Canada wastes cash in Afghanistan: Kandahar mayor

The mayor of Kandahar city is complaining that Ottawa's contracting practices are contributing to the culture of misconduct in Afghanistan, and expressed similar concerns about the United States and Britain.

The mayor of Kandahar is complaining that Ottawa's contracting practices are contributing to the culture of misconduct in Afghanistan and expressed similar concerns about the United States and Britain.

"Your prime minister, [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama and the prime minister of England are complaining that we didn't clean the corruption in Afghanistan, [and] they will stop helping," Ghulam Hayder Hamidi said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

Kandahar Mayor Ghulam Hayder Hamidi says that Ottawa's contracting practices are contributing to the culture of corruption in the country. ((Murray Brewster/Canadian Press))

"Who is doing the corruption? You are doing the corruption."

In a letter to Canada's ambassador, delivered earlier this month to the country's civilian representative in Kandahar, Hamidi suggests that the federal government is being taken to the cleaners by a handful of guileful Afghan companies. As an example, he cited a recent $1.9-million project to install solar lights that has been plagued by problems.

Hamidi also accused Canadian civilians of spending taxpayer dollars needlessly and ineffectively in some areas, and companies selected by federal officials of providing low-quality merchandise, or services at inflated prices.

In one case, after an attempt on his life in March 2009, Hamidi said officials bought him the $139,000 luxury model of an armour-plated SUV when all he needed was the base model — a price difference of $44,000.

"We told them we didn't need a luxury" vehicle, said Hamidi, who spent three decades working as an accountant in Arlington, Va., before becoming Kandahar's mayor.

The model and type of the mayor's vehicle were not identified for security reasons. But it came with no warranty and broke down soon after arriving in Kandahar, Hamidi said.

"After three weeks, the car completely stopped; not to be started," he said. "When they called to the company in Kabul, which they purchased [it from], they told us security is not that good, we cannot come to Kandahar."

The contractor eventually sent mechanics to Kandahar and Hamidi waited weeks for the repairs. In the interim, he borrowed a friend's car.

The vehicle was fixed, but Hamidi said it has continued to give him trouble.

Open bidding

Tim Martin, who took over earlier this year as Ottawa's top-ranking civilian representative in the provincial capital, said he's met with the mayor about his concerns. But Martin said he's standing by Ottawa's contracting practices in Afghanistan, which he said are open to competitive bidding.

"We're working with a partner, and he is an accountant, and he cares about this kind of thing — I'm glad when Afghan partners are bringing forward money-saving opportunities for our Canadian projects," said Martin, a former Canadian ambassador to Paraguay and Argentina.

Canadian officials have heard his concerns before and nothing has been done, Hamidi charged.

He produced an inspection report for Ottawa's $1.9-million project to install solar street lights; up to 40 per cent of the units were not functioning or had been poorly installed, the report indicated.

In one case, shoddy work became a public safety hazard when holes for the light standards were drilled in advance and left unattended overnight last fall, he added.

"They start making holes in the sidewalk, and we said, 'Please don't make the holes because of the security, because they put bomb[s] in them,"' he said.

Sure enough, insurgents planted an explosive, which damaged several businesses and the home of a municipal official.

Objections raised

Hamidi said he raised objections when diplomats insisted he sign a contract for the lights with a Kabul-based consortium last winter. There was a push on to get funding set aside for the project before the 2009-10 fiscal year ended on March 31.

"It is December, still this project is not done."

Martin said civilian and military officials are working with the municipality to fix the lights that are not working. But it's a slow process because they have to be checked after dark, when Western officials are usually locked in their heavily fortified compounds and bases.

"If there are deficiencies, it's the obligation of the contractor to correct them," he said.

Even still, Hamidi said he's the one getting yelled at by frustrated citizens who welcomed the program when it was first launched almost two years ago by a Canadian civil-military co-operation team.

Those people have since changed their tune, and are blaming the mayor, Hamidi said.

"I got a bad name because the citizens thought, 'Who did that?' They didn't know. They say, 'The mayor is corrupt. He purchased the wrong lights."'