Costly US efforts to build major infrastructure projects in Afghanistan are running far behind schedule, and may fall short of counter-insurgency goals central to the US military campaign there, a government watchdog has warned.
Almost $400m in power grid, roads and other construction projects from fiscal 2011 "may not achieve the desired COIN effects," the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said.
The COIN acronym refers to the military strategy, credited with helping turn around the war in Iraq, that is now a mainstay of the Pentagon's bid to weaken the Afghan Taliban.
With the strategy, the counter-insurgency campaign depends on winning the local populace's backing, turning it away from the fighters.
"In some instances, these projects may result in adverse COIN effects because they create an expectations gap among the affected population or lack citizen support," the inspector general said of activities under the Afghanistan Infrastructure Project (AIP), jointly backed by the US defence and state departments and carried out by the US Agency for International Development.
SIGAR found that procurement and funding delays - from many sources including poor security, personnel changes, faulty cost estimates and slow transfer of funds between government agencies - had put five of seven projects from fiscal 2011 six to fifteen months behind schedule.
"And most projects may not achieve desired COIN benefits for several years," SIGAR said.
The report comes as the Obama administration pushes ahead with its gradual exit from Afghanistan, where the Taliban remains a dire threat after more than a decade of US and NATO efforts to defeat it.
Equally daunting, as NATO nations plan the removal of most troops by the end of 2014, is the challenge of making sure that billions of dollars in aid since 2001 makes a permanent, positive mark.
While donor nations are pledging to give $16bn in development aid through 2015, annual Western assistance is already shrinking. US assistance peaked in 2010.
The AIP is a US effort to provide better roads, power grids and water supplies for Afghans, in part to erode support for the Taliban and its allies, who have deep roots in much of the Afghan south and east.
The report also found that the projects could remain uncompleted or fall into disrepair because officials had not properly arranged for future maintenance and funding, or because they planned to rely on Afghan government agencies of "questionable capacity".
"The success and viability of many ... projects hinge, in part, on unidentified, unfunded infrastructure projects and the successful, timely completion of other projects that the US government has been unable to complete for more than 7 years," SIGAR said.
Widespread public corruption remains a major concern in Afghanistan even as President Hamid Karzai promises outside
donors he will crack down on fraud.
In its response, the defence department said that SIGAR's study revealed "a clear lack of understanding of US counterinsurgency doctrine" and failed to note that Afghans might rally around a building project long before it was finished.
"Clearly, if dashed hopes can produce adverse effects, then that very hope produces positive COIN effects in advance of project implementation," it said.