KABUL, Afghanistan — Kabul's five-star Serena Hotel is known as one of the city's most luxurious escapes from the daily grind of Afghanistan's gritty capital. Home to the Kabul's first day spa, complete with a heated swimming pool, the heavily fortified hotel that's been a repeated target of insurgent attacks bills itself as "an oasis of cool and serenity in the heart of the city."
For five months last year, the Serena was also the headquarters for a U.S. consulting firm with no experience in Afghanistan that the U.S. government is paying $15 million to boost Afghans' confidence in their antiquated justice system.
"It was something of a risk to bring them out here," said a U.S. 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, experts said, it's been a risky gamble with questionable results.
While encamped at the Serena, the Tetra Tech DPK consultants were criticized for their extended hotel stay, for organizing kite-flying events meant to promote confidence in the legal system and for producing little that American officials could trumpet as successes.
Along with fighting the Taliban and training an Afghan military capable of protecting its nation, building a respected government is a central goal of the Obama administration's plans to begin withdrawing U.S. forces this July.
As part of the effort, the U.S. is spending millions of dollars to overhaul Afghanistan's archaic judicial systems, establish credible programs to root out corruption and persuade skeptical Afghans that they can trust their government to do the right thing.
But concern is increasing among the international development specialists that the rush for results in Afghanistan is proving to be counterproductive.
The U.S. Agency for International Development "has never been an agency that has been able to adapt to quick change," said Fareed Osman, an Afghan-American consultant who quit a short-term contract with the DPK project after voicing his concerns about the reform program. "It's slow, huge and cumbersome with all sorts of rules to make progress impossible."
Top USAID officials declined to discuss the Obama administration's efforts to overhaul the Afghan judicial system, which is spearheaded by a series of large American consulting firms.
But others familiar with the programs said they faced intense pressure to produce results.
"You cannot believe the pressure for us to get up and running," the U.S. official involved with the program said, noting that the judicial overhaul effort had been delayed almost a year.
The modest DPK reform project was in development for nearly two years.
In April 2008, Bush administration officials unveiled plans for a five-year, $75 million judicial reform effort in Afghanistan.
The late Richard Holbrooke then put it on hold in spring 2009 soon after he was named President Barack Obama's special Afghanistan-Pakistan point man, American officials said, in order to change its focus.
That sparked a tussle between rival contractors and created more delays in getting new projects running.
Last winter, the USAID drew Republican criticism for awarding the revamped $25 million legal reform project to Checchi and Company Consulting, a firm run by a well-connected Democratic donor. DPK later got the award thrown out on a technicality, officials said.
"It was competed, almost awarded, reviewed, stopped, re-competed, awarded, protested, split, awarded," said a second U.S. official involved in the judicial program, summing up two years of limbo for the projects. The official also was authorized to speak only anonymously.
Last February, the U.S. government chose Checchi to run a $10 million project focused on Afghanistan's informal justice system and Tetra Tech DPK to run the larger formal justice program.
Last June, according to the two U.S. officials, DPK rented more than a dozen $179-a-night rooms at the Serena for what was supposed to be a brief stay while it scoped out longer-term housing.
But delays in getting the compound into shape meant the Serena stay dragged on for months.
After some debate, U.S. officials decided it was the best option.
"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?' " the first U.S. official said. "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."
As public criticism of the hotel stay grew, DPK moved into its new compound in late October.
The final price tag for the Serena rooms, not including food, laundry and other extras: about $300,000.DPK and Checchi officials declined to discuss their work in Afghanistan.
So far, the DPK program has garnered the most attention for a pair of kite-flying public events in Kabul and Herat that drew as much scorn as praise.
In Kabul, police absconded with kites for themselves and pummeled unruly boys who turned out to get the kites along with comic books about a boy who escapes child labor, goes to school and helps authorities set up a sting to arrest a corrupt policeman.
"In an uneducated police force you just don't get sensitive crowd controls," the first U.S. official said.
USAID officials said the events were the brainchild of an Afghan-American on the team, cost less than $30,000 total and helped promote gender equality by encouraging girls to fly kites.
"It's a very subtle way of saying girls can do the same thing as boys," the first U.S. official said. "They didn't get a whole lot (in Kabul), because not a lot of girls showed up."
When the event went to Herat, one aspiring journalist called on reporters to boycott it.
"The children are happy to have the kites, but to market this as a rule-of-law event is one more elaborate way of wasting resources which could be used for Afghan children's education, health care or even direct food assistance," said Haroon Yahya, the Herat journalist who refused to cover the event.
When they were asked what successes the DPK program has produced so far, USAID officials cited a series of small projects, 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.
The 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 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."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Afghanistan developments at McClatchy's Checkpoint Kabul