Poor maintenance—or no maintenance—of billions of dollars worth of U.S.-funded highways in Afghanistan built over the past decade now threatens the country's economic development and even the stability of its government, says a federal watchdog agency.
In an Oct. 27 report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) says that, despite nearly $3 billion of investment in new highways in the country since about 2002 by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Defense Dept., more than half its road infrastructure "suffered from poor maintenance and required rehabilitation beyond simple repairs," based on a USAID assessment. SIGAR points to continuing security issues, lack of funding, weak capacity and corruption among local agencies charged with upkeep, particularly the Ministry of Public Works.
According to SIGAR's assessment of 1,640 miles of U.S.-funded roads, 19 of 20 segments studied "had road damage ranging from deep surface cracks to roads and bridges destroyed by weather or insurgents," it says. "Moreover, 17 segments were either poorly maintained or not maintained at all, resulting in road defects that limited drivability."
In particular, SIGAR says the country's main artery—the Kabul to Kandahar highway—"is beyond repair and needs to be rebuilt." Based on local officials' comments to investigators, the consequences could be dire. "If the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway were to become impassable, the central government would collapse," says the report.
SIGAR found "insurgent activity" on six of 20 road segments it inspected, including 13 insurgent checkpoints. According to the report, the ministry is relying more on local contractors for repairs "because they have fewer problems with insurgents than international contractors."
SIGAR also cites funding shortfalls, noting that the ministry estimated that it needs up to $100 million annually for necessary emergency, routine, periodic and winter maintenance on Afghan roads, but received only $21.3 million a year, based on data provided for the years 2011 through 2016.
However, SIGAR investigators also found impacts from rampant corruption and capacity shortfalls in the ministry, with issues including "a lack of skilled staff, poor communication, antiquated systems and processes, and a lack of will to implement necessary reforms," despite a 2013 USAID program to build needed skills.
According to a USAID assessment referenced in the report, "Nepotism and favoritism were still apparent in the appointment of managers and staff," with corruption issues causing the ministry to stop collecting even tolls and fees due to bribes of toll collectors and weigh-station attendants. But SIGAR added that beefed-up ministry enforcement at one weigh station through use of undercover employees and vehicle weight tracking boosted revenue by up to 600%.
According to the report, continued maintenance funding from outside donors was a disincentive to full development of Afghan capacity and that reforms could be "unsustainable."
DOD says it has "largely concluded" its road construction mission in Afghanistan, but the watchdog agency recommends that future USAID road funding be conditioned on the government creation of an "independent" road authority and funding mechanism. USAID concurred with the recommendations in its response to the SIGAR report and said it would "ensure any future road programs [it funds] address the shortcomings of previous programs.”
USAID contends that "road-sector reform" is a key component of Afghanistan's new "peace and development framework," which was introduced last month to officials from 75 countries and 26 NGOs at the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan. Despite that, SIGAR declines to accept the agency's request to "close the recommendation," contending that there is not yet evidence the country's parliament has passed road reform legislation.
Participants at the Brussels meeting still pledged to provide $15.2 billion between 2017 and 2020 "in support of Afghanistan’s development priorities," according to the SIGAR report, which added that Secretary of State John Kerry "pledged to work with" Congress to provide civilian assistance “at or very near” current levels through 2020.
According to SIGAR, global funding for relief and reconstruction in Afghanistan totaled about $115.22 billion since 2002.
But SIGAR also noted that, last month, the World Bank said it expected slow economic recovery over the next four years in the country, with past gains "eroding" due to poverty, unemployment, underemployment, violence, out-migration and internal displacement, decreasing private investment and increasing the education gender gap.
"Afghanistan’s real gross domestic product, excluding opium, will grow 2.0% in 2016, higher than the estimated 0.8% in 2015," said SIGAR. "Although an improvement, the World Bank said it remains far below the growth necessary to increase employment and improve living standards."