THE BLOG
06/26/2013 04:33 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

How Many Afghan Hearts and Minds Do You Win When a School Collapses?

It's Not a Rhetorical Question Unfortunately...

One (of thousands) example of how we lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people was our shoddy management of the things we built. To be fair, the lack of oversight was often due to our own limited personnel (in numbers and in intellect) and the ever-worsening security situation that made getting out into the field difficult. That said, the problem was often just our own laziness and plain not caring; our bosses were satisfied with trumped-up reports of success and cared not a zot for the truth. We're repeating those same mistakes in Afghanistan, this time with potentially fatal results.

Reconstruction, the Iraq Edition

As I wrote about in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, the milk plant was a good example of how things went wrong. Leaving aside our plan to disrupt an indigenous milk production and distribution system that had worked for the Iraqis for 2,000 years in favor of a neo-Stalinist centralized way of handling things, our refrigerated storage facility was a bust. After dropping $500,000 of your tax money on a local contractor who assured us everything was A-OK, we then sent out an Iraqi engineer in our employ to verify things. He sent back a message that everything was A-OK before disappearing. Finally, after a couple of months, I got a chance to see the A-OK stuff myself. Instead of delicious refrigerated milk, I walked into a room with crooked plumbing stitched together, rusted "stainless" steel and holes in the storage tanks big enough to accommodate my chubby fingers. The contractor ripped us off, the engineer took a bribe to tell us everything was fine and the Iraqis we were supposed to be helping thought we were insane, stupid, corrupt or all of the above. No hearts and minds were won.

Reconstruction, The Afghan Edition

With such examples fresh in their minds, you'd figure the State, DoD and USAID reconstructors in Afghanistan would be doing better. If you do, you're as dumb as they are.

Our good friends at the Special Inspector General of Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; motto: We Have the Worst Jobs Ever, Please Kill Us Now) recently sent letters to the usual suspects pointing out that two schools built by the U.S. to win over hearts and minds are in danger of instead killing Afghans.

Case One is the Bathkhak School addition in the Bagrami district, Kabul province, Afghanistan. Here's what SIGAR said:

Our inspection of the Bathkhak School addition found that it has not been constructed in accordance with contract requirements. The contractor substituted building materials without prior U.S. government approval or knowledge. Furthermore, the school addition appears to have design and construction flaws. Specifically, the school's interior and exterior walls appear to be insufficiently constructed to hold the weight of the concrete ceiling. As a result, the building's structural integrity could be compromised.

Because the first U.S. government oversight visit did not take place until six months after construction started, there may be other deficiencies that cannot be seen. Our concerns are heightened by the fact that Bathkhak School is located in an area of high seismic activity. In light of these construction flaws and the distinct possibility that an earthquake resistant design was not used, we have serious concerns for the safety of the hundreds of faculty and children that will be using the classrooms at any given time.

A-OK, let's move on to Case Two:

Our inspection of the Sheberghan teacher training facility in Jawzjan province, Afghanistan found problems with the electrical, water, and sewage systems that could pose potentially serious health and safety hazards for its occupants. SIGAR inspectors found that the facility's electrical wiring does not meet the U.S. National Electrical Code -- as required by the contract -- and other problems that create potential electrocution risks and fire hazards for its occupants.

Although the facility currently does not receive power from the electrical generator provided under the contract, serious risk for its occupants are present due to improper entry into the electrical system -- known as a "tap" -- and by the improper connection to an alternative electrical power supply. In addition to the electrocution hazard, the facility currently lacks operational water and sewage systems, raising potential health issues for the building occupants.

Despite the fact that the building is still under construction, our inspectors found that the Afghans have already begun using the building. As you know, the U.S. government is still responsible for the facility's operations and maintenance and any occupational health and safety issues because the U.S. Agency for International Development has not yet transferred the facility to the Afghan government.

After twelve years in Afghanistan, this is so depressing.

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