Profit and Loss in Afghanistan

There has got to be more to reconstruction than war.

Since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the focus often drifts to the ongoing fighting, the continued war, the minute military failures and successes of the Afghan security forces, the US, ISAF-NATO, and the Taliban. A state, and an economy cannot be constructed out of, or sustained within a policy framework that is monopolized by an interest in military strategy. Economies are built on the backs of tax laws, property laws, and national infrastructure. A people’s health is tied to education, to sanitation, and clean water. Security is also tied to this: a person who is happily employed, is well nourished, has not suffered the trauma of political imprisonment, or witnessed the violent death of loved ones is certainly less likely to raise a hand against the government.

Assistance in state building has been a prominent component of US action in Afghanistan, though a relatively underfunded one. Knowing that economic development priorities are vital to the social and political stability of Afghanistan, it’s important to examine the American efforts in this dimension as at least of equal value to that of combat strategy.

Ann Jones’ investigation into US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan is a clear warning of policy failure. The aid programmes appear to be mismanaged at best, and in great part infected by deep corruption. Corporate profiteering has become the prime motive behind much of the development efforts while Afghanistan itself suffers from the loss of continued war and deprivation.

From Ann Jones’ article, The Afghan Scam, published at TomDispatch:

Take one pertinent example. When the inspectors general of the Pentagon and State Department investigated the U.S. program to train the Afghan police in 2006, they found the number of men trained (about 30,000) to be less than half the number reported by the administration (70,000). The training had lasted eight weeks at most, with no in-the-field experience whatsoever. Only about half the equipment assigned to the police — including thousands of trucks — could be accounted for, and the men trained were then deemed “incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work.”

The American privateer training the police — DynCorp — went on to win no-bid contracts to train police in Iraq with similar results. The total bill for American taxpayers from 2004 to 2006: $1.6 billion. It’s unclear whether that money came from the military or the development budget, but in either case it was wasted. The inspectors general reported that police incompetence contributed directly to increased opium production, the reinvigoration of the Taliban, and government corruption in general, thoroughly subverting much ballyhooed U.S. goals, both military and political.

…There are other peculiar features of American development aid. Nearly half of it (47%) goes to support “technical assistance.” Translated, that means overpaid American “experts,” often totally unqualified — somebody’s good old college buddies — are paid handsomely to advise the locals on matters ranging from office procedures to pesticide use, even when the Afghans neither request nor welcome such advice. By contrast, the universally admired aid programs of Sweden and Ireland allocate only 4% and 2% respectively to such technical assistance, and when asked, they send real experts. American technical advisors, like American privateers, are paid by checks — big ones — that pass directly from the federal treasury to private accounts in American banks, thus helping to insure that about 86 cents of every dollar designated for U.S. “foreign” aid anywhere in the world never leaves the U.S.A.

Ann Jones was in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006 as an aid worker, and has written, Kabul in Winter, a book on many of her findings.

Barnett R. Rubin, an expert on modern Afghanistan, has in his studies revealed that Afghanistan’s central governments have had a long relationship with foreign aid. He argues that, over the decades, foreign aid has distorted the country’s politics and has served as a disincentive in building a broad consensus between its peoples. This is because the central government of the day can supply a significant portion of its revenues from foreign sources, bypassing the immediate need for domestic reforms and the elements of power sharing required to legitimate the government’s rule. In modern history, foreign backers have become a vital part of the government’s ability to survive, sometimes surpassing the very need for broad national support. This not only reduces the need for domestic reform, erodes the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its people, but also makes the state dependent on foreign powers for its economic and political security. Rubin claims that this long-term dependence on foreign aid threatens to reduce the country’s central government to the status of a client or rentier.

Rubin writes in his book, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan:

Afghanistan became a weak rentier or allocation state. From 1958 to 1968 and again in the 1970s the state financed over 40 percent of its expenditures from “revenue accruing directly from abroad,” including both foreign aid and sales of natural gas to the USSR. Unlike oil states, however, which can control their sales volume (though not price), Afghanistan had no control over foreign aid, which declined sharply after 1966, causing a state financial crisis.(Barnett R. Rubin. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, Yale University Press, 2002, p. 65)

Britain’s Lord Salisbury wrote the following to Sir Henry Layard on 25 of June 1878:

In a scheme of reform, I believe your attention will be far more usefully directed to person than to paper institutions. Good officers, well selected for a length of time, will create suitable traditions of administration which will gradually harden into institutions, and, made this way, reformed institutions will regenerate people. But if they are merely written in a pretentious law, they will have no effect but to disturb the few traditions that are left and to give perpetual subject-matter for diplomatic wrangling.

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