USAID is literally on the front lines around the world, together with our military and civilian partners, to advance US national security and bring stability in critical environments. In Afghanistan, over 300 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans working for USAID take risks every day to turn the tide against the insurgency and fulfill President Obama’s pledge to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.
One central aspect of the U.S. civilian-military strategy is to connect Afghans to the economy, to their government, to their neighbors, and to each other. To accomplish this, USAID has helped to build more than 1600 kilometers of roads in Afghanistan – and we have seen their tangible and transformational impact on Afghans. These roads reduce travel time, handle increased volume, and decrease transit costs. They provide income by connecting Afghans to markets for their products and to their workplaces. Businesses open along the road, personal security improves, and Afghans have much better access to schools, hospitals, and their government. These roads are not easy projects, but their benefits in security and development terms are often profound.
Today’s New York Times (May 1, 2011) carried a report about a project to build the first ever paved road between Khost and Gardez – two important population centers in the volatile East of the country near the border with Pakistan. The road, a high-priority for the U.S. military, the local population and the Afghan government, will be a high-speed, all-weather connector and will provide the provinces with economic and public access to the rest of Afghanistan. The Times story underscores the challenges in undertaking stabilization efforts in the middle of an insurgency – especially infrastructure programs that are a key aspect of our transition strategy.
Insurgents have remorselessly attacked the road to prevent the benefits the road will yield. They know that the sooner Afghanistan has a viable infrastructure, the sooner Afghans can fend for themselves and be less vulnerable to violent extremists. Nineteen people died while working on construction of the Khost-Gardez road to date and 364 security incidents have taken place since our work began. In 2008, when work on the road began, the security situation was far better than in subsequent years. That year there were 32 security incidents, and 2 people killed. By 2009, security incidents had increased ten-fold to 344 with 109 people killed. In 2010, incidents doubled again to 687 with additional 101 people killed working on our programs.
We knew the Khost-Gardez road’s construction would be hard given the territory it had to go through, but we persisted because completion of this road was central to the US civ-mil strategy Infrastructure programs are particularly vulnerable and insurgents take advantage of this through attacks and attempts at extortion.
Under all conditions, USAID takes oversight of our projects extremely seriously. And under such difficult conditions as we’ve found in Afghanistan, we’ve made oversight and accountability as much a priority as our projects themselves. Under Dr. Shah’s leadership, USAID has instituted new accountability systems to add to those already in place, such as the Agency’s Inspector General and the integral role USAID plays with military and US civilian colleagues on Task Force Shafafiyat, Task Force 2010 and Task Force Spotlight.
In the fall of 2010, USAID launched the Accountable Assistance for Afghanistan (A3) initiative. This initiative is specific to USAID and entails reducing the layers of subcontracts, tightening financial controls, enhancing project oversight, and establishing a vetting system. USAID established a Vetting Support Unit in February 2011, and we are now vetting new, non-U.S. awardees and sub-awardees working for USAID, as well as existing awards on an as-needed basis. Indeed, we used the new vetting unit to examine allegations that came to our attention in late February 2011 regarding security subcontractors on a portion of the Khost-Gardez road. Based on information not previously available to USAID, we issued the order to halt funding for one sub-contractor. Whenever credible information becomes available, regardless of the source, we take action.
Effective stewardship of taxpayer dollars is a core mission for USAID, and we ensure that the most important oversight work is performed by USAID directly. We now have hundreds of US personnel in Afghanistan, 60 percent of whom work outside Kabul, in the field, side by side with US military, the Afghan government and our civilian counterparts. In Kabul, USAID’s Infrastructure Office is a 32 person operation.
All aspects of our effort – military, diplomacy, and development – entail risk. Our staff and partners take risks in each decision they make. The only way to eliminate the risks is to cease work all together. However, development is key to President Obama’s civ-mil transition strategy in Afghanistan. Instead we have responded to risk with the increasingly strong array of safeguards we’re applying and refining to be effective in a challenging and constantly changing environment.
Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.