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A Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks

Berger officials also said their progress lagged because USAID required the company to train Afghan contractors to do the work so the project would leave behind skilled craftsmen to help further rebuild the country.

"That we got [the buildings] done this quickly with this little amount of aggravation, I think this should be saluted," said Larry Walker, a Berger vice president. "We're very proud of our program. We expect quality problems, we expect delays."

But the lack of apparent progress has supplied ammunition to remnants of the Taliban and other U.S. opponents. Ramazan Bashardost, a former Afghan planning minister, was elected to parliament on a platform that included criticism of the schools-and-clinics program. In an interview, he complained that "the quality of work is not good. . . . It will be a disaster."

In a previously undisclosed May 2004 memo to USAID, Zalmay Khalilzad, then the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote that the construction delays had created problems "managing expectations" among the Afghan people. "These problems are now beginning to interfere with the credibility of the U.S.," he wrote.

Deflated expectations are apparent both in Kabul and the countryside, in such places as the northern village of Larkhabi. There, on a recent summer morning, scores of villagers had traveled by foot and donkey to a row of tiny shops where doctors had improvised a clinic. An ad hoc delivery room measured 9 by 15 feet, the dim space crammed with three military-style cots.

"There is no light, there is no electricity, there is no water to wash your hands," a pediatrician explained as he threaded through the throng.

Next door, an elaborate U.S.-funded clinic sat empty, awaiting work on its roof.

'Back-of-the-Envelope' Plan

On Sept. 20, 2002, USAID selected Berger, a privately held, global engineering firm, to lead the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan.

Berger's contract, now worth as much as $665 million, called for the company to build infrastructure that included dams, power plants and roads. For the school-and-clinic portion of the contract, USAID paid Berger for administration and oversight, and the company subcontracted on-site work to Afghan companies. Berger also hired nonprofit relief agencies to monitor construction.

Within months of the awarding of the contract, U.S. officials raised their sights from 420 to 1,000 schools and clinics by the end of 2004, an inspector general's report shows.

"The numbers of schools and clinics to be constructed were not determined through careful analysis," Patrick Fine, who then headed USAID's Afghanistan operation, wrote last year in a previously undisclosed memo. "Instead, they were based on back-of-the-envelope calculations outside USAID. . . .

"These target numbers gained traction in Washington and soon became the number that USAID was required to build. . . . The numbers had gained a life of their own."

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