WASHINGTON -- A U.S. initiative to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on construction projects in Afghanistan, originally pitched as a vital tool in the military campaign against the Taliban, is running so far behind schedule that it will not yield benefits until most U.S. combat forces have departed the country, according to a report to be released today.
The report, by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, also concludes that the Afghan government will not have the money or skill to maintain many of the projects.
The resulting "expectations gap" among the population could harm overall stabilization efforts, according to the report.
"Implementing projects that the Afghan government is unable to sustain may be counterproductive" to the U.S. counterinsurgency mission, the inspector general wrote.
"If goals are set and not achieved, both the U.S. and Afghan governments can lose the populace's support."
The study calls into question a fundamental premise of the U.S. strategy to counter the Taliban insurgency -- that expensive new roads and power plants can be funded and constructed quickly enough to help turn the tide of war.
It also poses a sobering question for policy makers in Washington: whether the massive influx of American spending in Afghanistan is making problems worse.
Many U.S. military commanders, diplomats, and reconstruction experts have long believed that large infrastructure projects were essential to fixing Iraq and Afghanistan.
David Petraeus, the former top commander in both wars and now director of the CIA, used to say that cash was one of his most important weapons. But the latest report adds new weight to the argument -- voiced by independent development specialists and a few government officials -- that the United States attempted to build too much in a country with limited means to assume responsibility for those projects.
All U.S. combat forces are expected to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Until now, most critiques have asserted only that the massive U.S. foreign assistance program has led to waste and has fueled corruption. The new report suggests that some projects may prove detrimental.
In a written response to the report, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it was "speculative" for the inspector general to conclude that some of the projects would have adverse effects.
The top Pentagon official responsible for Afghanistan called the report premature and insisted that the announcement of the projects, even though they have not been completed, has generated goodwill and excitement among the Afghan people.
The examination focuses on the Afghan Infrastructure Fund, which was authorized by Congress in 2010 in part to prevent the Defense Department from dipping into a discretionary account for military commanders to bankroll large projects.
The infrastructure fund was supposed to allow the Defense and State departments to plan and pool money for large infrastructure improvements aimed at supporting the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign.
Since then, Congress has poured $800 million into the fund and the State Department has committed about $1 billion of its funds to related infrastructure programs.
Among the projects the inspector general criticized is a plan to use costly diesel generators to provide electricity to residents of Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, until the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers install a hydropower turbine at a dam in the violence-plagued hills of nearby Helmand province. Purchasing diesel to run the generators, which produce about 25 megawatts of electricity each -- enough to power about 2,500 Afghan homes or small businesses -- is projected to cost U.S. taxpayers about $220 million through 2013.
Senior U.S. commanders asserted that more power to operate lights, televisions, and fans would please residents and lead many of them to throw their support behind the Afghan government. But when U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl was the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Kandahar last year, he said he could not find evidence that the electricity was yielding greater employment, stability, or government support.
"This is a bridge to nowhere," he declared to his staff in 2011.
The report also questions whether a new $23 million road in Helmand province will have adverse effects because the Afghan government has not compensated landowners for the destruction of their property.
In addition, the report reveals that four electricity projects -- costing more than $300 million from the infrastructure fund -- have not been awarded to contractors, despite claims that they will have key counterinsurgency benefits.