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January 13, 2011

Five star rule-of-law in Afghanistan

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(Kabul's five star Serena Hotel. Photo courtesy of Serena Hotel)

Kabul's luxury Serena Hotel is one of the more swanky sanctuaries in the Afghan capital.

The "Mind, Body and Spirit Spa" offers massages, a heated pool, gym and beauty salon frequented by expats and wealthy Afghans looking for a temporary refuge from the smoggy, traffic-clogged, checkpoint-filled Kabul chaos.

For five months last year, the Serena also served as the headquarters for an American contracting company with no previous experience in Afghanistan that is being paid $15 million by USAID to revamp Afghanistan's archaic judicial system and convince Afghans that they can trust their government.

"It was something of a risk to bring them out here," said a US official involved in the program, who was authorized to talk about the issue only on the condition of anonymity. "They had not, unlike some other contractors, worked out here previously," the official said. "So when they were selected we said, 'OK, we'll see.' "

So far, some experts say, it has been a risky gamble with questionable results.

The Tetra Tech DPK consultants burned through $300,000 for five months of housing at the Serena Hotel while they waited for their permanent compound to be done.

USAID officials were frustrated by the extended hotel stay and how it would look to have American consultants camped at one of Kabul's most luxurious hotels.

Facing intense pressure to get the project up-and-running, USAID officials decided that trying to push the DPK consultants into cheaper housing was more trouble than it was worth.

"For us to dismantle operations, go in somewhere else, try to figure it out when the ambassador and all them are saying ... 'When are they going to have their first training in Mazar?' " said the U.S. official. "I remember going back in late August and saying, 'OK, we're doing something in Mazar and, by the way, they don't even have an office yet.' It was pretty trying."

Reforming Afghanistan's judicial system is one of the cornerstones of the Obama administration strategy for beginning to scale back the costly US commitment to the country this year.

Everyone -- from US military leaders and diplomats to front-line soldiers and aid workers in remote provinces -- is facing increasing pressure to produce quick results in Afghanistan.

But a growing number of skeptics are arguing that the push for quick progress is proving to be counterproductive.

"The strategy at the moment is to try and spend our way out of this war," said Bob Kitchen, the country director in Afghanistan for the nonprofit International Rescue Committee, which is involved in USAID programs. "We should be spending less and demanding more."

In the case of DPK, the contractor's $15 million project has so far generated as much derision as praise.

Amid increasing scrutiny and criticism, the DPK consultants moved out of the Serena Hotel at the end of October.

The project's highest profile event was a wayward kite flying event in Kabul where Afghan police officers beat unruly boys and carted off kites for themselves.

"In an uneducated police force you just don't get sensitive crowd controls," the U.S. official said of the event.

Aside from the public events, USAID offered a list of modest success stories generated by the $15 million DPK contract, including a three-day training session for judges, a two-day female recruitment forum, the donation of six computers to an anti-corruption tribunal and a relaunch of the Afghanistan Supreme Court website.

USAID touted its support for the court's first female Web designer, who set up the first official e-mail account for the court in a country where more than 95 percent of people have no regular Internet access.

"For the first time in history, a two-way exchange exists between a more informed public and the country's highest legal body," the USAID statement said.

"Not only does this redeveloped website improve the judiciary's image within Afghanistan, but it also has far-reaching implications worldwide," the agency said. "Just recently, via its website, the chief justice of the Afghanistan Supreme Court received an invitation from Indian officials to attend an international legal conference in India."

DPK officials declined to discuss their work in Afghanistan and said they would defer comment to USAID.

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Great discuss :)"For us to dismantle operations, go in somewhere else, try to figure it out when the ambassador and all them are saying ... 'When are they going to have their first training in Mazar?' " said the U.S. official. "I remember going back in late August and saying, 'OK, we're doing something in Mazar and, by the way, they don't even have an office yet.' It was pretty trying."

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Checkpoint Kabul is written by McClatchy journalists covering Afghanistan and south Asia.

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