The Army's $10M Afghan Flop

The U.S. steps back sharply from a failed, expensive, "new" Afghanistan.

July 21, 2009, 8:00 AM

NEW QALAT CITY, ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan, July 30, 2009 — -- 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.

Afghans' Confidence in the U.S. Is Dropping

In a February ABC News/ARD/BBC News poll, 40 percent of Afghans said their country was headed in the right direction. Just four years ago, that number was nearly double: 77 percent.

Development in Afghanistan was "put on hold with the Iraq war," Torelli says. "Afghanistan has always been an economy of force country. So what you've seen is the patience running out in regard to the Afghans."

The less patience, the less information the local population gives to the U.S., and therefore the less the U.S. is able to fight an insurgency that is embedded in the population.

"Us and the Taliban, it' like a dog chasing his tail," Torelli says. He calls Zabul a province "adrift."

So the U.S. is now trying to change how it develops this country. Instead of buildings and roads, Torelli says, the U.S. is focusing on creating capacity: to govern, maintain, and educate, so "the Afghans can take care of themselves."

On a recent Sunday, Torelli and a group from the Provincial Reconstruction Team took an ABC News reporter and cameraman for a walk through the center of Qalat's main business district.

Sgt. Brian Chapman, a member of the Illinois National Guard, leads the team through hundreds of one story, 10-foot wide shops. He has helped start a chamber of commerce for the shop owners in town, an effort that Torelli says has significantly improved the relationship between the U.S. and the town's leading residents.

Chapman stops at two shops and asks how the owners' families are doing. They complain about the prices of electricity and accuse a local government official of corruption. Chapman urges the man to walk to the U.S. base and hand over written evidence. He agrees.

The chamber of commerce, he says, has begun to run in earnest, and the shop owners are starting to make communal decisions.

"If they like us, they'll talk to us, they'll let us know what's going on," Chapman says as he walks through the market. He was trained to provide security for the Provincial Reconstruction Team's base, but hasn't fired a single shot since he arrived. "We find out from the people what they want, and that's what we're trying to do -- give what the people want."

What they want includes some buildings, including a new hospital to replace the crumbling one in New Qalat City, as well as more schools.

So some of the largest projects are designed to respond directly to that: a boy's dorm to attract students from areas outside Qalat that are less safe; classrooms for girls currently studying in tents; and a new clinic.

But even at the clinic, Torelli is committed to keeping things simple. He has refused to install the most modern machines, arguing locals have no ability or money to maintain them. Nor do they have much use for them, since most of the best trained doctors have left Zabul for larger, richer provinces.

"Even if I had a billion dollars, I couldn't go out and spend it because of a lack of resources," he says.

And most of the Provincial Reconstruction Team's focus is not on those structures but on building capacity, especially within the young government.

Surge of American Civilians Is Needed

Not long after the patrol through the market, Torelli sits near the end of a long table in the governor's house. The governor is next to him and 50 or so of Zabul's "line directors" fill the table -- the Zabul representatives of the national ministries, responsible to officials in Kabul rather than to the governor himself.

After the meeting Torelli pointed out how few of them were literate and how little experience they had. One of the U.S.'s longest-term projects is to build more capacity inside the government. That, Torelli says, will take generations.

"Zabul has a scarcity of education," Gov. Mohammed Ashraf Nasseri said in an interview following the meeting. "It has a lack of human and professional resources, and it is one of the reasons that keeps Zabul behind in the development process."

Capacity problems, however, also extend to the American effort as well. When Torelli arrived, he said, only one person in his 100 member team had any experience in Afghanistan in his or her field. Only three engineers live on the base and there is only one representative from the main U.S. government departments contributing to the reconstruction.

The lack of resources, he says, "makes it hard to do significant, consistent work."

As part of the new U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, the U.S. promises a "civilian surge" to fill these Provincial Reconstruction Teams with more experts. In Zabul that surge may be as few as 12 people, Torelli says.

He has requested a full agriculture team of 100 people, but isn't sure whether they'll arrive.

The agriculture team may be the most important effort to the U.S.' long term development of Zabul and the rest of Afghanistan.

Eighty percent of "fighting-age males" in Afghanistan are small scale farmers. In Zabul, because of a lack of storage, water, and transportation, the economy is based almost entirely on subsistence agriculture.

Improving productivity and market access will be one of the main ways the U.S. fights the massive poppy market, which is helping fuel the insurgency. And providing more agriculture jobs will help defeat the Taliban, most of whose fighters enlisted to gain income rather than fulfill religious inspirations.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently announced the U.S. was increasing its agriculture assistance funding from tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of millions and reducing efforts to eradicate poppy.

"In my experience of 40-plus years… this was the single most wasteful, most ineffective program that I had ever seen," Holbrooke recently told the Washington Post, speaking of the poppy eradication efforts. "It wasn't just a waste of money… This was actually a benefit to the enemy. We were recruiting Taliban with our tax dollars" by angering farmers when the U.S. destroyed their poppy crops.

Instead, money will be pumped into "alternative livlihoods" and similar programs that promote agriculture jobs.

Zabul Favorite Target of Taliban Insurgents

That will begin in the main population centers. In Zabul, those are centered around Highway 1, the 2003 USAID project that linked Kabul to Kandahar with a single two-lane highway. It was extremely popular, but the U.S. did not realize how difficult it would be to defend. In Zabul, it has become the most popular target of insurgents.

"The insurgency does not begin where the highway ends," Torelli says, quoting a common refrain among officials in Washington. "The insurgency begins at the highway. They view it as a soft target."

Today teams of Romanian soldiers patrol the highway and, increasingly, the villages a few miles on either side of it. That is a change, according to the lead non-reconstruction officer in the province, Major Greg Cannata. Villagers, he says, are beginning to have a little more trust in coalition forces because of the increased presence. He hopes that will increase as the U.S. sends more troops into Zabul in the coming weeks.

The villagers say, "'Okay, the first time we see you, this is new, this is different. The next time we see you, it's, okay, you've come back.' And they develop a little trust there and then third time, 'okay, now I'm buying into what you're saying,'" Cannata says. "So this isn't something that is going to be accomplished overnight. It will take a while to build that trust and confidence."

Ultimately, to increase development the U.S. will have to first increase security across the province. In many areas, it's too dangerous for development experts to work.

That will be the responsibility of the additional soldiers, who will try and increase the U.S. presence across hundreds of tiny Zabul villages that rarely if ever see U.S. troops.

In those villages right now, even if the U.S. delivers development aid, it often doesn't go to use because there aren't enough U.S. soldiers to defend the villages from the Taliban. "They steal the humanitarian aid after beating up the people for taking it in the first place," Torelli says.

The new soldiers will not only present themselves as fighters. They will largely be responsible for defending the population from the Taliban, rather than simply seizing land or eliminating fighters.

And that is because the U.S. has shifted its focus in Afghanistan from the enemy to its allies: the villagers who, in the long run, will need to defend themselves from the Taliban when the U.S. leaves.

"They will be happy to get behind us" once the U.S. provides enough security to develop the villages, Cannata says. And when the U.S. soldiers arrive at villages that haven't seen western troops since the beginning of the war, they likely won't be shooting, according to Cannata.

"What we do bring when we finally have an opportunity to bring it is going to be a well and a school -- and peace, finally."

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