“De-scoping” Afghanistan

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On Sunday McClatchy dropped its months-long investigation of U.S. construction projects in Afghanistan. The picture is not pretty and an unsettling metaphor for the nine-year war effort emerges:

A McClatchy investigation has found that since January 2008, nearly $200 million in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers construction projects in Afghanistan have failed, face serious delays or resulted in subpar work. Poor recordkeeping made it impossible for McClatchy to determine the value of faulty projects before then. The military tries to recover part of a project’s cost, but in many cases, the funds were already spent.

The investigation also found that:

  • In a rush to award contracts to Afghan companies, the Corps accepts bids that don’t cover the cost of a project, including the expense of security and a contractor’s profit.
  • Rather than scrap a project that’s failing, the government sometimes rewrites the contract to require only the work that’s been done and declares the effort a success. The process is called “de-scoping.”
  • At the same time, a vast majority of the companies that McClatchy found were doing shoddy work haven’t been banned from getting new U.S. contracts, according to government records. U.S. taxpayer dollars also continue to go to firms whose true ownership is hard to determine, making it difficult to hold anyone accountable.

Despite these challenges, the Corps’ work in Afghanistan is set to more than double in the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, to nearly $2 billion from $900 million in the northern half of Afghanistan alone, according to a recent presentation by Army Col. Thomas Magness, the commander of the Afghanistan Engineer District-North.

Re-writing expectations to meet disappointing results seems an uncomfortable but apt analogy for a project whose aims have steadily diminished since Bush first launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001. Watch for “de-scoping” in the December review of the war effort in Afghanistan.

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