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U.S. risks wasting billions in Afghan reconstruction: watchdog

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WASHINGTON — Millions of dollars in US funds have been lost due to poor planning and workmanship in projects to help rebuild Afghanistan and billions more could be at risk, according to a US watchdog.

The report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan, John Sopko, warned that handing over security to Afghan forces as the US withdraws its troops would also likely cause the costs of US-funded aid schemes to balloon.

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“The United States risks wasting billions of dollars if US-funded development programs cannot be sustained, either by the Afghan government or by continued donor support,” said the report released on Monday.

“As this report to Congress illustrates, a decade of struggle and bloodshed — and more than $89 billion of US appropriations for Afghan reconstruction — has not cleared the landscape of serious problems,” Sopko wrote.

He added that a “significant portion of the US government’s $400 million investment in large-scale infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2011 may be wasted, due to weaknesses in planning, coordination and execution.”

The report comes as NATO countries, led by the United States, have already started to withdraw the remaining 130,000 troops after more than 10 years of war, with all combat forces due to have left by the end of 2014.

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And it warns that handing over security to Afghan forces will likely incur greater costs at construction sites.

Audits of various projects taking place across the country found significant construction problems and flaws.

“The US Army accepted contract construction that is so poor it prevents some multimillion-dollar border police bases from being used as intended,” the report noted.

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Three police border posts in eastern Nangarhar province were found to have major construction faults, including poorly-built guard towers, unconnected drains and badly-installed heating and ventilation systems.

“These problems included the lack of a viable water supply, a poorly constructed septic system, and inadequate sewage,” the report said, adding nothing has been repaired as there is no effective quality assurance in place.

The basement of one of the buildings was now being used as a chicken coop, it added.

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The analysis examines the Afghan Infrastructure Fund, which was authorized by Congress in 2010. Over the past two years, Congress has invested $800 million into the fund, and the State Department has committed about $1 billion of its funds to related infrastructure programs.

Following complaints about shoddy workmanship, there had been arrests and charges brought in both the United States and Afghanistan and more than $900,000 had been recovered.

Several contracts were also withdrawn when poor contractors were uncovered, leading to the protection of some $50 million in contract funds. Two people had been convicted, one of theft and conspiracy.

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If US lawmakers approve a request from US President Barack Obama for new reconstruction funding, the United States will have provided nearly $100 billion since the 2002 US-led invasion to rebuilding Afghanistan.

That is several times more than the $35 billion, in 2011 terms, invested in Europe after World War II, the report said.

“Using that money effectively to improve security, governance, and socioeconomic development in Afghanistan poses tremendous challenges,” Sopko wrote.

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“In the face of serious uncertainties about project sustainability, the need for sharp and effective oversight grows more critical.”

Sopko vowed his office would step up its oversight, saying security and sustainability were the biggest challenges for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

“Many billions of dollars of US investments in Afghanistan may be wasted without arrangements to ensure that the Afghans have adequate personnel, skills, access to technology, funding, and planning and oversight mechanisms to sustain them,” he warned.

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