WASHINGTON — As the U.S. military presence dwindles in Afghanistan, officials are finalizing a $200-million plan to use smartphones, GPS-enabled cameras and satellite imagery to monitor relief projects that will continue in areas deemed too remote or unsafe for Americans to visit.
The proposal underscores the rapidly diminishing American footprint in Afghanistan after nearly 12 years of war, and signals that more of the massive U.S. reconstruction effort there — long plagued by waste and weak oversight — will be monitored by Afghans, with U.S. officials forced to supervise from a distance.
Even as troops pull back, Obama administration officials say the United States must continue to finance development projects to bolster the Kabul government, whose budget remains almost entirely dependent on foreign aid. The U.S. Agency for International Development, which has poured more than $15 billion into Afghanistan since 2001, plans to spend billions more over the next decade on agriculture, energy, health, training and other programs carried out by American and Afghan contractors.
With most U.S. forces due to withdraw by the end of 2014, USAID monitors who once depended on troops to escort them around Afghanistan to conduct inspections now are confined to a few major cities. Soon, the United States will rely much more heavily on digital tools and Afghan contract workers to gather information about its projects.
It is a risky strategy, experts and watchdogs say, because USAID has been chastised for oversight failures in Afghanistan and has never used the technology to monitor projects on so grand a scale. The agency's draft proposal says the new tools will be used "across the entire portfolio" of its nearly 80 major development projects nationwide.
Agency officials describe the effort as a necessary part of the transition to a smaller military presence, especially with some in the Obama administration floating the possibility of the "zero option," leaving no American troops in Afghanistan past 2014.
The agency has contracted outside companies to monitor its programs for several years. In a few cases it has used photographs to gauge progress from afar — for example, viewing satellite images to measure crop yields following agricultural investments.
The new proposal is far more ambitious. USAID contractors would hire Afghan monitors to relay information about construction projects using smartphone applications, conduct text-message surveys about health and education efforts, crowd-source opinions about government services and use GPS-enabled cameras to verify activity sites.
"We have incorporated some of the most effective monitoring tools from our work in Afghanistan and around the world into the project," said Larry Sampler, acting assistant to the administrator in USAID's office of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs.
Although few question the need for robust oversight of billions of taxpayer dollars, many wonder about the ability of USAID contractors to quickly recruit and train enough Afghans to effectively monitor projects spread across all 34 provinces. The few companies that employ such methods have spent years building their teams in Afghanistan, experts said.
"They should have done something like this five years ago instead of coming in with a $200-million investment now," said one contractor with nearly a decade of experience in Afghanistan, who requested anonymity because his company bids for USAID projects. "They haven't been doing this kind of thing systematically. It's a huge portfolio to monitor and an extremely difficult place to work."
In a report last month, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an independent watchdog, said that though Afghan monitors might be better able than Americans to travel safely to project sites, it was "concerned that the practice may raise new issues such as vetting, accuracy, effectiveness and accountability."
The proposal comes as USAID, the State Department and the Pentagon face increasing pressure to improve tracking of Afghan relief and reconstruction spending, which has totaled nearly $100 billion since 2001. The Government Accountability Office in June 2012 reported "systematic weaknesses in USAID's oversight and monitoring of project and program performance in Afghanistan," but said the agency was taking steps to address the problems.
In September, USAID's inspector general found that the agency's Afghan monitoring program lacked basic guidelines and management plans for some projects, and was missing key data.
The expansion of remote monitoring also comes as the United States funnels more financial assistance directly to Afghan government ministries, meeting a demand set by President Hamid Karzai. Experts have voiced concern about corruption and a lack of capacity in the ministries, and warned that direct assistance to Kabul could lead to more U.S. funds being wasted.
"Putting more money directly on budget through the Afghan government, I think, becomes increasingly problematic when you talk about USAID operating with a light footprint," said Justin Sandefur, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington.
The draft proposal circulated in May set off a flurry of activity among companies eager for a piece of the monitoring contract, which, if funded at the maximum amount of $200 million, would make it one of USAID's biggest such contracts ever. Officials expect to begin soliciting bids this year.
"It's quite a huge step for USAID," said David Hinkle, deputy director of monitoring services for International Relief and Development, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Va., that conducts remote monitoring for the World Bank's multibillion-dollar Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund.
Under that program, IRD deploys about 40 Afghan engineers across the country to inspect project sites, Hinkle said. Equipped with Android smartphones and a customized app for inspections, the engineers send back GPS-stamped data and photographs that supervisors in Kabul and elsewhere use to evaluate the progress of schools, roads and other structures.
The practice hasn't been flawless. Years ago, Hinkle recalled, when one Afghan monitor was unwilling to visit a particular site, he placed his smartphone on the dashboard of a taxi and hired the driver to travel there, snap a photo and bring it back. Now, he said, monitors are expected to gather much more data on-site, and supervisors can track the phones' movements down to the second.
"It's gotten a heck of a lot better," Hinkle said.
IRD — which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. development contracts in Afghanistan but also faced accusations from watchdogs of severe waste and mismanagement — has begun recruiting staff in anticipation of bidding on the USAID project.
According to online job postings, another contractor, the Washington-based QED Group, also is preparing a bid despite a report by the USAID inspector general last year that found major problems with the company's execution of a $14-million monitoring program in Iraq.
The contractor who requested anonymity said it almost "doesn't matter who you pick to do this stuff, because no one's really done it on this level before."