By Josh Boak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 12:19 AM
Roads, canals and schools built in Afghanistan as part of a special U.S. military program are crumbling under Afghan stewardship, despite steps imposed over the past year to ensure that reconstruction money is not being wasted, according to government reports and interviews with military and civilian personnel.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan have spent $2 billion over six years on 16,000 humanitarian projects through the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which gives a battalion-level commander the power to treat aid dollars as ammunition.
A report slated for release this month reveals that CERP projects can quickly slide into neglect after being transferred to Afghan control. The Afghans had problems maintaining about half of the 69 projects reviewed in eastern Laghman province, according to an audit by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The spending in Afghanistan is part of the $5 billion provided to U.S. military commanders for projects in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2004. The new report is the latest to identify shortcomings and missteps in the program, whose ventures have included the Jadriyah Lake park in Iraq, planned as a water park but now barren two years after a U.S. military inauguration ceremony.
The dilapidated projects in Afghanistan could present a challenge to the U.S. strategy of shifting more responsibility to Afghans. Investing in infrastructure, notes President Obama's December review of the war, "will give the Afghan government and people the tools to build and sustain a future of stability."
"Sustainment is one of the biggest issues with our whole strategy," said a civilian official who shared details from a draft of the report. "The Afghans don't have the money or capacity to sustain much." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Defense Department is preparing a response to the audit.
Photos in the report show washed-out roads, with cracks and potholes where improvised explosive devices can be hidden. Among the projects profiled is a re-dredged canal that filled with silt a month after opening.
Multiple reports by the Government Accountability Office have noted a lack of monitoring by the Pentagon. And because formal U.S. oversight stops after a project is turned over to Afghans, it is difficult to gauge how projects are maintained countrywide.
When asked whether the Afghans have trouble sustaining projects, the U.S. military issued a statement saying it does not have the information to provide an immediate answer.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in Senate testimony last year that CERP is "the most responsive and effective means to address a local community's needs." He previously relied on the discretionary fund as the commanding general in Iraq, where $3.5 billion has been spent through the program. Over the past two years, Petraeus has pushed for stricter controls to stop any fraud and waste.
In response to "insufficient management," CERP guidance for Afghanistan was revised in December 2009, according to a statement by the military. The new guidance emphasizes the need to meet with Afghan leaders when choosing what to fund. It does not, however, require U.S. troops to continue inspecting projects after they are placed under Afghan control.
Under the guidance, an Afghan governor, mayor or bureaucrat must sign a letter promising to fund maintenance and operations. But an October SIGAR audit of projects in Nangahar province found that only two of the 15 files examined contained a signed letter. Nor is there formal reporting to the national or provincial Afghan governments of what was spent and built, the audit said. That makes it difficult for Afghans to know what they are supposed to maintain.
The provincial and district governments that take over the projects do not have the money to sustain them because they cannot collect taxes and they depend on the national government for funding, said Army Maj. David Kaczmarek, the civil affairs officer for Task Force Bastogne in eastern Afghanistan.
To teach the local governments how to request additional funds from Kabul, Kaczmarek helped launch a program in the summer that uses CERP dollars for the operation and maintenance of some projects.
The U.S. military tracks CERP projects with poorly maintained computer databases. Before October 2009, the database did not consistently record the villages or districts where projects were undertaken, according to military and civilian personnel who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the master database is classified.
A civilian official who examined the contents of the database for a government assessment said the military cannot account for the spending without knowing the villages and districts that were project recipients.
"Let's say the project is not working," the official said. "Why would we want to fund that project again the next year? Very little evaluation was done to decide what we fund next."
The organizational problems have also frustrated attempts to study the effectiveness of the $2 billion spent on CERP. A paper co-written by Princeton University professor Jacob Shapiro found that CERP funding helped reduce violence in Iraq. Shapiro and his colleagues have struggled over the past nine months to conduct a similar study for Afghanistan because of the database.
"There's not a sense of how the program may or may not be working in Afghanistan," Shapiro said.
Army Lt. Col. Brian Stoll tried to clean up the database while serving in Kandahar last year. He champions CERP as a way to build confidence in the Afghan government, despite the mess he found.
Projects dating to 2006 had never been closed out, said Stoll, who updated the files while working 12-hour days to audit ongoing projects in southern Afghanistan.
"We never got it all cleaned up," Stoll said. "It was like a Hydra. You get part of it cleaned up and you find some more along the way."