WHO WHAT WHY.....
By Bryson Hull< on Jun 9, 2014
Want to know what $11.3 million buys the U.S. taxpayer in Afghanistan?
In one case, a prison complex with a missing security fence, one ruined building and cracking walls.
Those are the findings of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Congressionally-mandated watchdog with oversight of the roughly $103.2 billion of federal funds spent—so far–on rebuilding Afghanistan. As WhoWhatWhy reported last week, the U.S. government plans to spend $20 billion a year on Afghanistan even after withdrawing combat troops.
Here, we take a closer look at a fraction of that spending through the case of the Baghlan prison, a project under the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
If you haven’t heard of the bureau, it’s the State Department unit responsible for developing American policy to fight international crime and drug syndicates. Afghanistan is responsible for 80 percent of the opiate production in the world, according to the State Department. So the U.S. decided Afghanistan merits a special program to build the tools for an American-style war on drugs there.
The Baghlan prison falls under two of the bureau’s “focus areas”: counter-narcotics and fighting crime and corruption. Afghanistan is short on prison space, and the State Department decided to fix that by developing “a safe, secure, and humane Afghan corrections system.” The prison in Baghlan province, located north of Kabul, is supposed to be part of that solution.
Building prisons in Afghanistan isn’t like building them in Kansas, because of the kind of prisoners and the kind of weapons their friends on the outside have, a fact the State Department noted:
Prisons incarcerated a large number of national security threat inmates and therefore face external security threats.
That translates to a high jailbreak risk. So Baghlan should have been built like an Afghan Alcatraz.
Besides suffering the violence that wracks most of the country, Baghlan has two other problems: It’s prone to flooding and located in the second-most active earthquake zone in Afghanistan, according to the Special Inspector General’s report.
The Special Inspector General investigated developments since the contractor, the Omran Holding Group, handed the prison over to the State Department in 2012. The watchdog agency had to do all of its work from Kabul, since Baghlan isn’t safe enough to visit. Here are the highlights of what the Special Inspector General found:
The building plans had problems almost from the start, and that’s before the corruption and incompetence began.
• The ground settled underneath three buildings, creating wide cracks and damaging structural beams. One had to be demolished, and two more will have to be rebuilt.
• None of the designs took into account the fact the prison site was on a flood plain, resulting in an additional $170,000 drainage modification that’s still not built.
• The State Department missed a “significant design and construction error,” the use of unreinforced concrete and bricks—not difficult for prisoners to destroy. That’s to say nothing of the vulnerability to earthquakes.
• The original contract included a security fence and a storm water drainage system. The contractor never built either but invoiced the State Department for both and was paid $170,400.
• The diesel generators that power the site are broken, and the sewer system is clogged because the Afghan government hasn’t carried out any maintenance.
• The State Department admitted it failed to retain the standard 10 percent of the total contract, a reserve that’s kept in case the contractor doesn’t perform. So far, it’s only recovered about $250,000 of the nearly $1.1 million it should be holding.
The Special Inspector General says the construction problems “may be the result of fraudulent actions” by a former U.S. embassy employee, who later became the representative of the original contracting officer, and possibly employees of Omran Holding Group. That’s the subject of a preliminary investigation by the Special Inspector General.
But what’s the fate of the prison, and the 777 prisoners inside a facility built for 495? It’s still a disaster waiting to happen, according to the Special Inspector General.
We remain concerned about the use of unreinforced masonry at Baghlan prison. Rebuilding structures without steel-reinforced masonry walls between adequately constructed concrete columns can lead to collapse in areas prone to earthquakes…Furthermore, we believe the risk of prisoner escape is increased if this construction error is repeated because prisoners could more easily break down unreinforced walls.
Notwithstanding all those problems, the self-same Omran Holding Grouphas won an additional $8 million this year from the U.S. embassy in Kabul to build media information centers at universities in Nangarhar and Balkh. Of course, that’s a mere fraction of the $4 billion the State Department spent in Afghanistan from 2002-2013, 69 percent of which went to U.S. private military contractor DynCorp International.
