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Building Afghanistan into Ruin

USAID fails to study the past in order to solve modern problems
Matthew J. Nasuti (Former U.S. Air Force Captain)
Sunday 1 January 2012

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USAID’s road and building construction efforts in Afghanistan continue to be so mismanaged that one could argue that USAID officials are providing aid and comfort to the enemy. The evidence for this harsh assessment comes from a seemingly endless series of audit reports that have revealed cheap, shoddily designed and poorly constructed projects. Many contractors continue to operate without any on-site supervision. Instead of being in the field supervising their projects, USAID officials refuse to leave the comfort of their offices in Kabul. Their excuse is that it is too dangerous to venture into the countryside. The Afghan countryside is safe enough for Afghans, for contractors and for U.S. troops, but not for USAID officials.

Once completed and turned over to the host country, the USAID projects almost immediately begin to decay as Afghanistan lacks the resources and skilled personnel to maintain these costly, modern structures. As a result most roadways are falling apart before they are even finished. Just one example was detailed by Alissa J. Rubin and James Risen of The New York Times, in their May 1, 2011 article: “Troubled Roadway.” They discovered that “the Gardez-Khost Highway is over budget and far from complete. Finished stretches are already falling apart and remain treacherous.” The same could be said for many of the school and other buildings the U.S. has constructed. Some schools have been declared completed even though they would be condemned if they were presented for use by American schoolchildren. To add insult to injury, huge bribes continue to be paid to the Taliban so that all this can continue. This situation is perfect for the Taliban because it is being paid not to interfere with projects that are so decrepit and counterproductive that it would not have interfered anyway.

USAID’s response to debacle after debacle has been first to ignore the problems, opting instead to herald nothing but progress. If pressed, USAID spokesmen recite the familiar bureaucratic refrain that the agency needs more resources. The problem is not a lack of resources but a failure in leadership, skill and creativity.

For some of USAID’s Afghan problems, the solutions lie in the past with old, but tried and true remedies; however USAID runs on press releases and the agency snobbishly feels that all its projects must at least appear to be state of the art. To agency political appointees, using Afghan aid on 50 or 100 year old designs is not acceptable, even though those designs include the brilliant “macadam” roads from the 1800s, and the wonderfully efficient World War II vintage Quonson Huts.

In 1816, a Scottish engineer named John Loudon McAdam oversaw the construction of a section of the Bristol Turnpike using his new invention. McAdam’s pioneered the science of mixed aggregates. After grading the route at a sufficient elevation to ensure proper drainage, he built his turnpike with only a three-inch rise from shoulder to center point. The key to the success of the road was his use of three-inch (75 millimeters) aggregate for the road base, covered by a 0.79 inch (20 millimeters) surface crust. This was one of the first scientifically engineered gravel roads. McAdam used broken angular stones, which when compressed, pushed into each other like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This process became known simply as “Macadam” roads. Later inventors would add sand and fines in order to improve the upper road surface’s adhesion, and still later coal tar was added as a binder to create “tar macadam” or Tarmac. These original concepts remain valid today. In fact, one of the latest forms of modern asphalt highways is known as “superpave.” It is based on a reanalysis of the original macadam concept.

One or more versions of the original macadam roads would have been ideal for Afghanistan, but they were apparently all rejected by USAID. USAID also rejected constructing Afghanistan’s roads with poured concrete, which was used to construct the Interstate Highway System in the United States. USAID instead selected the worse possible alternative, a cheap version of the modern asphalt roadway. We know they are cheap because most USAID roads in Afghanistan have reportedly been built for about $500,000 per kilometer, which is a fraction of the cost of building a quality roadway in the United States. Corners can be cut by eliminating grading and drainage; using low quality and poorly mixed aggregates and cutting back on the quality and thickness of the asphalt base layer and top coat. Amazingly, USAID reportedly waived all performance warranties from its road contractors. The USAID emphasis has been on quantity over quality. Even if adequate funding had been provided, modern asphalt concrete roadways are complex to construct, impossible to oversee from long distance, and they require constant maintenance and costly resurfacing, all of which are beyond the means of the present Afghan government.

The result of all this is manufactured decay. Afghanistan’s ring road and its provincial connector road system are collapsing even before they are completed. USAID is seemingly unconcerned because it obtained what it wanted, which was to tout that it completed thousands of kilometers of roads. Incredibly the war effort takes a distant second place as nothing trumps the value of a press release filled with dubious metrics.

In this July 2009 photograph, an Afghan construction crew works on a planned 17.5-mile road in Ghazni province, Afghanistan, funded by the U.S. government. After three years and $4 million, only two-thirds of a mile was paved, and U.S. officials terminated the contract in October 2011.
By SHASHANK BENGALI, McClatchy Newspapers, Published: November 11, 2011.


The United States did not always build junk. One of its greatest building successes began in 1941 at Quonset Point, Road Island, where the U.S. Navy manufactured its first Quonson Hut.

The brilliant design and utter simplicity of the Quonson Hut (which was produced in many different sizes) cannot be underestimated. It became an icon of the Second World War. Its rugged galvanized steel shell was sturdy and was made even more so by the corrugated design. The genius of combining the walls and roof helped to eliminate water leaks, eliminated snow buildups and eliminated the need for interior buttresses, which permitted a wide range of open floor plans.

Air gaps between the two layers of steel permitted the insertion of insulation for cold climates.

Quonset Hut T-Rib Model Wall Detail

The Quonson Hut design allowed for numerous alterations depending on site conditions. For example, knee-high or taller side walls could be poured using cement bonded mineralized wood fibers such as those contained in Durisol concrete. This material has an insulation “R” value of 1.75 per inch, and a pH greater than 10 so it inhibits mold. In addition, larger air gaps could be added to the walls permitting the insertion of additional rigid foam insulation and vapor barriers for wet or cold climates.

Another advantage of the Quonson Hut is that after laying the foundation or concrete slab, the Quonson Hut could be constructed in a matter of hours. Eventually an estimated 160,000 Quonson Huts were built as part of the war effort. Quonson Huts still exist across the United States. As long as their zinc-coated steel shells are kept painted, the buildings have an extensive service life.

In 2001 USAID could have embraced this reliable icon of America but it opted instead in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere to pay for more modern buildings, including modular structures. This effort produced a mix of fair to poor buildings and schools, all at a price wildly inflated compared to the frugal yet functional Quonson Hut, and all requiring periodic repairs and maintenance, which Afghanistan cannot afford.

In conclusion, a review of ten years of USAID construction efforts in Afghanistan reveals nothing complimentary. USAID has literally built Afghanistan into ruin. Five years from now there will be little to show from the billions in taxpayer dollars invested. Despite its stunning failures, USAID mission directors and country officials, who rotate in for short tours and then depart, continue to receive lavish praise and presumably promotions from their agency. USAID’s Administrator, Rajiv Shah is primarily known for giving speeches in which he praises President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and for posing for more self-promotional publicity photos than all previous USAID Administrators combined.

Even though USAID has no clothes (to coin an American phrase), few in the Administration have been willing to acknowledge the obvious because loyalty is prized above competence. The thinking is that it is better to waste billions and lose the war than to hold inept, yet loyal, officials accountable. To some in the Obama Administration failure is an option and apparently a more attractive option to acting responsibly; which is incomprehensible.

Image sources:
1. The Rajiv Shah photo: Seattle times
2. The hut covered with USA bags: technoccult.net

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