TURMAI, Afghanistan, Nov. 2 - Islamuddin Ahmadiyar, a 22-year-old student, remembers the excitement in this dusty farming hamlet in central Afghanistan when American contractors broke ground two years ago.
A one-story, 12-room health clinic, nestled between apple and mulberry tree groves, was to replace the mud hut where the village’s lone doctor labored through Afghanistan’s quarter-century nightmare of Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule.
But the clinic remains an unfinished shell, one of 96 American-financed clinics and schools that a New Jersey-based company was supposed to build by September 2004. To date, nine clinics and two schools have been completed and passed inspection, according to the company.
The company, the Louis Berger Group, says progress has been slowed by the requirement to use Afghan construction companies, forcing it to hunt, sometimes vainly, for those that can work fast and to high standards. A design flaw is also forcing it to replace or strengthen the roofs of 89 of the buildings.
"If you play just the numbers game, we’re going to look bad, no doubt about it," said Thomas Nicastro, a Louis Berger vice president. "But if you look at this as a development issue, then you have an understanding of what we’re trying to do."
Four years after American-led forces ousted the Taliban, the United States has spent $1.3 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan, intending to win over Afghans with tangible signs of progress. And indeed, there are some. But to Afghans, the Turmai clinic is emblematic of what they see as a wasteful, slow-moving effort that benefits foreigners far more than themselves. "The aid that comes from other countries for the Afghan people, it’s not going to the Afghan people," said Mr. Ahmadiyar. "It’s being wasted."
The stakes are enormous. Afghans, famed for briefly tolerating and then viciously turning on occupiers from the British in the 19th century to the Soviets in the 1980’s, are increasingly disenchanted with the American-led reconstruction program.
Meanwhile, the United States hopes to withdraw 4,000 soldiers from the country’s south next spring; a drop in overall foreign aid is expected; and Taliban attacks are rising. So both Afghan officials and foreign diplomats are assessing what has been achieved during the past four years, and many are disturbed by what they see.
Government ministers here say that the foreign consultants and contractors the Americans pay for are producing shoddy work and achieving little - though charging dearly.
"Assistance is coming to Afghanistan, but we don’t know how it is spent, where it is spent," said Amin Farhang, the Afghan minister of economy, who oversees foreign assistance programs.
And a July report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, sharply criticized the American reconstruction effort and the department leading it, the United States Agency for International Development. It said inconsistent financing, severe staff shortages and a lack of oversight slowed the efforts.
"We really need to reform the external assistance in this country," said Jean Mazurelle, the World Bank manager in Afghanistan. "We are not in the position to provide the result on the ground that the people of this country are expecting."
Alonzo Fulgham, A.I.D.’s mission director in Kabul, said much progress had been made, citing two national elections, sharply improved health care and five times as many children in school, including 1.6 million girls. He dismissed criticism, saying that under dangerous conditions the agency had produced strong oversight, planning and achievements. He said American programs had built or refurbished 312 schools and 338 clinics, and constructed 500 miles of asphalt road and resurfaced another 500 miles. He said major progress had been made despite Taliban attacks that have killed 80 people working on agency projects, most of them Afghans.
The head of A.I.D. in Washington, Andrew Natsios, also defended his agency, which leads the American nation-building efforts in Iraq as well. But he noted that the agency’s spending had doubled since 2000 to $14 billion, while its staff of 2,300 had grown by only 100.
Until this year, the A.I.D. office in Kabul suffered severe personnel shortages that limited its ability to monitor contractors, according to the G.A.O. report. The agency went from 12 staff members in Kabul in 2002 to 39 in 2003, 101 in 2004 and 160 this year, with 35 in outlying provinces. The report said the mission managed $11.2 million per staff member in 2004, while worldwide, the norm is $1.3 million.
The reconstruction effort also began slowly. The United States spent $214 million on that in fiscal 2002 and 2003, and then began an "accelerating success" initiative to produce more visible achievements before Afghan and American presidential elections in the fall of 2004. Reconstruction spending increased to $1.1 billion in fiscal 2004 and 2005. In Iraq, the United States has spent $9 billion on reconstruction. President Hamid Karzai and his top ministers, who now will have to answer to Parliament as well as the public, are calling for stricter oversight over all and greater government control of reconstruction money.
While Afghans remain grateful, they argue that much more could have been achieved. "This golden period has also been this massive waste period," said Jawed Ludin, Mr. Karzai’s chief of staff. "The efficiency has to be increased."
Slow Gains Cause Rancor
The discontent was reflected in the elections last month, according to Western diplomats and analysts. Ramazan Bashardost, a demagogic former minister who bitterly, and often falsely, accused "a mafia" of foreigners and government officials of pocketing vast amounts of reconstruction funds, was elected to Parliament with the third highest vote total in Kabul.
Seated this week outside the modest tent that served as his campaign headquarters, the populist vowed to start a formal investigation when the new Parliament sits next month. "From the tax money of Americans, these people are living like kings," Mr. Bashardost said. "This money is donated so that it should be given to the hungry people of Afghanistan."
At the unfinished health clinic in Turmai, Mr. Ahmadiyar and other college students smiled when asked when they thought the building would open. "Probably another three years," he said, and laughed.
In 2002 and 2003, profit-making companies won five of six major A.I.D. contracts in education, legal reform, agriculture, economic governance and infrastructure.
Louis Berger, an engineering consulting company with 3,000 employees worldwide and extensive construction experience in developing countries, won the largest: a sweeping contract, eventually worth $665 million, to build schools, health clinics, roads and power systems.
In April 2003, after President Bush promised a new highway to link Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar by the end of the year, A.I.D. officials directed Louis Berger to focus on the road.
