In war for Afghanistan, US troops do battle with flaky contractors
US forces in Afghanistan had begun to look like ATM machines as massive, poorly managed development projects bled money. Soldiers now oversee smaller ventures, even if it means personally counting pipes and demanding toilet flushers.
Bar Kanday, Afghanistan
“Yeah, but what about the flushers?”Skip to next paragraph
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Lt. Mark Zambarda was annoyed. He expected small hoses to come with the toilets that had been ordered for the newly remodeled school. But the Afghan laborers simply smiled and made vague gestures with their cement-caked trowels.
“I’m not paying you until I get some flushers,” Zambarda said.
The young soldier grinned, but it was tired, tight. This was a difficult part of the job – even more difficult sometimes than combat. When he joined the Army, Zambarda never thought he'd become a building inspector.
But that is part of the mission for American soldiers here in the Pech Valley and across Afghanistan, where the United States has long encouraged development but is now also pushing Afghans to shoulder more responsibility for their own fate. President Barack Obama stressed this message when he outlined his war strategy last month. It's even more pressing as international leaders opened a conference in London Thursday to discuss the future of Afghanistan.
Earlier American programs tended to dump cash on large projects, military officers here say. Big things were built – schools and medical clinics, for example – but the costs were so large and the contracts so complicated they were difficult to monitor. And they invited corruption. Soldiers said the process had led some Afghans to think of Americans as "ATM machines.”
When Lt. Col. Brian Pearl, commander of 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, arrived in the Pech seven months ago, he began looking to streamline development and reduce corruption. He removed middlemen, sidelined contractors, and made projects smaller, easier to oversee. He left large-scale efforts to a US Provincial Reconstruction Team, which works directly with provincial leaders and the national government. More recently, he and commanders throughout the east began telling Afghans to take their aid requests directly to their own government – not US troops.
“When I first got here, I saw a lot of fleecing and shaking down going on, and it bothered me,” Pearl says. “So I cut out the big projects. All of that is handled by the PRT now in coordination with the provincial governor. Out here we do quick-hitting stuff, stuff that wasn’t done before. Wells, retaining walls, things like that.”
Using cash sums small enough to carry in their pockets, Pearl says young officers like Zambarda can fund projects that help communities more quickly and directly while reducing opportunities for theft or graft.
“These guys can change the worlds they work in with $1,000,” Pearl says.
Missing the good old days
Afghans readily accept the projects, though many admit to confusion about the new way of doing business. Some long for the old system. When Pearl’s troops recently visited a village in the nearby Watapoor Valley, many elders appeared frustrated and said it was easier asking the Americans for help. They did not yet trust the Afghan government.