updated 10/18/2006 4:43:29 PM ET 2006-10-18T20:43:29

Racing to shore up Afghan popular support, the Army Corps of Engineers is doubling its reconstruction effort in the war-ravaged country, the general in charge said Wednesday.

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Corps, also said Afghans’ frustration with past progress owes in part to their unrealistic expectations of what the U.S.-led coalition could accomplish after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban regime.

Strock’s comments to Pentagon reporters followed a warning by British Gen. David Richards, NATO commander in Afghanistan, that Afghans could turn their allegiance to a resurgent Taliban if they don’t see better progress in security, rebuilding and governance in the next six months. Richards on Tuesday gave reporters some details of a NATO plan for operations on those issues this winter.

‘A race against time’
“I do know that we are in a race against time,” Strock said when asked Wednesday about Richards’ assessment. “And I can tell you that we’re putting every effort forward to win that race.”

He stressed that the Corps of Engineers plans to double its work in Afghanistan in the coming year to some 600 projects costing about $1 billion. They’ll focus mainly on transportation, electricity and water delivery, he said by videoconference from Kabul.

Critics say Afghanistan’s progress was slowed because the Bush administration diverted needed attention and assets to plan and execute the invasion of Iraq.

“President Bush’s failure to finish the job against terrorism in Afghanistan before launching his ill-advised invasion of Iraq has made the lives of the Afghan people more difficult and the American people less safe,” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

But Strock said he visits Afghanistan every several months and has found progress “steady and relentless.”

‘Very high sense of expectation’
There are some 580 miles of road, valued at $170 million, completed or under construction; 70 small, local hydroelectric facilities, valued at $3.4 million, have been built; and two water distribution projects valued at $1.8 million are complete, he said.

Projects also have provided facilities for Afghan army and police forces, trained after the war launched because the Taliban was harboring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist fighters.

Strock said that as with Iraqis, people of Afghanistan had “a very high sense of expectation” that “things would change overnight dramatically” on arrival of the coalition forces.

“I’ve heard quite often that, ’You can put a man on the moon but you can’t put electricity into my kitchen,”’ he said. “But ... if you recognize the starting point we have with this country, I think it’s somewhat understandable that we are not achieving all the success the Afghan people expected or would like.”

Over decades, Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule devastated an undeveloped Afghanistan. Strock ticked off what he called “depressing” statistics:

It’s the world’s fifth-poorest country, has the third-highest illiteracy rate, and a life expectancy of 43. It has few roads, the vast majority unpaved, and only about 7 percent of the population has reliable electricity.

“It shows ... where we were when we started and how far we have to go,” he said.

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