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Rush for results in Afghanistan may undermine aid goals

Concern is increasing among the international development specialists that the rush for results in Afghanistan actually encourages cumbersome rules that take a long time to implement.

By Dion NissenbaumMcClatchy Newspapers / January 13, 2011

An Afghan man carries a plastic container containing water, as he passes by a road in Kabul, Afghanistan on Dec 5, 2010.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP/File

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Kabul, Afghanistan

Kabul's five-star Serena Hotel is known as one of the city's most luxurious escapes from the daily grind of Afghanistan's gritty capital. Home to the Kabul's first day spa, complete with a heated swimming pool, the heavily fortified hotel that's been a repeated target of insurgent attacks bills itself as "an oasis of cool and serenity in the heart of the city."

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For five months last year, the Serena was also the headquarters for a U.S. consulting firm with no experience in Afghanistan that the U.S. government is paying $15 million to boost Afghans' confidence in their antiquated justice system.

"It was something of a risk to bring them out here," said a U.S. official involved in the program, who was authorized to talk about the issue only on the condition of anonymity.

IN PICTURES: Afghanistan aid

"They had not, unlike some other contractors, worked out here previously," the official said. "So when they were selected we said, 'OK, we'll see.' "

So far, experts said, it's been a risky gamble with questionable results.

While encamped at the Serena, the Tetra Tech DPK consultants were criticized for their extended hotel stay, for organizing kite-flying events meant to promote confidence in the legal system and for producing little that American officials could trumpet as successes.

Along with fighting the Taliban and training an Afghan military capable of protecting its nation, building a respected government is a central goal of the Obama administration's plans to begin withdrawing U.S. forces this July.

As part of the effort, the U.S. is spending millions of dollars to overhaul Afghanistan's archaic judicial systems, establish credible programs to root out corruption and persuade skeptical Afghans that they can trust their government to do the right thing.

But concern is increasing among the international development specialists that the rush for results in Afghanistan is proving to be counterproductive.

The U.S. Agency for International Development "has never been an agency that has been able to adapt to quick change," said Fareed Osman, an Afghan-American consultant who quit a short-term contract with the DPK project after voicing his concerns about the reform program. "It's slow, huge and cumbersome with all sorts of rules to make progress impossible."

Top USAID officials declined to discuss the Obama administration's efforts to overhaul the Afghan judicial system, which is spearheaded by a series of large American consulting firms.

But others familiar with the programs said they faced intense pressure to produce results.

"You cannot believe the pressure for us to get up and running," the U.S. official involved with the program said, noting that the judicial overhaul effort had been delayed almost a year.

The modest DPK reform project was in development for nearly two years.

In April 2008, Bush administration officials unveiled plans for a five-year, $75 million judicial reform effort in Afghanistan.

The late Richard Holbrooke then put it on hold in spring 2009 soon after he was named President Barack Obama's special Afghanistan-Pakistan point man, American officials said, in order to change its focus.

That sparked a tussle between rival contractors and created more delays in getting new projects running.

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