Special Development Ops

JALALABAD, Afghanistan—When Chris Corsten describes his job, he starts from space and zooms into the eastern hemisphere of the world, down into Central Asia, and then into Afghanistan, using Google Earth. In one of the country’s rural districts, nestled in mountains and riverbeds, are hundreds of colored dots representing construction sites. If Corsten moves his cursor over one of these dots, a geo-tagged photograph showing Afghan men building walls or mixing cement appears. If he displays all the construction sites he’s managed in Afghanistan, there are thousands of colored dots spread across the country.

Women employed in a cash-for-work program implemented by the Central Asia Development Group in Nangarhar Province. 

As the national manager of the Central Asia Development Group, Corsten implements “cash for work” programs in 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, including some of the most violent places in the country, such as Kandahar and Kunar. But, he said, the phrase cash for work doesn’t do justice to the scale of what CADG does. “That usually means cleaning up poop or doing small little things. Our program is not about that,” explained Corsten. “What we’re doing is huge. Some of the projects are digging canal systems that are bringing 10,000 hectares [25,000 acres of farmland] back. We’ve got some projects that take six months and have thousands of people working on them every day.” On the day Corsten spoke to me, CADG was employing 20,000 Afghans. The group has also been uniquely successful at employing women in nontraditional jobs like carpentry and masonry. To date, the organization has employed more than 4,000 women and more than 200,000 Afghans in total.

CADG is not a nonprofit, nor is it a charity, which makes its successes in Afghanistan—where development organizations are legion but success stories rare—even more notable. Since 2002, the private company with headquarters in Singapore has operated in Afghanistan as an engineering contractor serving clients like the U.S. and British armies, the World Bank, the United Nations, and military contractor KBR. In 2008, CADG launched a development program, funded by USAID, called Food Insecurity Response to Urban Populations. Now in its third phase, the majority of the program focuses on repairing Afghanistan’s decrepit irrigation systems. “In many cases, the systems were never really built properly. They were just a village with a makeshift system, which they try to maintain,” said Corsten. “We’ve got a lot of land here, but little of it is arable.”

Villagers in Dar-I-Nur District rebuild a canal wall as part of the Central Asia Development Group’s irrigation projects.

A typical CADG irrigation project looks like the one in Dar-I-Nur District in Nangarhar province, where the company is repairing 130 irrigation systems simultaneously over a three-month period. The company screened villagers to ensure that 2,500 of the most vulnerable members of the community would be employed and selected the individual construction sites (they cannot be privately owned) based on how many acres would be rehabilitated to revitalize local agriculture. When the project is finished, 25,500 acres of land will be protected from flooding and made productive for a cost of just over $1 million. At the building site of one canal wall in Dar-I-Nur, Mohammed Anzam, a village elder, said, “Our village is happy, because many people are jobless here, and they have found jobs now in their own village. And it is enough money, we can take care of our families. We are doing the work for our village, for our land, for our houses, with our own workers.”

CADG does not subcontract its projects, unusual in Afghanistan, where the system of development aid and its heavy reliance on subcontractors has been called a scandal. Some analysts estimate that 75 percent of U.S. development funding in Afghanistan is eaten up by inflated overhead costs and profits for layers of subcontractors. CADG’s development model is what they call direct implementation, which they say minimizes the opportunity for exploitation and waste. The group’s international and national staff design and manage each project down to every canal or retaining wall. They hire and pay the local laborers, monitoring each construction site (hence the daily attendance records and geo-tagged photographs Corsten receives and can view on Google Earth) until completion. “No other NGOs are doing business the way we do. … Other NGOs pay the contractor, and that’s it,” explained Sasho Cvetanoski, a provincial manager with CADG. “That’s not the case with us. We keep our eyes on the projects 24/7.” Employees monitoring construction sites even carry miniature GPS tracking devices so their movements can be logged into a database and compiled at the end of the workday.

Al-Haj Anisa, Director of Women’s Affairs in Jalalabad. “There are no other organizations that are providing job opportunities for women,” she said of the Central Asia Development Group’s training programs in carpentry and painting.

Direct implementation requires that the group’s international and national employees live and work outside the security bubble of Kabul, within communities where their projects are located. They do this with a minimal amount of security, considering they are often traveling in combat zones. CADG employees do not wear body armor when they are in the field, and they drive unmarked, unarmored vehicles, often accompanied by just a small number of Afghan bodyguards. At CADG’s houses, there are no sandbags or blast-proof cement barriers separating them from the street or their neighbors. Instead, the company relies heavily on relationships with local security forces and village leaders, who give them day-to-day information about potential threats. “We won’t go into an area unless a village actually wants us to and gives us a guarantee,” explained Corsten. “It’s their responsibility to take care of our people, and they accept that responsibility as part of the deal. … If they want to play games, we can just shut it down.”

So far, none of CADG’s international staff has been targeted, though several employees conceded that should anyone be harmed, security would be heightened. For now, their low profile in the field enables employees to travel quickly and spontaneously while also lowering operation costs. To put it in perspective, Edward Wells, a CADG deputy provincial manager, explained that the cost of a single mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle used by Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan is around $1 million, enough for CADG to rehabilitate irrigation systems in dozens of villages. CADG’s minimal security is also possible because many of its 150 international employees have backgrounds in the military and special forces. Cvetanoski, for example, was part of the Macedonian army for 16 years, 10 of them in special operations. He commanded a sniper team and deployed to Iraq three times before receiving a Bronze Star from the U.S. military for his service there. CADG’s founder, Steven Shaulis, is a former Green Beret, and Chris Corsten is a former U.S. Army captain who served in Egypt, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Edward Wells is a former Marine who deployed to Iraq twice—in Fallujah and Ramadi. Experience like this gives the company a unique attitude and philosophy, according to Corsten. “One of the big things about ex-military guys is they are used to getting stuff done. They’re not about pretty language. They’re not used to failure and not accomplishing things,” said Corsten. “I’d take a Green Beret over a guy with a degree in agriculture any day.”

In Afghanistan, war is a lucrative business for the contractors, NGOs, and private companies that vie for the billions of dollars the United States and other NATO countries spend every month on military operations and development. But CADG employees reject the title of “development mercenaries.” Instead, many said their previous war experiences motivated them to get involved in the places they were once deployed—but not as members of the military. As a Marine, Wells participated in the counterinsurgency in Iraq, but despite the eventual successes there, he wanted to be part of an alternative approach to creating security and improvements to the lives of people in conflict zones. “I think this is a far more effective way than many of the other options out there,” said Wells of the way CADG works to create economic stability in Afghan villages. “I know that the money from USAID and the American taxpayers ends up right here where I’m using it now. I can definitely bear witness to this and say, ‘This is working, we’re doing things efficiently and low-cost, comparatively. We’re getting it done.’ “