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Project delays could cost Afghan hearts and minds, report warns

July 30, 2012 |  2:29 pm

American plans to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan by improving electricity, paving roads and making other infrastructure improvements have been delayed so much that they could end up turning more Afghans against the U.S., a government report warned Monday.

The Afghanistan Infrastructure Program is supposed to allow the State Department and the Department of Defense to join forces to fund major infrastructure projects that will help build support against insurgents. Congress has appropriated $800 million for the program in the last two years, part of the nearly $90 billion devoted over the last decade to rebuilding Afghanistan.

Five out of seven projects under the program have been delayed at least six months, some as long as 15 months, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found. As of mid-February, only two projects were under contract.

The Afghan projects were slowed by funding delays in Washington, the difficulty of traveling to proposed project sites and other problems. The delays make it unlikely that most projects will be completed before Western forces are slated to pull out of Afghanistan, the report found.

If Afghans grow disillusioned about delayed or troubled projects, it warned, that could hurt U.S. and Afghan attempts to gain more support from the local population in rooting out insurgents.

“If goals are set and not achieved, both the U.S. and Afghan governments can lose the populace’s support,” the inspector general concludes. “Implementing projects that the Afghan government is unable to sustain may be counterproductive to the [counterinsurgency] strategy.”

The report also warned that projects might not be sustainable in the future if they rely on struggling Afghan government agencies, or need other unfunded, unplanned or lagging projects to survive.

For instance, the U.S. has been fueling diesel generators to power the city of Kandahar while electrical lines are being installed. Because the schedule for those power lines has been pushed back at least a year, diesel costs will continue, costing $80 million this fiscal year and $100 million the next, according to the report.

But if the U.S. gives up that costly practice before a more sustainable power source is in place, it could risk a backlash as power availability plunges.

Changes in the power grid also depend on the installation and refurbishing of turbines at the Kajaki dam, which has been beset by cost overruns and stalled by the Taliban. Completion is now unlikely until 2016.

The Defense Department disagreed strongly with many of the findings, arguing the report was premature and misleading, and that there was no evidence that Afghans were souring on the projects. Long before infrastructure projects are actually finished, Afghans gain jobs and hope, the Defense Department said. It stated that the Kandahar generators brought "desperately needed electrical power to a volatile region in southern Afghanistan" while a more sustainable solution was in the works.

Counterinsurgency effects “are not measured by the completion of projects,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Sedney wrote in response to the report. Sustainability plans were developed for all of the projects and Afghan government agencies are gaining capacity, the department said.

“Infrastructure development in a war zone is never easy,” the U.S. Embassy and military command in Afghanistan and the U.S. Agency for International Development said Monday in response to the report. These “critical infrastructure projects have signaled to the Afghan population the U.S. government’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan.”

The inspector general recommended that U.S. agencies in Afghanistan develop more comprehensive plans and realistic cost estimates for sustaining the projects in the future. 

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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