Afghanistan’s Road to Ruin: Paved with Good Intentions, Soldiers’ Lives, and Taxpayer Dollars
Will Keola Thomas – Afghanistan Study Group
On May 1st, the New York Times published an article describing the construction of a 64-mile-long highway through two of the most volatile provinces in Afghanistan. The story, “Costly Afghanistan Road Project Is Marred by Unsavory Alliances,” had almost no chance to register in the national consciousness before it was lost in the news cycle wake of Osama bin Laden’s death the following day. But the tale it told, one of organized crime, political violence, corruption, and waste, all underwritten by the American taxpayer, reveals much more about the war in Afghanistan as it is fought today than anything that will be found in bin Laden’s diary.
The Gardez-Khost Highway was presented as a counterinsurgency panacea. Construction of a paved road across the Paktia and Khost provinces of southeastern Afghanistan would facilitate the movement of U.S. forces in a mountainous region that had long been a key supply route for insurgents bringing weapons and fighters over the border from Pakistan. Planners believed the highway would strengthen the central government’s links with the border region and encourage commerce that would promote local buy-in, increase government legitimacy, and improve stability as markets flourished. All for the (low?) price of $69 million dollars.
But things didn’t work out that way.
First, the law of contracting entropy kicked in. Americans paid their taxes and financed the project. On behalf of those taxpayers, the U.S. Agency for International Development drew up the proposal and then gave the contract to a joint venture of the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey consulting and construction services firm, and Black & Veatch a construction company based in Kansas.
(Sidenote: In November, the Louis Berger Group was ordered to pay $69 million in fines for overbillling the federal government. This is one of the highest wartime contracting fraud penalties in history. Yet the Group’s grip on the federal teat remains firm. Louis Berger currently oversees $1.4 billion in reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan.)
The Berger Group and Black and Veatch then hired Indian construction subcontractors and a South African private security firm who, in turn, hired a variety of Afghan subcontractors for security and construction services, who hired still more subcontractors…and so on, and so forth…until, according to a civilian interviewed by the NY Times who worked with the U.S. military on the project, “…we had a problem that with the final subcontractors, they didn’t have enough money to get the work done.”
Four years later the highway still isn’t complete. The final bill for the project is expected to come in at $176 million with cost overruns of more than 100%. The NY Times reports that a section of the road finished six months ago is already falling apart.
Unfortunately, the story gets worse.
It has cost $43.5 million so far to provide security for the construction of the highway that was meant to bring stability to the region. Among those receiving funds for protecting the road project was one Mr. Arafat, a local strongman who was paid at least $1 million a year for his security services. But, as the NY Times reports:
“Some American officials and contractors involved in the project suspect that at least some of the money funneled through Mr. Arafat made its way to the Haqqani group, a particularly brutal offshoot of the Taliban.”
And if you think that Khost and Paktia are the only provinces where this is happening there’s a bank in Kabul I’d like to sell you:
“Critics say that payoffs to insurgent groups, either directly or indirectly, by contractors working on highways and other large projects in Afghanistan are routine. Some officials say they are widely accepted in the field as a cost of doing business…As a result, contracting companies and the American officials who supervise them often look the other way.
‘Does it keep the peace?’ asked one United States military officer with experience in volatile eastern Afghanistan. ‘Definitely. If the bad guys have a stake in the project, attacks go way down.’”
If the United States is putting soldiers in harm’s way to defeat the Taliban while at the same time filling the Taliban’s coffers with protection money it more than begs the question of what we are doing in “volatile eastern Afghanistan” in the first place.
Especially when one considers the extraordinary price paid in blood and treasure to implement infrastructure projects in areas where, according to a former U.S.A.I.D. worker interviewed by the Times, “…the local population is as likely to sabotage a project as to protect it.”
And particularly when one ponders the desperate need for infrastructure investment in the United States.
Hundreds of miles of paved roads are being removed and returned to gravel in states where officials can’t find the money to maintain them. As the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune reports:
“The paved roads that finally brought rural America in to the 20th century are starting to disappear across the Midwest in the 21st. Local officials, facing rising pavement prices, shrinking budgets and fewer residents, are making tough decisions to regress. In some places, they have even eliminated small stretches of gravel road altogether.”
And then there’s the crumbling bridges and levees across the country whose decrepit state puts thousands of lives at risk. Increasingly, building highways at the point of a gun in Afghanistan means playing budget roulette at home.
(Update: The BBC reports that the Taliban ambushed construction workers camped by the Gardez-Khost Highway on Wednesday night. At least 35 workers were killed making this the deadliest single attack in Afghanistan since February. According to the New York Times, “there have been 364 attacks on the Gardez-Khost Highway, including 108 roadside bombs, resulting in the deaths of 19 people, almost all of them local Afghan workers.”)