The Ring Road: A Gift Afghanistan Cannot Afford
For Afghanistan, the United States opted to build cheap asphalt roads. Maintenance costs are expected to cost the Afghan government more than $1 billion every five years.
Tuesday 29 September 2009, by
By: Matthew J. Nasuti. Mr. Nasuti was a Deputy City Attorney for Los Angeles and a U.S. Air Force Captain with Air Force Logistics Command. He helped oversee the construction of Comiso Air Station in Sicily. He then served as a contracts manager and later consultant to Bechtel Corporation, the world’s largest construction company. Mr. Nasuti is recognized by the U.S. State Department as an expert in reconstruction. It hired him last year as a Senior City Management Advisor to one of its Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq.
The 3,000 kilometer Ring Road connecting Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and back to Kabul could be an excellent idea, if Afghanistan were at peace, if the Ring Road had been properly constructed (using 100% grant funds) and if project funds were not being diverted to the Taliban. Since none of these factors are present, this project, one of the most ambitious and costly American aid project in decades, should never have been proposed.
As will be detailed in this article, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), by this end of this year, will be saddling the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with a costly and crumbling dinosaur of a road system.
USAID does not publicize it, but maintenance costs for the Ring Road
are expected to cost the Afghan government more than $1 billion every five years.
This for a government whose total annual budget is slightly over $7 billion. The Ring Road is an extravagance being built to spur trade and please donor countries and to speed American troop movements. It, instead, will spur imports of luxury goods that benefit the rich; it will suck financial capital out of the country; it will provide the Taliban with a constant flow of revenue and it is already being used by criminal organizations, who can move goods and people more freely throughout the country. While American aid is supposed to do good, at a minimum it should not cause harm to the host country, yet that is what has happened and continues to occur in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, for decades, has had a ring road which circles the country. Some sections were dirt or gravel, while others were asphalt-covered. Due to the presence of numerous connector and secondary roads, there appears to be no agreement as to its exact overall length, with estimates running from 3,097 to 3,256 kilometers. Over the past eight years, a coalition of donor agencies, banks and governments have financed or loaned billions of dollars to pave the entire Ring Road, with an estimated completion date of December 2009. These efforts are being led by the United States.
In 2008, U.S. military officials told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the roads are primarily for military purposes.
“They are central to their strategy of deploying ‘rapid-reaction’ forces overland for counterinsurgency operations.” (see Eurasia.Net’s report of 5/03/08 by Ron Synovitz)
A 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Report (GAO-09-473SP) revealed that aid donors have been advocating the Ring Road and other road projects as a means of spurring trade. USAID-Kabul Mission Director William Frej, in his country page for Afghanistan, states that the road projects will “facilitate regional trade.” These donors have an agenda that is not necessarily beneficial to Afghanistan. The problem with their approach is that, at this stage of Afghanistan’s development, aid projects should be geared towards helping the country feed, care for, defend and educate its people, rather than to emphasize fostering regional trade, encouraging imports of luxury and other goods, and generating foreign currency, which primarily benefits the rich of Afghanistan and the donor countries.
USAID, the World Bank, the IMF and other lenders view Afghan national development under the misleading prism of import and export statistics, currency reserves, Gross National Product, interest rates, etc, which should not be used in the planning of one of the world’s poorest country. The United Nations’ World Food Program reports that for the period 2007-2008, 7.4 million Afghans (nearly a third of the population) are unable to obtain enough food to live “active, healthy lives.” Another 8.5 million are at the borderline of food insecurity. In the face of this data, USAID’s priorities in Afghanistan continue to be baffling. USAID’s primary concern appears to be the increase of imports and exports and not investment in domestic agriculture. Military, security and road expenditures account for over two-thirds of all aid dollars, while supports for agriculture accounts for less than 5% of all U.S. aid dollars.
In the July-August 2008 issue of American magazine Foreign Affairs Journal, in an article entitled “PRTs in Afghanistan: A report from the inside” it was emphasized that: “Each road brings development and security.”
This is not necessarily accurate. For example, after eight years of reconstruction, according to USAID, less than 15% of Afghans have access to electricity [and those who do, usually are limited to a few hours of electricity per day]. Roads, by themselves, do not ensure that basic government services are extended to those along its path.
