RCL Exclusive

Troubled $60 Million Project in Afghanistan One of the ‘Worst’ Ever

After realizing faults, U.S. officials dismantled a potentially deadly power system.

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For six years John Sopko has watched as American taxpayer dollars were thrown away by the tens of millions on ill-conceived and poorly executed security and infrastructure initiatives in Afghanistan, but he said a recent troubled project was “one of the worst” he’s investigated.

“This is an outrageous case,” Sopko told RealClearLife in a recent interview. “I mean, this is one disaster after another… You can’t make this up.”

Sopko, who was appointed the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in 2012, was talking about a power distribution project in northeast Afghanistan overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) that, at least on the drawing board, should provide reliable electricity to more than a million Afghans.

It’s a project that the USACE says is fine and just days from going live, but one that Sopko and SIGAR investigators wrote in a report was destined for a spectacular, $60 million self-inflicted failure.

In the report published in late March, Sopko and his team write that they found that a new substation and some transmission line towers were built so poorly they were already cracking at the foundations, that the Afghan government had not yet acquired the land immediately under the transition lines and thus put locals living there in danger and, to top it off, the existing substations at either end of the new project were not equipped to properly receive the new power lines — meaning there was no immediate way to safely electrify the whole project in the first place except with less-stable, temporary connections.

Cracking concrete at the base of a tower. (SIGAR)

“We focus on not just the amount of money that was spent, [but] did it accomplish anything? So we talk about outputs and outcomes,” Sopko said. “This is a classic case, probably the best example, where the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers (USACE) built something but it had no successful outcome.” (The work on the project was actually carried out by an Afghan construction company; the USACE awarded the contract and was responsible for overseeing the work.)

The SIGAR report said the temporary connections could allow the power to flow, but it would be less safe than a permanent connection and could put the Afghan capital of Kabul in danger of blackouts.

Potentially adding severe insult to injury, the report said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) realized the potential danger to the locals below the lines and was so distrusting of the Afghan government to operate the system responsibly that USACE officials dismantled some transmission lines and locked some vital equipment away.

“USACE officials told SIGAR that they have ethical concerns with handing over NEPS III [the power distribution project] to the Afghan government because they are aware that they are handing over an electrical system that presents life and safety hazards,” the SIGAR report said. “USACE officials expressed concern that the Afghan government would ‘flip the switch’ to energize NEPS III without first ensuring that residents currently living under the NEPS III transmission lines have vacated the land.”

SIGAR found homes and farmers living and working directly under transmission route. (SIGAR)

Sopko said his team didn’t make a judgment on whether those “ethical concerns” were justified, but he said that in this case, the U.S. government was essentially setting the Afghan government up for failure either way.

“If the Afghans take it over, they’re going to have to spend money and also have the technical capability of fixing it. And right now I’m not optimistic about that,” he said. “If you give them a poorly constructed project. You’re almost guaranteeing it’s going to fail. It’s not quite fair for the Afghans either.”

A representative for the Afghan government declined to comment for this report.

The SIGAR report included comments from the USACE, which pointedly pushed back on several of SIGAR’s complaints, and Britney Walker, public affairs officer with the USACE Afghanistan District, provided a statement to RealClearLife echoing their rosier picture of the project.

The USACE said in comments in the SIGAR report that the connection issues at the existing substations weren’t the USACE’s fault because those substations were built by other foreign governments and were outside the scope of the contract. It didn’t matter anyway, USACE said, because the temporary connections that can be used are “durable, weather resistant and anticipated to be reliable for decades.”

Photo shows one tower at the end of the line. (SIGAR)

 

In the statement, Walker said the construction of the new substation and transmission towers “was conducted in accordance with contract requirements and at an acceptable level of quality.” SIGAR photographs showing the cracks in the construction, Walker said, “do not show the soundness of the foundation and underground reinforcement” and actually showed cracks in concrete poured as an anti-theft measure.

Though the SIGAR report says the contract overseen by USACE stipulated that the Afghan government should have acquired the necessary land before the transmission lines went up, Walker said USACE made an agreement with the Afghan government as well as U.S. Forces-Afghanistan for the government to acquire the lands and for the contractor to build the towers and substation “simultaneously.” In the two weeks since the SIGAR report’s publication, the Afghan government managed to acquire the necessary land, Walker said.

Walker said the removal of the transmission lines and the locking up of equipment was simply a “safety measure” employed until the system was turned over to the Afghan government. The statement did not address the reported “ethical concerns” of the USACE officials with whom SIGAR investigators spoke.

Walker said the Afghan government, which took over the project in early February, has successfully tested the system, and the USACE understands there are plans to energize it later this month using the temporary connections.

“We appreciate SIGAR’s audits and inspections into the Afghanistan District’s efforts to build quality facilities and infrastructure in Afghanistan,” Walker said. “We consider their inquiries and reviews a healthy set of checks and balances.”

It looks like the back-and-forth between the SIGAR and USACE will be settled soon enough, assuming the Afghan government really does “flip the switch” on the distribution system. Then thousands of Afghans will find out along with American taxpayers if the $60 million project was a bright idea after all.

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.