Afghanistan’s latest consultations peace jirga concluded recently in Kabul. The jirga was seen as flawed by some individuals and groups who refused to attend, including the main electoral opposition to Karzai’s government, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Some who attended and those who didn’t complained that, overall, the jirga’s participants were hand-picked by supporters of Karzai and did not fairly represent the people of Afghanistan, nor its elite. Despite this, strong voices of opposition to the existing government policies did emerge, suggesting a change of course in strengthening the Afghan state and people. The Afghanistan Analysts Network blog covers this, also explaining how the government run jirgas tend to vary from traditional ones in which attendance is more open and discussion also open-ended.
Afghan analyst, Abdulhadi Hairan has translated the jirga’s 15 point declaration and published it on his site. Some highlights include political reconciliation, government reform and accountability, the release of prisoners unjustly accused, a request for long-term international support to the government, and condemnation of the Israeli attack on the aid flotilla to Gaza:
2) To initiate a peace process, in accordance with the decisions from this jirga, the government should establish a holistic program and announce that program as the permanent national strategy for peace.
[…]5) We urge all the conflicting parties to give up their preconditions that hinder the peace talks.
[…]7) […]We urge the Afghan government and the international forces in Afghanistan to take a serious and immediate step towards releasing those prisoners arrested on false reports or not charged as goodwill gesture. With developing an understanding with the international community, the government should act fast in removing the insurgents’ names from the blacklists. The government and the international forces should provide guarantee for the protection and security of those who are joining the peace process and help them to safely reintegrate in the society. The Afghan and international forces are seriously asked to stop unnecessary arrests, arbitrary and uncoordinated house searches, and the air strikes that cause civilian casualties. The government should seriously take steps for leading the military operations and coordinate with the international forces. The armed insurgents should give up violence and stop all the activities that lead to the killing of our dear countrymen and the damaging of its infrastructure, and cut their ties with Al Qaeda and the regional terrorist networks.
[…]We would like long term international commitments to protect Afghanistan from becoming a playground of regional conflicts, so the foreign infiltrations are blocked and the regional cooperation is coordinated.
[…]The government with the cooperation from the people should act for improving governance and professionalism, fight against corruption, and act against people who have seized lands in the capital as well as in the provinces.
[…]11) […] The council should form a special committee to have access to the prisoners, release them, and reintegrate them into the society.
[…]16) At the end, the National Consultative Peace Jirga as a representative of the Afghan people strongly condemns the inhumane attack by Israeli army carried out on the convoy of aid groups that was on its way to Gaza Bank where poor Palestinians are besieged.
Minna Jarvenpaa, former head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) Analysis and Policy Unit, and currently a founding member of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, has written an article reviewing the role of UNAMA within the current context.
Here is an excerpt from the original:
What UNAMA has always done best is political outreach and analysis. Its strength has been its field presence. Even now, UNAMA still boasts the most extensive and well-informed network of field officers of all the international actors in Afghanistan. Many of its Afghan and international political officers have spent years in the provinces and established strong relationships with provincial and district officials, tribal elders, communities and civil society representatives. This gives UNAMA an edge – if it is ready to use it.
[…]UNAMA is a political mission. A key role for it is to voice the concerns of Afghans, both about their government and about the behaviour of the international community. In the past, it has advocated an approach by ISAF to reduce civilian casualties, and more recently it has sought to engage the international military forces on the issue of detentions. The people of Afghanistan have also looked to UNAMA – in vain as it turned out – to speak out about the election fraud in both the 2004/2005 cycle and in 2009. To play this role of championing the Afghan people, UNAMA needs to position itself both close enough to President Karzai and the US to have access and influence, and far enough to be able to speak out.
Read the article in full here.
A USAID funded, foreign constructed power plant in Afghanistan has become a money sink and may never be used by the local government due to its extravagant maintenance costs.
The diesel-powered plant is nearly complete, yet its future is uncertain, and events so far have been stitched with controversy. Pratap Chatterjee, in an IPS article, writes that, “three independent investigations into U.S.-financed reconstruction of the Afghan electricity sector, as well as IPS interviews with Afghan government officials and contractors, suggest that the power plant – which will cost taxpayers almost three times as much as comparable projects – may never be used.”
