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.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Afghan men work at a construction site in Kabul on January 9.

“Yeah, but what about the flushers?”

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.

“It was better when we just went straight to the Americans,” one elder said. “Our government is very corrupt.”

Military officers and State Department officials here in Kunar Province say they expect complaints as Afghans adapt.

The strategy also puts more pressure on young soldiers to keep watch on bottom lines and on the Afghans who have become their partners.

Many soldiers say Afghans routinely ask for more money even after a contract has been signed, citing vague reasons that, to the soldiers’ minds, usually mean someone is skimming off the top. Afghans also make what appear to the Americans to be ridiculous demands, insisting on dozens of bags of cement, for example, for jobs the Americans say should only require a few.

For their part, Afghans sometimes complain the Americans don’t hire enough local laborers and instead choose corrupt contractors or those who are politically connected.

Soldiers admit that some of their misunderstandings are cultural – the result of a bad translation or local customs they don’t grasp. But some of the problems, they say, involve something closer to greed.

“These guys will go a long way to make you feel obligated,” Lt. John Cumbie says. “They’ll say ‘you promised us this or that,’ when we didn’t. It’s not too bad, but you really have to push back.”

‘Things need to get done’

On a cool afternoon in early January, Cumbie held a brief meeting with a contractor at a village in the Pech. He had come to pay the contractor a portion of his final installment for a well project. The sun was sinking below the mountains, evening cold settling over the mud-and-stone houses.

But Cumbie was waiting – he wanted witnesses before he handed over the cash. The more people who saw where the money went, he said, the less likely any of it would vanish. As he waited he counted a stack of metal pipes and noticed a difference in the number since his last visit. He asked where the missing ones had gone, and the contractor told him they'd been taken to the work site. Cumbie nodded.

When a village elder finally arrived, Cumbie fished a bag of cash out of his pocket. Young men and boys crowded around as he thumbed out 15,000 Afghanis, about $300.

He reminded the contractor that he had noticed a few things missing ¬– in this case concrete pads around the well heads.

Cumbie told the contractor he expected the pads finished before he would pay the rest of his fee. The contractor nodded, counted the stack of green-blue bills, then folded them away into his shirt.

Walking back to his armored truck, Cumbie said he felt good about the project; it was progress he could see, little by little. He said he didn’t mind checking wells and counting construction supplies, at least for now.

“I never expected to be doing this,” he says. “But I’ve learned a lot. You know, the Afghans just don’t know a lot about America, and they think money just grows on trees and that we can pay for anything. Well, we have to make them understand that money is scarce, and that things need to get done.”

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