KABUL, Afghanistan—I am writing this in my apartment in one of the “posh” new buildings constructed in 2004 near downtown Kabul. The shiny structure is five stories tall with tinted windows. My roommate and I pay $300 a month in rent, the going price in such buildings. Few locals can afford such relative luxury—a civil servant's salary is just $50 a month. And this is no Trump Towers.
Foreign dignitaries and television cameras see only the shiny windows and new-looking construction. Inside, our bathroom drains emit the stench of sewage because of faulty plumbing. The pipes in the walls leak constantly, and the lightest touch sends disintegrated wallboard cascading to the floor. There's no insulation in the walls, and the gaps in our misshapen door and window frames allow icy winds to blow directly into the apartment. As temperatures drop below zero in the winter, we get 15 hours of power for the week.
Very little in Afghanistan could be considered well-made. Soviet-era construction is notoriously flimsy. But for sheer lack of durability, you need look no further than some of the reconstruction projects undertaken in just the last few years.
For example, a U.S.-funded highway in the northern provinces of Afghanistan is disintegrating even before it has been completed. By the time construction materials were purchased, project money had trickled through so many agencies and contractors that all those contractors could afford were second-rate goods. The resulting paved road is little improvement over the dirt one it replaced.
The $15 million for the project originally came from USAID, which gave it to the United Nations Office of Project Services, which in turn hired the Louis Berger Group as a consultant. The UN also contracted with the Turkish firm Limak to build the road itself, and Limak hired an Afghan-American company, ARC Construction Co.
Where did the money go? Between USAID at the top and ARC Construction at the bottom, most of it was siphoned off for “overhead” and profits. Louis Berger reports that $4 million alone was spent on setting up and moving the mobile camp that housed employees, and on importing construction equipment from Turkey. Another $1.6 million has gone to the salaries of 12 Afghan and three international inspectors. The laborers who work on the road, on the other hand, are paid about $90 a month, without insurance or worker's compensation. Between 2002 and 2005, 80 people—about 18 expatriates, and the rest Afghans—were killed working on Berger-supervised projects in Afghanistan.
After the expenses, salaries and profits have been taken out, there isn't enough money to build a decent road. Without maintenance—which has not been funded—the road will not last more than five years, according to one of the engineers.
The Berger Group insists it is not beholden to political promises or even community expectations, but that it answers to a higher power: the spending cap on its contracts.
“I understand their problems and needs, but I also have an obligation to keep within the budget of the taxpayers' money,” said Peter Pengelly, Berger's project manager in the camp. “To the community, we're guilty until proven innocent.”
The community to which Pengelly refers includes about 1,000 drivers, farmers and other concerned Afghans who signed a petition complaining that the road is substandard, and demanding what they were promised. Drivers say the gravel on the road has punctured their car tires and broken their windows, and that potholes create hazards and delays.
But the real discontent is about water. The road is built close to mud homes, which have been here for decades. The old dirt road was low and allowed run-off to drain away. The new road is built atop a raised berm, blocking drainage. If a heavy storm strikes, the villagers fear the mud homes they built with their hands will collapse.
They submitted their petition to the governor of Sar-e Paula province, but the governor has no power over the single major highway in his jurisdiction, which was designed and built by outsiders.
“USAID can take advice and suggestions from the Afghan government, but they don't have to listen to it,” said one of the contractors. “USAID will spend the money in the way they want.”
On a sunny Friday morning last October, three villagers dug a ditch right through the new roadbed in an effort to create a drainage canal before the rainy season. They were arrested for damaging public property.
The contractors pointed out that, according to an obscure and rarely-enforced Afghan highway law, no structure may be with in 30 meters of the road. Therefore, they argued, it was not the builder's responsibility to deal with homes that may flood because they are too close to the road -- even though the homes were there first.
Two months later, the frustrated villagers dug a new ditch in the road.
Because the road is guaranteed for a year against defects, Limak, with the advice of the Berger Group, agreed to build 63 new concrete culverts. When the culverts proved to small too accommodate the water flow, the contractors built additional ones next to them (and billed for it). Limak and the Berger Group point to this as a moment of altruism, rather than poor advanced planning.
The whole project began as a campaign promise from Hamid Karzai, who could offer big infrastructure improvements since the Bush administration had the aid money to back him up. The locals helped elect him, but today many of them believe they were hoodwinked. They are left with a crumbling eight-meter wide gravel road, and a healthy case of buyer's remorse.
This article was excerpted from “Afghanistan, Inc.: A CorpWatch Investigative Report,” by Fariba Nawa, a freelance journalist living in Kabul who researched the foreign reconstruction of Afghanistan for six months.