First the U.S. planners chose to ignore other ongoing reconstruction projects that were cheaper and more likely to succeed, or to pay attention to alternative recommendations from Afghan government officials.
Second, the planners picked expensive technologies that the city of Kabul could not afford to maintain or utilise.
The project was launched in 2007, as a joint venture between two US contractors, Louis Berger and Black & Veatch. In an earlier post, I had mentioned a previously bungled construction contract by Louis Berger. They had received a contract to build 1,000 schools, each costing US$274,000. The schools were built according to designs suitable for the US, not Afghanistan. They did not consider local climate, nor local cost considerations. The Afghan government not only has to worry about maintaining these expensive schools, they might not even be usable. In January 2009, Ann Jones, who for years worked in Afghanistan as an aid worker, said that Louis Berger, “already way behind schedule in 2005, had finished only a small fraction of them when roofs began to collapse under the snows of winter.”
The 105 megawatt power plant under construction is estimated to cost over US$300 million, the latest price tag being given after several cost hikes in the project’s life span.
Chatterjee writes that “the power plant is expected to be completed this spring. But the electricity is no longer urgent. One year ago, a 300-megawatt power line to Kabul from Uzbekistan was completed, with funding from the World Bank, German and Indian governments. The construction cost was just 35 million dollars and the operation costs are expected to be just over six cents a kilowatt hour compared to the 22 cents a kilowatt hour that it will cost to run the diesel plant.”
The contract was awarded by USAID under a cost-plus deal. Cost-plus contracts guarantee a set profit above the cost of projects. This has become a preferred form of contract for Western firms taking on US government contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The argument in favour of them is that, given the poor security conditions of these countries, and the uncertain costs of construction in a war zone, private firms want a guarantee of profits before they begin work. The problem here is that, in this schema, there is no incentive for contractors to limit costs, and they could very well gain by pushing them up and generating more work for themselves knowing full well that they will get their share of profits no matter what.
Chatterjee’s report revealed the following:
“This situation illustrates the twin policy evils of the cost-plus contracts,” says R. Scott Greathead, a New York lawyer who advised Symbion on the project. “First, they impose no cost or penalty on the cost-plus contractor for its incompetence, inefficiency or failure to perform, and second, they punish two victims, the fixed-price subcontractor, who incurs costs that may never be fully reimbursed, and the U.S. government, which pays in the end for everything.”
Construction of the power plant has been slowed by disagreements.
On May 19, 2009, Symbion [a subcontractor] stopped work – because Black & Veatch had failed to pay them for four months. A USAID Inspector General audit published in November 2009 found that Black & Veatch “had charged USAID for subcontractor costs that the contractor had not paid the subcontractor.”
The power plant, near Kabul, is said to cost nearly three times more than similar projects.
Afghanistan’s 2008 annual government revenue was estimated to be about US$685 million according to the minister of finance, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, during an interview with foreign press.
The Norwegian Institute of International Affairs has available a report on Afghanistan examining attempts at state building. The report focuses on the role of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in coordinating foreign and domestic efforts.
UNAMA coordinates international efforts in Afghanistan and supported the recent elections. “These efforts include supporting the Government to improve governance and the rule of law and fight corruption, as well as facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”
The Norwegian report, UNAMA in Afghanistan, is intended to answer some key questions.
The conclusions drawn from Afghanistan will also form the basis for how future operations in ‘weak states’ are organized, which makes it important to get right the lessons to be learned. If the United Nations had taken a ‘heavy footprint’ approach, what would that have entailed in terms of resources and activities? Should the United Nations have served as a caretaker government for a certain period, for example? Should thousands of peacekeepers have been deployed? Should billions have been spent upfront on basic services? If that had been the case, would Afghanistan have been peaceful by now? And can we draw any generalizations from the Afghanistan experience to future endeavours? These are big questions, and this report will attempt to shed some light on them.
