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US fund to rebuild Afghanistan is criticized

KABUL, Afghanistan >> Two years ago, as the final pieces of the Obama administration’s troop surge were moving into place in southern Afghanistan, American officials identified a handful of infrastructure projects that they hoped would build popular support for the Afghan government in the Taliban’s heartland.

The Pentagon and State Department secured $400 million from Congress for what was christened the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund and drew up plans for seven projects, five of them aimed at increasing the electricity supply in southern Afghanistan to light shops and power factories. The projects were to be completed by mid-2013, just as the NATO combat mission was to wind down.

Yet as the remaining surge forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, significant work on five of the seven projects has not yet begun and is unlikely to be completed until well after the NATO mission ends in 2014, according to a new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the government agency charged with documenting how billions of dollars in American reconstruction funds are being spent.

As a result, a program that was intended to bring soldiers and civilians together to buttress the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency strategy could end up undercutting it, according to the report, which is to be released Monday.

The difficulties the report describes provide fresh insight into why the results of the surge have appeared ambiguous and the broader American-led reconstruction effort in Afghanistan has often foundered, despite the nearly $90 billion that Congress has appropriated for it over the past decade.

The American Embassy and military command in Kabul, in a joint statement, rebutted the report’s findings, saying that officials had engaged in a “rigorous process” of reviewing and refining the infrastructure projects.

The projects “have signaled to the Afghan population the U.S. government’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan,” the statement said.

The inspector general reached a starkly different conclusion: The potential help for counterinsurgency efforts envisioned by officials is “based on completed projects that are years away from completion.”

“If goals are set and not achieved, both the U.S. and the Afghan governments can lose the populace’s support,” the report added, echoing a concern that some senior American officials have expressed privately.

An American official in Kabul urged patience, saying that the Afghan government, with Western help, was learning how to maintain and operate what was being built, and that it would pick up where the United States left off in the coming years.

“Given the nature of what we’re trying to do here, we don’t expect to be going in one single, linear positive direction,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s more like going up and down and backward a few steps and then forward a few more.”

Some of the difficulties with the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund were to be expected in a war zone, but officials did not properly prepare for contingencies like the challenge and expense of running power lines through remote areas of southern Afghanistan where the Taliban is strong, the report said.

Other problems were the result of bureaucratic holdups in Washington. A separate power line project in eastern Afghanistan, for instance, had not been put up for bids as of February because the Pentagon was working out how to transfer the money to the State Department, which is to carry out the project through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the report said.

The Afghan government had little role in designing the projects or seeing the work through, the report said, though American officials in Kabul disputed this assertion.

Four of the five delayed projects involve building power lines; the fifth aims to construct provincial justice centers across the country.

As for the two projects that are roughly on schedule, both were begun under a different program, months before the infrastructure fund was created. They were then incorporated into the fund, which won congressional financing in 2011.

One of them, the installation of diesel generators in Kandahar, was meant only to improve the city’s energy supply until the power line projects were finished.

The generator project was initially budgeted at $40 million. But because the power lines are so far behind schedule, it “is expected to cost $80 million in fiscal year 2012 and increase to $100 million in fiscal year 2013,” the report said.

Even then, the power lines might not be completed until September 2015, although some American officials say they could be ready by the summer of 2014, a year after the original completion date.

Once completed, it is unclear who will maintain the projects or pay for them — a problem that highlights how each part of the reconstruction mission affects the other.

“If you build a road, you also need to build a government that can keep the road passable,” another American official said, adding: “We’re not building good roads, and we’re not building a good government.”

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