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Afghanistan war: How USAID loses hearts and minds

One battle in the other Afghanistan war: How a mismanaged $60 million USAID project alienated those it aimed to help.

In the Afghanistan war for hearts and minds, USAID lost its battle in Badakshan Province. A USAID contractor claimed this $1 million canal helped triple output for the district of Baharak. But the canal is unfinished.

Monique Jaques/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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A muddy trench, crumbling at its sides, snakes from a swift stream five miles down to an aging hydropower plant in northeastern Afghanistan. Walking in sandals along the dirt banks, engineer Qand Agha Noori explains how Americans promised to build a proper canal to bring more electricity to his community.

But this excavated earth seems to be nothing more than a scar on the land – and on the impression Mr. Noori and his kith and kin have of Americans.

"Fifty percent they didn't do. They just dug this," Noori says of the empty ditch, "and tried to get the signature of the government and left."

He stops next to a boulder in the trench. He explains that shoddy construction – including incomplete concrete walls and drainage culverts – resulted in landslides blocking water flow to the turbine and, in turn, electricity from reaching any homes.

The $1 million canal was part of a $60 million development contract that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had with PADCO, an American company. PADCO's 2009 completion report claims to have tripled power in Baharak and nearby Faizabad.

But Afghan officials say neither community saw any extra electricity. And a USAID staffer who handed over the report to the Monitor advised, "Take this with a grain of salt. It's designed to make USAID look good."

On paper, the multipronged project revitalized a backward Afghan province, weaning it off poppy cultivation and winning Afghan hearts and minds.

However, a Monitor investigation reveals that even in spite of a few modest gains, the Afghans here were left angered over project failures, secrecy, and wasted funds.

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