The Seeds of a New Afghanistan Part II: Small Dollars, Big Impact

It’s a dry, dusty November day in eastern Afghanistan. The Indiana National Guard’s 1-19th Agribusiness Development Team rolls through insurgency-infested Khost province to quality-check a dam project in the Tani district. An elite team of 64 soldier-farmers, the ADT is working to improve agriculture in this wild Pashtun tribal region that has been targeted as a primary strategic objective of the Taliban. Team members are alert as the convoy of armored Mine Resistant and Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) moves along, wary of homemade bombs buried in the road, even under freshly paved highway. A driver calls out a massive crater near a bridge over a snaking brown river. “Fresh one,” he says. “Glad we missed that.” In earlier years of the war, proponents of road paving in Afghanistan would say, “The insurgency begins where the road ends.” But the reality on the ground quashed that adage. The Taliban quickly learned to hide improvised explosive devices under culverts and bridges, sometimes using the Afghan equivalent of heavy equipment – farm tractors – to plant bombs beneath the surface of the pavement. After the ADT arrived in Khost to start development projects, some major routes became so spiked with IEDs that authorities had to declare them “black” – off-limits to military traffic. Then the policy required convoys to include road-clearing teams to probe for mines and extra security to guard culverts. Soon it took 20 heavily armored vehicles, with air cover hovering overhead, to travel to a development site, making for ponderous quality control.But the ADT persists with its rigorous oversight program, part of the U.S. change strategy to improve the quality assurance of development projects that were often ill supervised in years past. And today, the team is happy to be traveling on a relatively permissive road, where it only takes seven $1.5 million MRAPs and dozens of security soldiers to move.They are monitoring a series of check dams being built by Afghan farmers with ADT funding and technical support. The team hydrologists designed the 87 small, piled-rock dams to slow a river that seasonally rushes down a steep mountain ravine, providing two villages with improved irrigation and reduced soil erosion. And as part of the U.S.-led coalition’s counterinsurgency strategy, the project hires military-age males, theoretically outbidding the Taliban for their services during the warm-weather fighting season. But like most development in Afghanistan, it’s a long and complicated process.The Vision and the Reality. The project began in early summer when the ADT used satellite imagery to determine that the Tani district’s seasonal streambed, or wadi, would be ideal for one of its sustainable-development projects. The team first sold the idea to the district subgovernor in a KLE, a key leader engagement, conducted in the Tani District Center, a fortified Afghan-government redoubt protected by high Hesco barriers and endless coils of shining razor wire. While the ADT force-protection soldiers formed a security perimeter around the small compound, hydrologist Sgt. Richard Joyce explained the project to the Afghan official, telling him the “picture from the sky” identified the site near the village of Shobo Khel. With the subgovernor’s approval, the team moved on to Shobo Khel, where they met with village elders in a shura (meeting). The villagers were enthusiastic, particularly about the potential for jobs. The wage of six dollars a day was magnificent pay in a country where the per-capita income is about $400 a year. The daily rate offered was roughly triple what a farm laborer typically makes. The Afghan groundwork laid, the ADT commenced the laborious funding and contracting process. The dam project utilized funds from CERP, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which initially focused on small-scale, fast-impact development, such as wells, village schools and government facilities. Originating with seized Ba’athist Party assets in Iraq, CERP funds for both Iraq and Afghanistan are now congressionally appropriated. In past years, individual CERP projects ballooned up to multimillion-dollar levels, but the directives of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has reined budgets back into their earlier parameters. A limit of $200,000 was placed on easily accessed funds, projects exceeding that figure needing higher-level approvals. Not surprisingly for farmer-soldiers, the ADT takes a long view of development in Afghanistan. The first of five teams that the Indiana National Guard has pledged to send to Khost province, members of the 1-19th often say they won’t see the fruits of their labor. Their attitude fits well with the historic reality of counterinsurgency. A RAND Corp. study of 90 post-World War II insurgencies concluded that the average length of a successful counterinsurgency is 14 years. Using U.S. dam-construction information, the ADT estimated the project would cost less than $150,000. But when 75 proposals came in from Afghan contractors, the team was surprised to see bids triple that amount. After throwing out most of the proposals for failing to meet minimum requirements, the project managers told the remaining contractors they needed to cut costs. Faced with the ADT’s fiscal determination, one of the Afghan contractors, the Taranom National Construction Co. (TNCC), decided to do the project for under the CERP limit, the final budget skidding in just below $200,000. The ADT is focused on a “small dollars, big impact” philosophy, recognizing that unfettered development spending in earlier years has contributed to inflation, fueled corruption and perhaps helped finance the Taliban. ADT commander Col. Brian Copes talked about the changes in policy and attitude: “A few years ago, the $450,000 probably would have flown.” Copes mimicked a development official: “‘$450,000, great! Gets money flowing in the country!’” Wryly, he concluded, “We taught ’em, we just didn’t know what we were teaching ’em.” As part of their bid package, TNCC provided professional engineering drawings showing crisp keystoned check dams marching down the wadi, erosion-prone banks protected by riprap. It was easy to envision happy villagers working in their well-irrigated wheat fields, their precious arable land protected from the soil-devouring spring rampage of the undammed