Roads, canals and schools built in Afghanistan as part of a special U.S. military program are crumbling under Afghan stewardship, despite steps imposed over the past year to ensure that reconstruction money is not being wasted, according to government reports and interviews with military and civilian personnel.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan have spent $2 billion over six years on 16,000 humanitarian projects through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which gives a battalion-level commander the power to treat aid dollars as ammunition.
In the spring of 2008, Gen. David H. Petraeus decided he had spent enough time gazing from his helicopter at an empty and desolate lake on the banks of the Tigris River. He ordered the lake refilled and turned into a water park for all of Baghdad to enjoy.
The military doctrine behind the project holds that cash can be as effective as bullets. Under Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq at the time, that principle gained unprecedented emphasis, and it has become a cornerstone of the war effort in Afghanistan, now under Petraeus’s command.
But today the Baghdad park is nearly waterless, more than two years after a U.S. military inauguration ceremony that included a marching band and water-scooter rides. Much of the compound is in ruins, swing sets have become piles of twisted steel, and the personal watercraft’s engines have been gutted for spare parts.
The troubled history of the venture speaks to the limitations and mishandling of a program that has provided U.S. military commanders with $5 billion for projects in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past six years. The program has given officers enormous flexibility to address urgent needs with few bureaucratic hassles.