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A Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks

In a charged political climate, expectations kept rising. As late as October 2003, a senior official for USAID -- the main conduit for American foreign aid -- told Congress the goal was 1,400 in three years.

The next month, Marshall F. Perry, a lanky and mustachioed American who had managed construction projects from Cambodia to Saudi Arabia, arrived in Afghanistan to work as Berger's manager for schools and clinics. His assessment: The program was in chaos.

"There were 158 [progress] reports coming in each month on 158 sites," Perry recalled over tea and cookies at his spacious house in a neighborhood of rocket-blasted homes in Kabul. "They would bring these reports in and tell them how bad the situation was in the field. . . . I knew the foundations on several of the buildings were insufficient. Reports were coming in that the cement was decaying. Reports were coming in that we were building on the wrong sites. . . .

"Louis Berger didn't have the staff to read the reports, let alone respond with site visits," Perry said. "I went to Louis Berger and said, 'We have a calamity.' "

Perry told Berger he needed 50 Afghan engineers to work in the field and a monitoring staff of 15 Westerners.

"It was taken to USAID and rejected out of hand," Perry said. "I cannot hold LBG responsible. One of their hands was tied behind their back."

He said USAID told others at Berger that the company was "not going to build an empire out here" and instead would have to make do with locals. He ended up with 30 engineers and seven or eight monitors.

Perry said he recommended halting construction until his crew could regroup, but was rebuffed by Berger. "I was told, 'We have to complete the buildings by 31 December. . . . Press ahead.' " Berger was under pressure from USAID, which in turn was under pressure from the Bush administration, he said.

"It was a political timeline," said Perry, who left Berger in 2004. "That has created all of the problems."

A Berger spokesman did not dispute Perry's account. In his memo, USAID's Fine confirmed that there was "intense pressure to get work underway immediately and to deliver finished schools prior to the scheduled June [2004] presidential election." The vote was later postponed until October.

'Extraordinary Costs'

As work rushed forward, quality became an issue.

In March 2004, a festive ribbon-cutting was held at a model U.S.-style health clinic in the leafy village of Qala-e-Qazi. Afghan and U.S. officials gathered at the squat building on a dirt road 30 miles north of Kabul.

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