river.But the trouble was just beginning. The team learned of a major land dispute between two feuding villages, Shobo Khel and Zenda Khel, both claiming rights to the wadi. Land disputes are a problem in Afghanistan, where three decades of war and ruptured rule of law have left a legacy of tangled property rights. Each piece of property can have three or more competing titles, often resolved only through judicial bribes or the terror of lex talionis (eye for an eye). It took numerous meetings and the intercession of the now-angry subgovernor to arrive at a shaky Solomonic compromise: each village would contribute half the workers and get half the development cornucopia.The team found construction on the TNCC project to be problematic, far worse than two other check-dam contracts they were administering in Khost. The four-month-old TNCC was one of the thousands of Afghan contracting companies formed to sop up the torrent of development money flooding into Afghanistan. Though the firm came with recommendations from earlier work with U.S. forces, the Tani project’s glitches necessitated repeated missions to the wadi to be sure TNCC had it right. “I don’t need to ever see Shobo Khel again,” ADT deputy commander Col. Cindra Chastain said in exasperation. “I must have been there 20 times. Well, 10, anyway.” In trying to mitigate corruption and the attendant skimming of development dollars, the ADT then ran smack into another grave problem: security. To prevent the contractor from absconding with the workers’ wages or using the funds for payoffs, the ADT hauled tens of thousands of dollars in Afghan currency to the job site to pay the villagers directly. But the hundreds of Afghan farmers handled the transactions on central-Asian time, taking six hours to complete the process. The team was almost finished when a giant boom reverberated through the mountains. The soldiers spun around to see a cloud of smoke over the road out of the village. An unfortunate Afghan motorcyclist had inadvertently tripped an IED set to catch the soldiers returning from their humanitarian mission. “They tried to blow us up,” Sgt. Brendan Wilczynski says succinctly.The Mission Continues. But the Tani project needs to continue. And despite the danger, it’s essential that the ADT continue its oversight. It began with an early briefing, where Sgt. Joseph Carter of the Force Protection Platoon intoned the litany of security threats: seven IEDs were found in Khost the previous day. It’s clear there is a big nest of Taliban the next village over from Shobo Khel, three kilometers away. Security just found a cache of IED material and weapons there. An informant says weapons are buried in the nearby cemetery. “It’s as bad as it can be,” Carter says. “Keep your eyes open.” With the Quality Control/Quality Assurance team climbing two or three miles up the wadi, and the security force spread over several miles, it’s important everyone know the plan. He repeats the security arrangements: who backs up whom, and where to go in an attack.  “If we’re up in the hills, the machine guns aren’t going to help us,” he reminds soldiers headed to the wadi, telling them to race back to the trucks if they encounter a threat. “If you see all the workers running one way, look for something the other way.” It’s a tense two-and-a-half hours to cover the 12 miles to the wadi. Careful with security, the convoy arrives unannounced. The team is wary while approaching the village, unsure of its reception after the previous mission’s IED. There is a collective sigh of relief as the ADT sees a pack of village boys waiting with smiles, and the turbaned elders making their way down the paths. “Oh, good – there are people here,” one grunt says. Even in the lower reaches of the wadi, workers are stacking rocks. But when the hydrology team begins climbing the steep, dry streambed, they find a built reality distinctly different from the contractor’s neat engineering drawings.In place of the taut rock check dams with keystones, there are piles of rambling rubble, some with deep notches for donkeys to use as passages. One of the security force soldiers, Spc. Malcolm Modisett, stands scowling beside one of the worst dams. “Man, you and I walking over them a couple more times are going to do ’em in,” he says. Most dramatically, rather than low riprap to protect the exposed banks and slow the current, there are now high, extraordinarily well-crafted rock walls lining the banks for almost a mile. Instead of slowing the water down with riprap, the stone walls will accelerate the flow, negating the purpose of the project. In violation of Afghan law, there’s not even an engineer on site to explain what’s happened. A local schoolmaster serves as the de-facto volunteer foreman. He says villagers fear the check dams will flood their fields beside the stream, so they built the walls instead. Without an on-site engineer, the villagers proceeded apace. After venting about the corrupt and inept contractor, the schoolmaster asks when villagers will be paid. The ADT has a dilemma: not paying the villagers for their work would be a detriment to counterinsurgency efforts in these villages, clearly wavering between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But if the project is not done correctly, it will serve as another example of development work gone wrong. Standing on the mountainside, sweating from the climb with 75 pounds of gear, team leaders huddle. First, they assure the schoolmaster that villagers will be paid for their work on the walls, though the rock check dams are designed to be somewhat porous so the water won’t flood their fields. Then they pledge to contact the contractor and get an engineer on site. And they go through the remediations that will need to happen for the next installment to be paid. And, in deference to the villagers’ fears of flooding and the mile of laboriously constructed stone walls, the ADT leaders decide to leave them. The team leaders figure that once the dams are strengthened and some of the more egregious problems repaired, the river will be slowed somewhat. There will be improved irrigation and erosion control. And maybe the villagers will feel more connected to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, rather than the Taliban.“Baby steps,” they tell one another.  Douglas Wissing has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, American Life, Forbes Life and Gray’s Sporting Journal.