In June 2009, Major-General Michael Tucker, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations of ISAF in Kabul, made an astonishing admission to the Asia Times. He said that:
“Security in Afghanistan is ultimately defined by our ability to build and defend the ring road.” (Afghanistan’s Road to Somewhere, by Philip Smucker, June 20, 2009 - Asia Times)
NATO’s position is that once the Ring Road is rebuilt and labeled as essential to Afghanistan’s economic future, all 3,000 kilometers will have to be defended. Neither the American Congress nor the American people have been told that NATO’s metric for success in Afghanistan is its ability to defend the entire Ring Road. This is an incredible statement by General Tucker. If the statement is true, it is a gift to the Taliban. It gives the Taliban the much easier job of disrupting traffic and to NATO an almost impossible task of protecting 3,000 kilometers of roadway, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in 2007, referred to the Kabul/Kandahar portion of the Ring Road as the “Highway to Hell” due to the lack of security on the roadway. If NATO’s assessment is as General Tucker represents, then the war is already lost.
The current American Ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, in 2006, created his own jingle to explain the importance of the American road building effort in Afghanistan:
“Where the roads ends, the Taliban begins.”
It is set forth in the Official Trip Report of U.S. Senator Jack Reed, based on his October 3-9, 2006 visit to Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is not clear if Ambassador Eikenberry was literally referring to the roads or was using them as a euphemism for government services. Regardless, this silly jingle is simply nonsense. First of all, there are many areas of Afghanistan’s North and West where there are no roads and also no Taliban influence. Second, the Taliban seem strongest in Kandahar City and even in Kabul. The presence or absence of military roads, appears to be irrelevant to the issue of Taliban control.
The Taliban, far from being opposed to roadways, made stunningly effective use of them in 1996 when they were able to move forces faster and strike quicker due to their effective use of Afghanistan’s roadways.
Time Magazine’s Aryn Baker (September 7, 2009) and Jean MacKenzie of GlobalPost in her September 2, 2009 report entitled: “Are U.S. Taxpayers Funding the Taliban?”
Both reported that the Taliban are quite happy with the Ring Road and other roads as they have been busy extorting huge sums of money from contractors working on the road system. The Taliban is not a group of rural peasants who only thrive in remote locations not reached by roadways. It is disturbing to think that Ambassador Eikenberry may actually believe his little jingle about where Taliban control actually begins.
In October 2006, Eikenberry told U.S. Senator Jack Reed that Gulbuddin Hekmatyr and Jalaluddin Haqqani are “not ideologically driven,” despite their membership in Hizb-e Islami and their association with Usama bin Laden. In his May 2, 2006 interview with Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society, Eikenberry stated: “I’m very comfortable with the level of military effort we have in Afghanistan.”
Eikenberry was either unaware of the actual security situation on the ground or he was simply repeating a Pentagon talking point which he knew to be inaccurate. It is not clear which is worse.
A review of Ring Road funding reveals a mix of grants and loans being used for financing. Most of the loans to the Afghan government appear to have been issued by the Asian Development Bank. Pushing the Afghan government into debt in order to borrow money to finance a road system that it does not need is senseless.
With regard to the road construction program, USAID repeatedly boasts of having constructed or renovated 2,700 kilometers of roads in Afghanistan. The quality of this work is virtually never discussed, nor is the cost of the maintenance nightmare that these roads impose on the Afghan Government.
In June 2005, USAID hired the Louis Berger Group to repair and repave one good (show) road in Afghanistan. It is the 2.83 kilometer long road from Kabul city to the Kabul airport and it was completed in April 2006. It is called the Bibi Mahro Road. Instead of costing $500,000 per kilometer (as most other USAID asphalt roads in Afghanistan cost), it cost between $1.6 and $2.4 million per kilometer. The $1.6 figure is from USAID, while the $2.4 number came from informants to Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA)]. Total project costs were reportedly in excess of $7 million.
The Bibi Mahro Road is Afghanistan’s Potemkin Village road.
As most donors never leave the Kabul area, the idea appears to be to impress them with an example of road quality not seen anywhere else in the country. The IWA/TIRI (London) report on the Bibi Mahro Road, entitled “Afghan Road Reconstruction” (2007), was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and can be viewed at the TIRI web site. It includes wildly optimistic Louis Berger artist impressions of the future airport road; impressions which are designed to attract investors.
