Sunday, June 18, 2006

Afghanistan as an empty space

This is a very in depth look at what's really going on in Afghanistan. It's not what you're told.

The general theme is that the official plan is to keep Afghanistan an empty space, and everything the US does there is working towards that goal. "Much ado is made in the West about opium being in the hands of the Pashtun Taliban. Again, such a perspective conveniently forgets the contrary evidence presented by the province of Badakshan where the Taliban never had any presence. The Western-sponsored poppy eradication programs have primarily served to alienate large swathes of the desperately poor Afghan rural population who depend upon poppy for daily survival. The U.S.-organized effort in 2004 was a resounding failure. The U.S. contracted with DynCorp (a favorite of Team Bush) for $50 million to train an Afghan eradication team. The 400 members received two weeks' training -- long enough, according to one diplomat then, 'to learn how to drive a tractor and point a gun.' The team set out for Wardak Province. The result was chaos. In the words of The Economist,
" fired rockets at the team camp, and sowed their poppy fields with land mines. Yet it destroyed 1,000 hectares of poppy in six weeks, and should be expanded next year."
Similar resistance and anger at Western-led efforts to eradicate poppies arose in Nangarhar province. While poppy output was reduced by 80 percent,
"Villagers estimated that 60 percent of Hafi Zan's economy had disappeared. The local mason, butcher and fruit seller have all gone out of business. 'Our village has lost almost all its income,' said one of the elders in another village near the Pakistan border. 'We have no choice. This coming year [2005-6] we will plant opium again and this time the whole tribe is agreed that we will fight. We are ready to die.' "

The income from drugs during 2002-2004 is estimated to have been $6.820 billion, while that from international aid was less than half that, $3.337 billion. Whereas pledges of aid from the international community between January 2002 -- April 2006, amounted to $14.4 billion, only $9.1 billion were actually committed by February 2005, and of that only $3.9 billion disbursed (January 2002 -- February 2005) and $3.3 billion has been disbursed for ongoing projects. Of the total disbursements, a mere $.9 billion worth of projects have been completed. Such fine points escape many who point out that Afghanistan "...has been supported by an input of about $15 billion dollars from the international community since 2001." Ahmed Rashid reported that western donors committed on average $2.5 billion every year during 2002-5 for reconstruction, but less than half that money was disbursed. For its part, the U.S. has spent $1.3 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan over four years, "intending to win over Afghans with signs of progress." By way of contrast, the United States spends $10 - $12 billion annually on military operations in Afghanistan.

The World Bank and members of the development establishment like to point out that such meager results are explained by "bottlenecks in implementation" -- long times between commitment to a project and start of actual work. A study sympathetic to the so-called reconstruction effort in Afghanistan was forced to admit in early 2005,

...growth of the legal economy has slowed, little investment is arriving, even Kabul has no reliable electric power or water supply, and bureaucrats paid less than $50 a month in a capital [city] where the housing market caters to internationals to pay $10,000 a month for a house, resist reforms that they fear might throw them out on the street...

At the same time, such "development experts" and representatives from some NGO's like CARE, point out that Afghanistan has received significantly less international aid (per capita) than other post-conflict societies (like Kosovo, East Timor, Bosnia, etc). They then go on to blame such a low level of funding as explaining why in the eyes of many Afghans, so little reconstruction has taken place. The refrain is familiar. James Dobbins, a former Bush envoy to Afghanistan, says

Afghanistan is the least resourced, large-scale American reconstruction programme ever.
PS--This pretty well sums it up:
Even in Kabul, the island of Westernization and the epicenter of imaginary reality, garbage piles up (generating foul odor and undoubtedly contributing to disease) as the city is only able to remove 40 percent of the daily waste produced. The city's sewage difficulties are even worse. Kabul, which never had a sewerage-pipe system, has but one truck for picking up sewage! Most property owners simply pay for men with donkey carts to take sewage away. But those too poor to afford that, suffer disproportionately from diseases such as leishmaniasis (a sin ailment caused by a parasite transmitted by sand flies), mumps and diarrhea due to garbage and sewage problems. High levels of dust, soot, and fumes also choke Kabul, causing health problems.

[. . . ]

The question is where is all the money going in Afghanistan?

Karzai's Planning Minister, Ramazan Bashardost, in 2004 specifically took the NGO community to task, but also the United Nations, accusing them of wasting billions. As planning minister, Bashardost was chief supervisor to the aid organizations operating in Afghanistan. He sought to clarify how the NGOs were actually spending the money allocated to them -- how much for the rents and salaries, for their cars and how much they were actually using for their projects. He demanded the organizations open their books. Only 437 out of a total of 2,355 organizations obliged. He found that many relief organizations were there for a simple reason: to turn a profit by the working the gold mine of lucrative aid contracts. The phrase "NGO mafia" is commonly used.

Bashardost resigned when his efforts were overruled by the Western kowtowing Karzai, but he then went on to win a seat in the parliamentary elections with one of the highest numbers of votes in Kabul. Barshardost said,

the people are asking themselves if these billions of dollars have been donated, which of our pains have they remedied, what ointment has been put on our wounds... there is minimum improvement in the lives of ordinary people... all ministers and key government officials have lost their legitimacy.

His parliamentary campaign called for 1,935 registered NGO's to be expelled from Afghanistan. He says about 20 percent of all funding to NGOs is spent on "commissions" which are bribes to government officials (and the U.N. behaves similarly). He also points out that 420 of the NGOs in Afghanistan have done excellent work.

Bashardost's critique was largely ignored in the United States, but Der Spiegel devoted a lengthy article in 2005 to the topic of "the aid swindle." Susanne Koelbi echoes many points I had made in an essay published in late 2004 for She writes,

The international community has sought to deliver quick success in rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan. But the country has become an El Dorado for international consultants and professional aid workers who ply the streets in Land Cruisers. Their methods have also fostered an atmosphere of corruption and sloppiness that has left many Afghans feeling disappointed and cheated.

The aid "wastage" -- hefty salaries, luxury cars, large overheads, 'commissions,' overpricing, corruption -- was also noted by Jean Mazurelle, World Bank director in Afghanistan, in January 2006,

In Afghanistan the wastage of aid is sky-high; there is real looting going on, mainly by private enterprises. It is a scandal...In 30 years of my career I have never seen anything like it.


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