Re-engineering Afghanistan: At What Cost?

The effort to improve Afghanistan's electrical infrastructure has been even more troubled than the one in Iraq


The United States and several other countries have poured money into a technological effort that has involved hundreds of engineers and technicians, thousands of construction workers, and scores of contractors and subcontractors. It is the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, and it hasn't been going well. Reconstruction has been a sprawling enterprise, encompassing the building and refurbishment of such vital infrastructure as roads, schools, sewage systems, dams, and electrical grids. We began our coverage of this work in the fall of 2005, when Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette traveled to Iraq to report on the electricity and telecommunications projects there. Zorpette's first article, "Re-engineering Iraq" [February 2006], told a story of engineers thwarted by politics, and of enormous sums wasted because of decisions based largely on local and international politics rather than on engineering and logistical realities.

Although the on-the-ground situation is different, the same mistakes have cropped up in Afghanistan. In "Re-engineering Afghanistan," Zorpette describes what he saw and learned during a three-week trip there earlier this year. As he did in Iraq, Zorpette found generating plants with insupportably high operating expenses, and generators costing hundreds of millions of dollars that will likely be abandoned the moment coalition forces leave.

As in Iraq, the prime contractors in Afghanistan are working on a "cost-plus" basis that encourages overspending—to the ire of U.S. government auditors and analysts, who have vented their displeasure in thousands of pages of reports. Most recently, the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, a congressionally mandated panel, determined that the United States has wasted or misspent between US $31 billion and $60 billion contracting for services in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite all that investigation, nothing has been done to avoid the pitfalls that have been so clearly and repeatedly identified in Iraq. If anything, the situation may be worse this time around. For example, for electrical reconstruction, the main U.S. government agency involved in Afghan reconstruction, the U.S. Agency for International Development, continues to rely heavily on a single contracting entity, despite recommendations to the contrary. And, as Zorpette argues in his report, this overreliance has badly compounded a complex situation.

Efforts to stabilize and develop a fledgling democracy would be difficult under the best of circumstances. Afghanistan is a poor country and a war zone, and it has had very little infrastructure, ever. It has never really had a central government and continues to be plagued by tribalism. There are a limited number of contractors who are willing to engage in reconstruction in a hostile fire zone or absorb the additional costs associated with these types of activities. Building a power plant in Helmand province is very different from building one in Piscataway, N.J.

Reconstruction efforts require partnerships among not only diverse governmental and military organizations but also civilian agencies. There are many good servicemen and -women and civilians working in this difficult situation—but all too often, what good they accomplish seems to be in spite of the policies and politics at play.

The most basic problem is the dearth of trained, articulate engineers in positions of political and policy influence who might steer these efforts in the direction of sound engineering. But there are many other problems—the undertaking of large, costly projects in military hot spots, in an attempt to improve domestic stability, being one of them. In the end, however, it may simply be impossible to establish a management structure that effectively controls both military and civilian agencies. Expecting effectiveness and efficiency in a war zone may be unreasonable.

IEEE Spectrum has a long history of doing first-rate journalism. We know from your feedback that you want detailed and thorough reporting on major tech-related issues of the day. We consider it a privilege to bring you news and features about cutting-edge research and technology and about the people and institutions behind it. But we have always understood that the world of engineering is big and complicated and sometimes messy. Engineering is part of—and is shaped by—a complex ecosystem that has economic, political, and social components. To report exclusively on technology as though it were separate from the world would be to present an unrealistic picture of what engineers and other technologists face in their daily working lives.

Spectrum's articles do not represent official viewpoints of IEEE or its members. We're not sure how anyone could come up with a single viewpoint that would accurately reflect those of our 400 000 or so members from around the globe. To even try would be to court disaster. So the founders of Spectrum wisely institutionalized its editorial independence.

Today, Spectrum finds itself in a unique position to cover big issues in technology and engineering in a way that essentially no other publication can match. We have readers who want more depth and analysis than they can get anywhere else. With your support, we will keep giving you just that.