IWA/TIRI also reports that most Afghan district roads are being paved only with what is called a Base Surface Treatment (BST) of asphalt.
IWA calculates that the life expectancy of these District roads is only three years.
This is consistent with data from the U.S. Department of Defense. DoD United Facilities Criteria 3-270-01 states that BST is only appropriate for “light-traffic roads.” The Government of the Yukon Province in Canada has 1800 kilometers of remote territorial highways constructed with BST. Its official website states that:
“In order to maintain an acceptable level of service (even for light traffic areas) these highway systems need continual rejuvenation requiring significant expenditures of maintenance dollars.”
What USAID does not release in its press statements are the “life-cycle” costs of America’s gifts to Afghanistan. In road construction, one can generally build dirt, gravel, asphalt or concrete roads. In the late 1950’s, the United States decided to build its national highway system and opted for poured concrete paving. Many of those roads still exist today, in their original condition.
For Afghanistan, the United States opted to build cheap asphalt roads.
Asphalt roads can be build for about one-third the capital costs of poured concrete roads, but they require repaving at least once every five years, at an estimated cost of $200,000 per kilometer. Another way of estimating is to assume two inches of asphalt installed at a cost of $2 per square foot. This $200,000 does not include routine annual maintenance, seal coatings, repairs and other costs. The maintenance costs for a 3,000 kilometer ring road, along with thousands of kilometers of secondary and District roads, amounts to about a billion dollars that the Afghan government will have to spend every five years. This, in a country where the total annual government budget is just over $7 billion. It is an unconscionable and unnecessary burden to place on Afghanistan.
American aid, as managed by USAID, is as destructive to Afghanistan’s future as is the Taliban.
This information should all be contained in a USAID asset management plan for the Afghan roadways, but there is no evidence that USAID ever prepared such a plan.
A review of the USAID project to reconstruct one portion of the Ring Road (i.e., the 389 kilometer Kabul to Kandahar roadway in 2003 - Phase 1) reveals that the goal was to employ only one layer of asphalt treated base on the roadway. A later phase would add more layers and shoulders. The USAID 12/14/2003 press release states that the highway is being build to the same standards used in the United States, but that is not true. Just one example is that American highway lanes are built twelve-feet wide, which is not what was proposed for the Ring Road.
It is difficult to assess the quality of USAID road projects as the agency does not provide any comprehensive data in its Weekly Road Reports on the actual quality of the road sections being constructed. While USAID states that the average cost of its asphalt roads in Afghanistan is about $500,000 per kilometer, the average in China, Europe and the United States ranges from $3 million to $6 million. The average cost of road construction in Washington, D.C. in 2002 was $6.1 million per kilometer. While there is cheaper labor in Afghanistan, labor costs per kilometer are a tiny part of the cost. Roadway costs should be higher in Afghanistan due to the need to ship equipment, machinery and asphalt into the country and due to the costs of security details.
USAID has never explained why Afghanistan’s roads are so cheap to build.
This leaves the obvious impression that they are cheap because they are substandard. It is not just an impression. The CorpWatch report entitled “Afghanistan, Inc.” by Fariba Nawa reports that the 2004 Shibergan Highway in Jawzjan is already crumbling. James Warden of Stars and Stripes, in his 24 April 2009 article reported that USAID is beginning (after eight years) to use standardized contracts in order to improve the quality of its road projects. These are all bad omens for Afghanistan.
To-date, there have apparently not been any overall audits of road quality. Limited audits by USAID have found that Lewis Berger Group (LBG) applied 20% less asphalt on portions of the Kabul to Kandahar road than is set forth in the contract, yet LBG continues to be a favored USAID contractor. There are reports of asphalt roads having to be torn up and repaved and numerous other deficiencies. USAID reported in May 2009 that it had to resurface portions of the Ring Road due to (Afghan Government) neglect.
Everyone seems to have their hand in the till, to use an American expression for corruption. For example, the United Nations Office of Project Support (UNOPS) provides an additional and unnecessary layer of management advice to USAID’s road projects, and bills it a significant fee to cover overhead. Likewise, according to the September 2, 2009 report by Jean MacKenzie of GlobalPost, the Taliban obtain their 15-20% protection fee for many contracts.
