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Afghanistan war: How USAID loses hearts and minds

One battle in the other Afghanistan war: How a mismanaged $60 million USAID project alienated those it aimed to help.

By / Staff writer / July 28, 2010

In the Afghanistan war for hearts and minds, USAID lost its battle in Badakshan Province. A USAID contractor claimed this $1 million canal helped triple output for the district of Baharak. But the canal is unfinished.

Monique Jaques/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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Baharak, Afghanistan

A muddy trench, crumbling at its sides, snakes from a swift stream five miles down to an aging hydropower plant in northeastern Afghanistan. Walking in sandals along the dirt banks, engineer Qand Agha Noori explains how Americans promised to build a proper canal to bring more electricity to his community.

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But this excavated earth seems to be nothing more than a scar on the land – and on the impression Mr. Noori and his kith and kin have of Americans.

"Fifty percent they didn't do. They just dug this," Noori says of the empty ditch, "and tried to get the signature of the government and left."

He stops next to a boulder in the trench. He explains that shoddy construction – including incomplete concrete walls and drainage culverts – resulted in landslides blocking water flow to the turbine and, in turn, electricity from reaching any homes.

The $1 million canal was part of a $60 million development contract that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had with PADCO, an American company. PADCO's 2009 completion report claims to have tripled power in Baharak and nearby Faizabad.

But Afghan officials say neither community saw any extra electricity. And a USAID staffer who handed over the report to the Monitor advised, "Take this with a grain of salt. It's designed to make USAID look good."

On paper, the multipronged project revitalized a backward Afghan province, weaning it off poppy cultivation and winning Afghan hearts and minds.

However, a Monitor investigation reveals that even in spite of a few modest gains, the Afghans here were left angered over project failures, secrecy, and wasted funds.

"Now the people are hating American companies like PADCO because many times they brought millions of dollars, but didn't do anything," says Syed Abdul Basir Husseini, the electricity chief for Badakhshan Province. "All Badakhshanis know that it was $60 million [that America] spent," he says, adding that they see little evidence of it.

The story of what went wrong exposes serious weaknesses in the third pillar of America's "clear, hold, build" Afghan strategy. Among them: big-spending hastiness, unrealistic deadlines, high development staff turnover, planning divorced from ground realities, and ever-present security risks in this war-torn nation.

"In Vietnam, they were measuring success of operations in the numbers that are killed. In Afghanistan, it is how many schools you are building and how much money you spent. This is better, but as wrong," says Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, in Kabul. "What you need to measure is what is the impact of what you've done."

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In 2005, the remote northeastern province of Badakhshan worried United States officials. Considered one of the safer regions of Afghanistan, it had become a major cultivator of poppy and a magnet for drug traffickers.