."

USAID officials pointed out that working in Afghanistan is a difficult and perilous job. Some construction sites are in remote areas, where materials and skilled workers are scarce. Security is a constant concern, they said, noting that workers have been kidnapped and killed while the buildings have been rocketed and burned.

"We believe that we have accomplished a major feat by building or rebuilding as many schools and clinics for the Afghan people as we did, especially in the brief time that we did it," said USAID Administrator Andrew S. Natsios.

Federal auditors and others have misrepresented the program, Natsios added, stressing that his agency was not as far behind as the critics contend because the goal was to build or renovate only 533 buildings by late 2004.

Natsios also said USAID should get credit for 69 schools and clinics completed in an earlier program, as well as for renovating or building 1,100 individual classrooms and refurbishing 311 clinics under other programs. An additional 108 schools and clinics have been finished but have yet to pass final inspection, USAID said.

USAID declined to disclose the price of individual schools and clinics. The estimated cost for the Berger buildings averages $226,000 per site. Afghan officials said they initially expected a basic health clinic to cost $40,000 to $60,000, the amount that Afghan and European nonprofit groups had been spending.

Officials with the Berger Group said one reason the U.S.-style buildings cost more is that they were designed to be earthquake-resistant. Natsios said the recent deadly quake in neighboring Pakistan confirmed the wisdom of that decision.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company