A new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction says that "some U.S. officials expressed objections" to the distribution of solar panels because of the "potential for theft, resale or the use of the equipment for other than business purposes." A solar panel set is seen here in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province in January 2013.
A $70 million agricultural aid program in Afghanistan spent millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars on tractors that went missing, irrigation pumps that were never used and solar panels that wound up in private homes, according to government investigators.
A report released Thursday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction blamed the problems on USAID, the government agency responsible for managing IRD, the nonprofit agency that implemented the aid program. “In the absence of effective oversight from USAID,” said the report, “IRD made (decisions) that led to both waste and mismanagement of resources.”
In 2011, USAID awarded $70 million to IRD to run the Southern Regional Agricultural Development program in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The program was supposed to “increase agricultural employment and income” and reduce instability in a region where the Taliban is active. Through the program, IRD provided farm machinery, supplies and training to Afghan farmers and businesses, with the help of U.S. officials and the military.
But according to the new SIGAR report, the nonprofit began buying items that were too expensive, unauthorized and unneeded, as well as items that officials warned would be too risky to purchase because of the danger of theft.
According to the report, IRD began buying tractors that cost $17,600 apiece, more than triple the amount allowed, though the machines were too big for many narrow Afghan fields. IRD spent $1.67 million on the tractors, only to find months later that at least one-third of those distributed in Kandahar province had gone missing. A State Department official told the investigators that under an earlier program administered by IRD, all 69 tractors purchased had disappeared.
The investigators also charged IRD with “gross mismanagement” for spending $23 million on 16,000 irrigation pumps, since neither USAID nor IRD could explain why Helmand province needed the equipment. An Afghan official had told IRD in 2010 that the districts receiving pumps already had “sufficient water resources and existing irrigation canals.”
After 3,900 pumps had been given to farmers, IRD stopped distribution. The remaining pumps were stored in warehouses or in open areas, at a cost of $1.2 million. The nonprofit then spent $6 million disassembling the surplus pumps so their power supply units could be removed and reused.
Afghan villagers help install solar-powered streetlights provided by the U.S. government.
The report also noted that IRD ignored warnings and expanded a solar power program, spending almost $700,000 on solar panels for 300 shopkeepers in Kandahar Province. During the planning phase, according to the report, both U.S. and Afghan officials objected to buying the equipment. The Afghan officials said the panels were unnecessary. The U.S. officials said that many local businesses could not use the panels without buying additional equipment and that the panels were likely to be stolen, resold or used for other purposes.
According to the report, a USAID official said that once the panels were distributed, the governor of a district in Kandahar began confiscating them when he suspected they were being used in private residences.
Army Reserve Capt. Steve Baunach, who helped install solar streetlights under a separate program in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, confirmed to NBC News that solar panels were prone to disappearing soon after they were installed, only to reappear in private residences.
“As soon as the project was complete, the solar panels would be stolen and put on top of individual homes,” said Baunach, who worked in Farah and Zabul provinces with teams that included USAID representatives.
“The thinking was that you bring light at night, the market could stay open, it would boost the economy and win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people,” explained Baunach. “But that just did not happen.
“If anything, it was a glowing example of American incompetence.”
In a statement, IRD denied that it had distributed solar panels and $7.8 million in agricultural supplies over official objections, and disagreed with the assertion that it had not coordinated properly with U.S. officials and the military. IRD also said it was not responsible for tracking the whereabouts of tractors after they were handed over.
"IRD will continue to work with USAID and our Afghan counterparts to improve programmatic impact and implement programs to achieve the most effective and highest-impact results that improve the lives and livelihoods of the Afghan people," said Jeffrey Grieco, IRD's chief of communications, advocacy and legal affairs.
A USAID officials said the agency agreed with SIGAR's assessment "that oversight of development projects is critical to our work in Afghanistan."
"We have received SIGAR's letter about the Southern Regional Agricultural Development (SRAD) program and are looking in to ways we can incorporate lessons learned into future projects," said the official. He said that SRAD had helped boost farm family income by providing short-term employment to 7,400 laborers.
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