Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. The United states hires a private contractor to complete a major infrastructure reconstruction project in a war zone, yet when the equipment goes unused and the project unfinished, the contractor is paid millions -- in full -- anyway.
No, it’s not Iraq circa 2005. It’s Afghanistan, and, as detailed in a new report
, the new Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, has again uncovered a wasteful and questionable pile of U.S. taxpayer money that warrants “immediate attention.”
“Specifically, the report found that $12.8 million in electrical equipment purchased to meet urgent needs in support of the counterinsurgency strategy is sitting unused in a warehouse near Kandahar City without a clear plan for installation,” said Philip J. LaVelle, spokesman for the U.S. watchdog’s office.
“SIGAR also found that [the U.S. Agency for International Development] paid a contractor (Louis Berger Group Inc/Black & Veatch Special Projects Corp Joint Venture) the full allowable fee on a contract despite the contractor’s failure to complete 76 percent of required deliverables,” LaVelle said.
The equipment is in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Afghanistan Engineer District South stockyard. But SIGAR found pallets of transformers, meters, and giant spools of electrical wire and poles sitting in the hot sun, going nowhere. SIGAR recommended the U.S. determine if installation is possible and if not come up with a plan for the $12 million equipment stock collecting dust in Kandahar.
The funds came from the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), which was created in the Iraq years as a sort of a fast-action, forward- deployed slush fund for commanders to use for counterinsurgency efforts to win hearts and minds. It’s supposed to have urgency, is SIGAR’s point.
But Afghanistan’s national power company “lacks the capacity to install and manage the equipment.” Sound familiar?
SIGAR said the first moneys were awarded in 2010 to buy the equipment, but nobody came up with an installation plan it -- not the contractor, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, USAID, the Army Corps of Engineers, or the Afghan utility company. The Corps thought USAID was going to have the contractor install 50,000 electrical meters, in one example. But USAID had already modified the contract so that the contractor only had to submit an installation plan -- not do the work. SIGAR found, however, that the contractor has not submitted any plans.
The episode highlights the U.S. government’s massive commercialization effort to electrify Afghanistan with a proper utilities system. Since 2009, the U.S. has spent $87 million on the effort, with $50 million spent just on Kabul, according to the watchdog. But this summer, NPR reported that maybe one-third of Afghans have reliable electricity
, 11 years after the war began. Afghanistan ranks near the bottom of electricity production worldwide.
The agencies in question defended their actions and plans for using the equipment.
“RC South has developed a clear plan for the installation of the equipment,” the command responded, in a letter included in the SIGAR report, claiming it is underway “in a prudent and phased approach.” The actual plan was not included in the report.
USAID, meanwhile, accused SIGAR investigators of mixing up the responsibilities of its organization with the Army Corps of Engineers. USAID also argued it is already using some of the equipment in question for other electrical projects.
Finally, USAID said it knew the Afghan power company was unable to install or maintain the equipment and had already paid another group, the International Finance Corporation, to help the Afghans devise a plan to contract the work out.