US agencies adjust to shifting landscape in Afghanistan

A former Marine observation post from 2011 overlooking the Kajaki reservoir to the east and the Helmand River Valley. The reservoir is part of the Kajaki Dam power project, which in 2015 is 10 years behind schedule.


By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 14, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan — The largest U.S. aid group and the government’s top watchdog in Afghanistan — two high-profile organizations inextricably linked and often at odds — are facing new challenges with fewer U.S. troops to provide security in a still dangerous environment.

One consequence of the drawdown of U.S. forces “is a reduction in their ability to protect us, to get us into places where we need to be,” said Dave Schwendiman, director of forward operations for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which keeps a close watch on how U.S. taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan are spent.

American troop levels have dropped to less than 11,000 this year from a high of more than 100,000. In 2012, the international community pledged $16 billion in continuing aid to Afghanistan through 2016, with roughly half of that coming from the U.S.

SIGAR and the taxpayer-funded United States Agency for International Development, the largest aid group in Afghanistan, are committed to continuing operations in Afghanistan, but officials acknowledge they are increasingly constrained in where they can go and what they can do because of continued fighting between Afghan security forces and insurgents.

Larry Sampler, who leads USAID’s Afghanistan and Pakistan missions, said the funding levels will likely decline and the agency’s era of big infrastructure projects is largely over, but he wants the agency to continue pursuing “relentless progress” in Afghanistan, including an ambitious $200 million project to improve conditions for women.

“It’s not a withdrawal — the United States is not leaving Afghanistan,” he said in a recent phone interview. “A part of our mission will be to reassure nervous Afghans that we’re not walking away from Afghanistan.”

SIGAR officials say despite constraints on their movements, they aren’t planning to cut staff any time soon. Their mandate is to operate in the country until there is less than $250 million in U.S. tax dollars allocated to Afghanistan.

“We have our mandate and our mandate is to do the work we do,” said Matt Dove, SIGAR’s Kabul-based deputy inspector general for audits and inspections. “Until we’re told otherwise, we’re going to continue to do it at a rate and size we determine best.”

USAID has spent roughly $17 billion on reconstruction projects across Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded in 2001 to oust the Taliban regime. USAID’s success has been mixed. There have been undeniable gains in areas such as women’s rights, education, and healthcare. Officials with USAID point to the 2014 Afghan presidential election as a step in the right direction, though it was bitterly contested over massive voter fraud. It was only settled with U.S. intervention that helped broker a power-sharing arrangement between President Ashraf Ghani and his election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who was named to the newly created post of chief executive officer.

But the aid effort in Afghanistan has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years for wastefulness, poor planning and lack of transparency, flaws laid out in stark detail largely by SIGAR reports. A prime example of a project that has not succeeded despite massive funding is the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan. Tens of millions of dollars over budget and 10 years over schedule, few outside of USAID expect the power project ever to be completed.

And in January, USAID suspended one of its largest non-profit contractors, International Relief and Development, for “serious misconduct” after giving the company $2.4 billion since 2007, much of it for reconstruction in Afghanistan.

The key to SIGAR’s efforts to shine a spotlight on aid initiatves in the country is the ability of investigators to get out in the field to see projects up close. That has become more and more difficult as U.S. bases closed and American security assets — from both the State Department and military — have shrunk.

“There’s no substitute for being there. There’s no substitute for being exposed to this place outside the walls,” Schwendiman said in an interview at the organization’s Kabul offices in the heavily-fortified U.S. Embassy complex.

That has become more difficult with the reduction of U.S. troops. In addition, the 2013 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador and three others were killed, has made regional security office advisers extra cautious, Schwendiman said.

“Benghazi has made the diplomatic security people and embassy people rightly nervous about having anything like that happen here and they’ll tell you openly this is one of the scariest places they operate,” Schwindeman said.

Both USAID and SIGAR are planning increased reliance on local staff and contractors to get to areas that would be treacherous for Americans.

“In some cases we do still have Americans come out and visit a program,” Sampler said. “In other cases, we may use technology, over-flights or crowd sourcing technology. We have to do that because we can’t get out to all parts of Afghanistan.”

Schwendiman sees another big loss in the drawdown of troops.

“When there were 100,000 people on the ground, there were 200,000 eyes and 200,000 ears that were listening and watching things that were going on, and they would report waste and fraud and abuse,” he said. “That 100,000 now is down to 10,000, so there are only 20,000 eyes and ears; we’re naturally going to hear less and see less through their eyes than we were seeing before.”

One thing unlikely to change is the tension between the two organizations. Over the past two-and-a-half years, SIGAR has often been locked in battle with American reconstruction organizations, especially USAID, over their handling of billions of U.S. tax dollars earmarked for the controversial rebuilding effort in Afghanistan.

“USAID hates our guts and they think that we’re a distraction and [they] oughtn’t have to put up with us,” Schwendiman said.

Privately, USAID officials complain bitterly about SIGAR, saying the inspector general organization criticizes with insufficient evidence and makes it even harder to carry out an already difficult reconstruction effort.

“Are we on the record?” Sampler joked when asked his thoughts about SIGAR’s criticisms of USAID, before taking a diplomatic line: “They ask these hard questions and force us to come up with answers.”

Different perspectives

Looking back on the past 13 years of reconstruction in Afghanistan, officials from the two organizations had significantly different takes.

“Perhaps not since the fall of the Taliban has Afghanistan faced such a significant moment in its history,” USAID Director Rajiv Shah said in the agency’s December newsletter. “The Afghan people recently voted in record numbers in a historic election, the Afghan military leads security operations throughout the country and Afghanistan has made more strides than any other country in the past decade in measures of health, education and economic growth.”

From SIGAR’s perspective, some key aspects of the reconstruction effort have improved since the watchdog started taking a more aggressive stance in 2012, namely sustainability of projects and coordination among different organizations. But over-ambition and lack of planning still plague reconstruction efforts, and the mistakes of the past continue to reverberate, Schwendiman said.

“In 2008, 2009, 2010, the checkbook was just a checkbook and the money would just pour, it would flow,” Schwendiman said. “What we were doing was feeding a culture of corruption, and we are paying for it and ... Ghani is paying for it. It’s a legacy we ought not be too proud of.”

Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

Sagging reinforcement rods at the unfinished Justice Center in Parwan complex in Parwan province, Afghanistan. This photo was part of a May 15, 2013, report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.