The UNOPS website is worth visiting. It claims to be using American aid money for the Afghan Conservation Corps and claims to be managing 350 subprojects throughout Afghanistan. It boasts that these projects have provided 400,000 labor-hours of employment to local Afghans. The problem is that if one divides that number by 300 days, it reveals that these 350 projects are only employing about 1,300 Afghans full time, or about four people per project. UNOPS may be billing more in management fees than it is paying Afghans in salaries. See the March 28, 2009 report by Robert Maier, in the Kabul Press, on embezzlement by the former UNOPS Administrator in Kabul. On its face, UNOPS is an expense that Afghanistan cannot afford.
The American road construction projects are important to audit because their flaws are a reflection of deficiencies present in the entire American effort. Roadway construction standards are being waived by American officials, who would not do so for roads constructed in the United States. Likewise, it appears that warranties have also been waived. For example, in Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom, five year performance warranties for road construction are the norm (see the U.S. Federal Highway Administration Report - FHWA-PL-04-002), yet these appear to be absent in contracts for Afghanistan. The overall quantity of roads constructed seems to be more important than the quality. Capital costs are conserved by USAID, with the result being that the Afghan Government will have to pay excessive and unnecessary operation and maintenance costs, which will continue indefinitely.
The road effort is a two-edged sword. Where roads are constructed, they may or may not bring with them an increase in government services. What they do bring are potential increases in violence as they open areas up for surging U.S. and NATO forces. Jackie Northam of National Public Radio, in her September 25, 2009 report from Afghanistan, concludes that
“. . . there are no paved road networks in many parts of Nuristan. The
U.S. military has built roads in some of the neighboring provinces, but
faced resistance in Nuristan, where many communities want to remain
isolated as part of a defense strategy: They don’t want strangers coming
into their area. “
The roads also open areas up to penetration by criminal elements and they create targets that are inviting for the Taliban to either tax or attack. Finally, the road effort consumes vast amounts of aid dollars, which should instead be going into repairing irrigations systems and other agricultural support projects. 80% of Afghans work in or are connected to Afghanistan’s farms and farming.
In the midst of this debacle, the U.S. Embassy, USAID and the Pentagon rotate new managers in each year with praise for each departing manager. USAID’s Mission Director in Kabul (Michael Yates) was interviewed by USA Today’s Ken Dilanian for a February 2, 2009 article entitled: “Audits: Afghan Aid Lacks Accountability.” Mr. Yates was quoted as stating that the $7.9 billion that his agency spent in Afghanistan since 2002 has produced “Remarkably powerful impacts in health, education, agriculture and more.” The evidence in support of this extravagant claim is lacking. The fact is that anytime someone spends eight billion dollars, there will be some impact.
Even a trained monkey could accomplish some good with eight billion dollars. All the evidence is that the USAID results are grossly inadequate compared to the funds spent.
The U.S. Government continues to blindly pour tax dollars into Afghanistan. It does not have the benefit of timely or quality audit reports, and what dismal work products are provided are politically censored, such that responsible American officials are never identified, let alone disciplined. No one is held accountable for the waste of American taxpayer funds, the poor planning, inadequate staffing, mismanagement, lack of oversight and overall gross negligence, therefore nothing is ever corrected.
The American Government has turned to the so-called Washington, D.C. Beltway think-tanks for assistance (i.e., the Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, Hoover Institute etc.), but they are of little value because they are too closely tied to the American Government through contracts, advisory panels and through revolving door employees. They will never challenge fundamental agency strategies and plans, nor would they ever demand the removal of culpable agency officials.
This report only scratches the surface regarding the present problems. Neither the author, the American people nor the U.S. Congress has access to all the necessary facts. Bad news seems to have great difficulty finding its way into USAID press releases and into Administration reports to Congress. Bad news seems to be disclosed only when it serves a political purpose, such as when it is needed as part of a fear campaign to sell the need for more troops. Overall, the American effort lacks vigor, flexibility and transparency.
Based on my experience, most senior officials of the Foreign Service do not support the wars either in Iraq or Afghanistan. They did not join the Foreign Service to fight al-Qaeda and they will not do so. This bureaucracy frustrated the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will do the same to the Obama Administration. It is a bureaucracy that never functions faster than first gear. The aid program cannot be put back on track by simply modifying policies and procedures. Fundamental changes in Foreign Service, Senior Executive Service and Inspector General personnel are necessary in order to kick-start the American aid effort in Afghanistan.