Americans Keep Paying for Bad Work From Afghan Contractors
Afghanistan is littered with half-finished construction projects
The United States has set aside billions in taxpayer money to rebuild Afghanistan. The Pentagon, Washington and Kabul have spent some of that money well, but those in charge have also wasted an incredible amount of the cash.
One of the areas most prone to waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer money is construction. Half-built, half-assed and often unnecessary buildings litter the provinces of Afghanistan from Kunduz to Kandahar.
Here’s how it happens. A U.S. government agency — often but not always the military — identifies a need in the country and commissions a project. The Pentagon decides to build a jail, for example. It allocates the funds, hires a local contractor and waits.
Months later, the contractor hasn’t finished its job, the U.S. agency terminates the project and the local contractor demands at least a portion of its fee for half-finished work.
This has happened dozens if not hundreds of times.
One such unfinished project — an unused slaughterhouse near Kabul — perfectly illustrates the problem.
In February 2012, the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan — the American-led military force in the country — told the U.S Army Corps of Engineers that it needed a slaughterhouse.
The slaughterhouse was to serve the needs of the growing Afghan army. According to CSTC-A, the soldiers needed 1.3 million pounds of meat every month and the current slaughterhouse in Kabul just wasn’t going to cut it.
So the CSTC-A fast-tracked the project, stating there was a “high probability that the requirement would not be cancelled,” according to a recent report from the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan.
The Army engineers looked at the project, weighed competing bids and awarded a $12 million contract to the Afghan company AREEB-REC Joint Venture.
CSTC-A’s plan was impressive. The proposed slaughterhouse included plans for an administrative building, a wastewater treatment plant, guard shacks and bunkers, a diesel power plant, a water well, three parking lots and a wall around the perimeter.
Here’s what it looks like now.
So what happened?
The same thing that so often happens with these construction projects in Afghanistan. The Afghan contractor worked on the site for a total of 660 days. In that time, it completed some of the wall, a water well and some of one of the guard towers.
“We visited the ANA slaughterhouse construction site on April 17, 2014, and found a largely open field,” SIGAR stated in its report on the project. “Such little work had been done.”
Eight months into the project, the Army engineers noticed it was going painfully slow and decided to step in and help avert what it called “the coming train wreck” in an information paper obtained by SIGAR. It didn’t go well. The Army found multiple problems with the existing construction and even more with the contractors’ plans.
On Sept. 15, 2013, the engineers put the project on hold because AREEB-REC Joint Venture wasn’t doing its job. “If the new slaughterhouse is built it is anticipated that the state of the equipment and the cleanliness would quickly degrade below Western standards and will be viewed by taxpayers as a “waste” of funds,” CSTC-A explained in its letter of termination.
“Especially since the ANA have managed to continue to feed their soldiers adequately over the last three years. Currently there is no indication that the Afghans have a requirement for this facility.”
At around the same time, CSTC-A realized it didn’t need a slaughterhouse and it asked the engineers to cancel the contract out of convenience. The USACE did so, claiming it had saved American taxpayers more than $10 million.
But the way it canceled the contract is important. Canceling a project for “convenience” rather than, say, contractor negligence means that AREEB-REC Joint Venture can get at least some of the promised $12 million.
How much? Right now, CSTCA-A has paid it $1.54 million for building part of a wall, a water well and a support column no one will use.
But the contractor wants more. According to SIGAR, the contractor claims it deserves another $4.23 million for its work. That’s a total of $5.77 million, almost half of total cost of the project.
AREEB-REC Joint Venture didn’t do half the work. Not even close. Remember, this is a project the USACE described as a train wreck.
To be fair, the military did the right thing here. The project wasn’t going well, the USACE thought it was awful and CSTC-A realized it didn’t need the slaughterhouse. It’s possible that the Pentagon pulling the plug did save American taxpayers a little more than $10 million.
“To fault the coalition for spending $1.25 million on a required project,” Maj. CSTC-A commander Gen. Todd T. Semonite responded in a handwritten note to SIGAR’s questions about the facility.
“We felt it more important to save the $10.5 on additional costs. Let’s make sure you’re [sic] report recognizes the savings hear [sic] while trying to find fault with the requirement.” The underlining is Semonite’s.
But you Semonite shouldn’t call a project “required” when it was later canceled out of “convenience.” The handwritten letter at the bottom of his formal response to SIGAR said it all. The military thinks it’s saving taxpayers money when it cancels a project it shouldn’t have initiated in the first place.
Then it pays out millions to a contractor it should punish — not reward — for a half-assed job.
So it goes with construction projects in Afghanistan. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened — a nearby prison also sits unfinished, as does a courthouse in Parwan — and it won’t be the last.