The urgency doubled costs, according to the Government Accountability Office report. Louis Berger hired Turkish and Indian road construction companies. Taliban attacks killed several employees and guards. At a final cost of roughly $1 million per mile, the road was completed on schedule.
The company’s school and clinic program, meanwhile, progressed slowly.
Mr. Nicastro of Louis Berger said the company and the aid agency decided to build California-standard earthquake-resistant schools and clinics, at a cost of $174,000 for a school and $133,000 for a clinic. It struggled to find Afghan companies that could build to its specifications.
Officials from one nonprofit organization, which builds A.I.D.-approved schools for roughly $150,000 and clinics for $85,000, said the Louis Berger designs were more complex than necessary.
Louis Berger initially proposed building prefabricated school buildings, a company official said, but aid agency officials rejected the idea because it would not help develop an Afghan construction industry.
"Part of the mission was to build Afghan construction capability," said Larry Walker, a vice president. "By the time we finish, there will be eight Afghan construction firms that are able to do international-quality construction."
The company subcontracted the construction of the Turmai clinic to a local company. That company, villagers said, passed the work on to another Afghan company. Neither subcontractor could be reached for comment.
The second began work but cut corners, using four reinforcing beams instead of six, putting sand under the floor in some places instead of concrete and building doors out of chipboard instead of wood, according to villagers. That company failed to pay local workers for months.
Mohammed Ali, a 40-year-old security guard and father of six who had not been paid for half a year, said American employees of Louis Berger visited the site at least three times. Inspectors contracted by A.I.D. visited weekly, he said. All companies made their profit, he said, but no one seemed to ensure that the clinic would be properly built.
"Everyone is doing their reports," he said. "They don’t care about what they should actually be doing here."
Louis Berger officials said they maintained strict oversight over all their projects and have fired 3 of 11 Afghans subcontractors for poor quality work and other problems.
Last month Louis Berger hired Afghans to finish the clinic and said it would pay the additional costs itself. The company said all 96 of its contracted buildings would be done by the end of the year.
As for the faulty roof design, Louis Berger officials blamed an American subcontractor who they declined to name, saying they were pursuing damages. They said Louis Berger would pay the $3 million costs of strengthening or replacing the 89 roofs.
Mr. Fulgham, the A.I.D. director in Kabul, defended Louis Berger’s work, saying that finding qualified contractors was difficult and that its road construction was successful. "It’s very easy to look back and be a Monday morning quarterback," he said. "But I think they answered the call."
The five nonprofit groups also building schools for A.I.D. have also struggled to find skilled contactors and experienced delays, aid agency officials said, though none as severe as Louis Berger. Development groups with long experience in Afghanistan said Louis Berger’s experience showed that large foreign contractors may not be the best choice to build in difficult places like Afghanistan, where intensive supervision is an absolute necessity. One, Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, said it had built 16 health clinics in the northern province of Kunduz on time, while the 16 that were to be built in the same province by Louis Berger remain unfinished four months after the deadline.
Consultants and Criticism
Louis Berger is not the only company that has drawn criticism. Bearing Point, formerly KPMG Pete Marwick, won an aid agency contract to "improve economic governance" in the Afghan Finance Ministry and Central Bank and other ministries. The contract eventually grew to be worth $98 million.
The company, based in McLean, Va., put roughly 50 foreign advisers to work in the bank and ministries in 2003 and 2004. Bearing Point and A.I.D. officials declined to give the cost, but Afghanistan’s current finance minister said it was $500,000 a year for each consultant, roughly $150,000 for a consultant’s salary and the rest to cover living expenses and security, and the company’s overhead and profit.
Complaining that the consultants were too numerous and too expensive, and sometimes less effective than expected, Afghan officials tried to terminate the contract in 2004, according to the G.A.O. report. But A.I.D. said the consultants were performing well, and Bearing Point remained.
Anwar ul Haq Ahadi, the finance minister (on leave from Providence College in Rhode Island, where he is a professor), cut the number of his Bearing Point advisers roughly in half this year, to 27.
"There were some advisers I don’t think were terribly necessary," said Mr. Ahadi. "In some cases, the positions were not necessary, and in other cases they were not the strongest professionals."
Rob Hager, an American lawyer and former Bearing Point consultant who now works for the Asian Development Bank in Kabul, agreed that some consultants were subpar. He said A.I.D. should be far more stringent and confrontational with contractors in Afghanistan. "They can put in any bozo," said Mr. Hager. "Pay them what they want and make their profit."
Lori Bittner, a managing director for Bearing Point, declined to state the company’s fees, but said they were commensurate with those of other consulting companies. She said that Afghan officials approved the number of consultants and that they had helped introduce a new currency, attracted 12 commercial banks and issued licenses to cellphone companies.
"Many of them have been with Bearing Point for 5 to 10 years and have worked in many countries," she said. "They are individuals that know how to build a government, and revamp a government and give advice."
Some members of Congress say an understaffed A.I.D., which has shrunk from a height of 13,000 during the Vietnam War, has become far too reliant on large construction companies and Washington-based consulting firms to carry out its development programs. "Usaid increasingly is becoming a check-writing agency," said Tim Rieser, an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. "We have to address the agency’s staffing shortage in the context of designing and implementing effective programs."
Eager to blunt Afghan frustration, Mr. Karzai has ordered his ministers to tour the provinces and inspect reconstruction projects.
Mr. Farhang, the economy minister, said he had used government pressure to force contractors to redo inferior work on two roads and a dozen schools.
"The important thing is to have supervision, otherwise we will lose money," he said. "In the end, it is the Parliament and the Afghan people who will ask me and the other ministers what we did and where the money was spent."
David Rohde reported from Turmai for this article, and Carlotta Gall from Kabul.