The Army's $10M Afghan Flop

Reversing a Failed U.S. Policy in Afghanistan

The new buildings in this corner of the ancient city of Qalat were supposed to represent the U.S. commitment to creating a new Afghanistan. Back in 2006, the U.S. and other international donors spent more than $10 million to create what was meant to be a sort of Emerald City, just down the hill from Alexander the Great's ruined castle.

A new hospital. A new governor's house. A fire station. A justice center. A visitor's center. A cultural affairs building.

Today, nearly all of those buildings are empty and crumbling. The power director's building has no water, so nobody works there. The hospital is collapsing, reeks of urine, and its equipment lies unused since the staff was never trained on it. The governor's house has no security and he refuses to move in. And the fire station was never going to be filled. Qalat has never had a single firefighter.

New Qalat City feels like a ghost town out of the Wild West, desolate and quiet.

"This province has been so long neglected," says Lt. Col. Andrew Torelli, the lead officer for the military's reconstruction team in Zabul province. "You basically have to start from scratch again."

Click here for a map of Zabul Province

Seven and a half years and nearly $8 billion after the war began, there is a striking lack of development across Afghanistan, especially in the south, and especially in this corner of the country. Zabul Province is one of the least developed areas, in part because of the decisions that the military, USAID and its international partners made a few years ago, and in part because of decades of inattention.

The effect is obvious. U.S. military officials admit that their soldiers control only the areas immediately around their bases. That means that about 90 percent of the province is essentially run by the Taliban.

So today U.S. development experts are largely reversing decisions made by their predecessors and changing their focus to building capacity rather than building buildings.

But back in 2005 and 2006, when New Qalat City was designed and built, the priority was "quick impact," says Andrew Manhart, the current head of USAID's efforts in Zabul. "Visible evidence of improvements, that's what represented progress," Manhart said.

This story is part of an series THE FIGHT FOR AFGHANISTAN, WHERE WE STAND. The complete series so far can be found on this site's NEWS page.

The U.S. never intended to maintain the buildings they paid for. That was the Afghans' responsibility. But nobody taught local contractors proper maintenance or how to use donated equipment. Indeed, Torelli says, he's not sure whether anybody in the international community even asked local residents whether they wanted New Qalat City to be built.

And so the disintegrating group of buildings represent everything that's gone wrong for the U.S.'s development efforts, which many officials in Afghanistan believe is the only way to turn around a war that in many parts of the country has been reduced to a stalemate.

Building New Qalat City was like "giving them a fishing pole and a boat without telling them what fishing was," said one member of the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team.

The lack of development has translated into widespread frustration among Afghans who expected their lives to improve when the Americans arrived. That has helped make the U.S. more unpopular now than at any time since the war began.

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