DynCorp, too, faced accusations of poor construction in Afghanistan by the Special Inspector General, but won a $73 million settlement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and lived to build another day.
These stunning failures of accountability have generated almost no discussion at all in Washington or the U.S. media. Given all the talk about cutting government waste, one has to wonder why.
Hearing Spotlights Afghanistan Corruption and Waste
April 4, 2014
On Thursday, the House Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing titled “Afghanistan: Identifying and Addressing Wasteful U.S. Government Spending.” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) official Donald Sampler testified.
The U.S. has committed more money to rebuilding Afghanistan than to any other single country in our history—$102 billion since 2002. The hearing focused on USAID’s efforts to help rebuild the country’s political, economic, and social infrastructure, which have cost taxpayers more than $18 billion. Sampler discussed his agency’s successes over the last 12 years, emphasizing that Afghanistan is a difficult environment in which to work.
Sopko’s written testimony lays out four lessons learned from USAID’s efforts in Afghanistan, all of which have relevance to future contingency operations.
Lesson #1: Reconstruction programs must take into account the recipient country’s ability to afford the costs of operating and sustaining them.
USAID has implemented projects and built infrastructure without articulating a clear plan for ensuring that the Afghan government can sustain them. The risks of unreasonable sustainability expectations include cost overruns, project delays, wasted funds (resulting in what SIGAR calls “stranded assets”), and a loss of international confidence in the U.S.
Lesson #2: Reconstruction of a conflict-ridden state is inherently risky, and that risk must be properly mitigated.
USAID and other donors must not only worry about the safety of their workers in Afghanistan, they must also take steps to safeguard funds from corruption. “Corruption poses the most severe threat to the integrity of U.S. government reconstruction aid to Afghanistan,” according to SIGAR. Indeed, most of the hearing focused on steps USAID is taking to address the massive amount of corruption in Afghanistan. In January, SIGAR caused a stir when it issued an audit report that found billions of dollars in USAID assistance provided directly to Afghan ministries is at high risk of misuse.
Lesson #3: Oversight is a critical element of reconstruction.
SIGAR acknowledges that oversight in Afghanistan is “uniquely challenging.” One of the biggest impediments to oversight is limited mobility due to insurgent violence. The Project On Government Oversight has blogged about “oversight access bubbles” shrinking as U.S. and NATO troops withdraw and leave vast areas of the country unguarded. SIGAR estimates that no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible to civilian oversight personnel by the end of 2014.
USAID and other international relief and development organizations must therefore develop alternative oversight methods. Last month, POGO expressed concerns about USAID’s plan, which outsources oversight to contractors. USAID continues to have contract oversight problems, which makes us worry about oversight of the overseers.
Lesson #4: A reconstruction effort must have clearly articulated goals and a sound way to measure progress toward those goals.
While it is widely acknowledged that strategic planning is a must, SIGAR has repeatedly found that such planning has been ignored throughout the reconstruction effort. For example, the U.S. has never articulated a clear anti-corruption strategy in Afghanistan. SIGAR also found that, even when nominal strategic plans exist, U.S.-government implementing agencies, including USAID, do not consistently articulate the goals they hope to achieve and the metrics they intend to use to assess whether those goals have been achieved. In short, the problem is that these agencies emphasize outputs over outcomes.
Finally, Special Inspector General Sopko’s written testimony notes that USAID needs to be “more forthright in providing complete information to both Congress and the American people about its reconstruction activities in Afghanistan.” This became a flashpoint at the hearing due to recent events. Earlier this week, USA Today reported that SIGAR had accused USAID of concealing from Congress information showing that the Afghan government is unable to prevent contracting with individuals and companies tied to insurgents and terrorist groups. At the hearing, Sampler took strong issue with theUSA Today article, insisting it was false. Sopko stood by the accusation.
Judging from the highly charged questioning at the hearing, especially by Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Representative Peter Welch (D-VT), Congress is far from done on the issue of waste in Afghanistan reconstruction. Expect many more animated hearings in the near future.