Anand Gopal has written a horror filled investigative report on US secret prisons, house raids, and torture in Afghanistan. It is published in TomDispatch, and the Nation. Gopal’s research was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. The article is gruesome but a highly recommended read.
An interview with Anand Gopal is available at TomDispatch, here.
Excerpts from Obama’s Secret Prisons:
Night raids are only the first step in the American detention process in Afghanistan. Suspects are usually sent to one among a series of prisons on U.S. military bases around the country. There are officially nine such jails, called Field Detention Sites in military parlance. They are small holding areas, often just a clutch of cells divided by plywood, and are mainly used for prisoner interrogation.
In the early years of the war, these were but way stations for those en route to Bagram prison, a facility with a notorious reputation for abusive behavior. As a spotlight of international attention fell on Bagram in recent years, wardens there cleaned up their act and the mistreatment of prisoners began to shift to the little-noticed Field Detention Sites.
…It was the 19th of November 2009, at 3:15 am. A loud blast awoke the villagers of a leafy neighborhood outside Ghazni city, a town of ancient provenance in the country’s south. A team of U.S. soldiers burst through the front gate of the home of Majidullah Qarar, the spokesman for the Minister of Agriculture. Qarar was in Kabul at the time, but his relatives were home, four of whom were sleeping in the family’s one-room guesthouse. One of them, Hamidullah, who sold carrots at the local bazaar, ran towards the door of the guesthouse. He was immediately shot, but managed to crawl back inside, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Then Azim, a baker, darted towards his injured cousin. He, too, was shot and crumpled to the floor. The fallen men cried out to the two relatives remaining in the room, but they — both children — refused to move, glued to their beds in silent horror.
…Finally, they found the man they were looking for: Habib-ur-Rahman, a computer programmer and government employee.
…“We’ve called his phone, but it doesn’t answer,” says his cousin Qarar, the spokesman for the agriculture minister.
…“I used to go on TV and argue that people should support this government and the foreigners,” he adds. “But I was wrong. Why should anyone do so? I don’t care if I get fired for saying it, but that’s the truth.”
The Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit has written the following on the Afghan economy:
Consistent with the current consensus on development held by the donor community and international financial institutions (IFIs), the privatisation process has gained increased momentum in Afghanistan. The government has committed to the privatisation agenda in its Interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy (IANDS) and in the Afghanistan Compact agreed upon with the international community in January 2006. This followed the November 2005 approval by the Cabinet to amend the State-Owned Enterprise Law, allowing for the divestment of state enterprises by various means. Fifty four fully state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been slated for privatisation as going concerns or through liquidation by the end of 2009.
The report states that the total value of these sales is estimated to be US$614, which is small by international standards.
However, the total government budget of Afghanistan in 2008 was around US$685 million, so the sale of public assets amounts to a large share for a country whose assets and resources are very small. The government revenue estimate was provided by Afghanistan’s Minister of Finance, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, during an interview with foreign press.
With a national budget that is so small, many foreign infrastructure projects have only added to the problem because of their large price tags, which are more suitable to high priced markets in the developed world. Although, at the time of construction, the projects may be fully funded by foreign donors, the maintenance cost of the same infrastructure may be prohibitive, impracticle, or even impossible for the Afghan government to afford without taking loans.
Consider the Louis Berger Group’s contract to build 1,000 schools, each costing US$274,000. In this case, the Afghan government not only has to worry about maintaining the schools, they might not even be usable. In January 2009, Ann Jones, who for years worked in Afghanistan as an aid worker, says that Louis Berger, “already way behind schedule in 2005, had finished only a small fraction of them when roofs began to collapse under the snows of winter.”
Sustaining an Afghan government financially on foreign life support requires multiyear planning from all donors involved. This requires that Afghanistan’s needs be incorporated into the budgets of NATO countries, and that many of the political decisions on funding be made by foreign governments accountable to their own people. There is not much room for self-reliance in this scenario.
Barnett R. Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan, is interviewed on the subject, providing some background on US-led military presence as well as the general context in the country. This video is from 2008, but still pertinent. Rubin is also the author of a very well researched book, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System.