posted 2009-01-11 16:48:35
Tomgram: Ann Jones, The Afghan Reconstruction Boondoggle
And always these are followed by the insistence that more of the same militarily, a further build-up of coalition military forces, another five or 10 or 20 years of foreign "training" programs for Afghan forces still "not ready for the task" -- no one asks how Taliban fighters, no less "Afghan," prove so ready to fight without years of American training -- is the only context for future success in "reconstructing" that country. Ann Jones, who was a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006 and wrote a moving book about the experience, Kabul in Winter, suggests just why this essentially repetitive formula, which will now pass as part of the new thinking of the Obama era, is bound to lead to more of the same. She focuses on the "reconstruction" part of the formula and shows just why, all military matters aside, it's such a hopeless shuck. Can this, nonetheless, be the path the
The Afghan Scam
The Untold Story of Why the
By Ann Jones
The first of 20,000 to 30,000 additional
Whatever the truth of the matter, in the long run, it's not soldiers but services that count -- electricity, water, food, health care, justice, and jobs. Had the
Instead, the Bush administration perpetrated a scam. It used the system it set up to dispense reconstruction aid to both the countries it "liberated," Afghanistan and Iraq, to transfer American taxpayer dollars from the national treasury directly into the pockets of private war profiteers. Think of Halliburton, Bechtel, and Blackwater in
What's worse, there's no reason to expect that things will change significantly on Barack Obama's watch. During the election campaign, he called repeatedly for more troops for "the right war" in
The Jolly Privateers
It's hard to overstate the magnitude of the failure of American reconstruction in
Between 2002 and 2008, the
The problem is not simply that the Bush administration skimped on aid, but that it handed it over to for-profit contractors. Privatization, as is now abundantly clear, enriches only the privateers and serves only their private interests.
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
In the does-no-one-ever-learn category: the latest American victory plan, announced in December, calls for recruiting and rearming local militias to combat the Taliban. Keep in mind that hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly donated by
Afghans protest that such a plan amounts to sponsoring civil war, which, if true, would mean that American involvement in Afghanistan might be coming full circle -- civil war being the state in which the U.S. left Afghanistan at the end of our proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. American commanders, however, insist that they must use militias because Afghan Army and police forces are "simply not available." Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, deputy commander of American forces, told the New York Times, "We don't have enough police, [and] we don't have time to get the police ready." This, despite the State Department's award to DynCorp last August of another $317.4 million contract "to continue training civilian police forces in
In other areas less obviously connected to security, American aid policy is no less self-serving or self-defeating. Although the Bush administration handpicked the Afghan president and claims to want to extend his authority throughout the country, it refuses to channel aid money through his government's ministries. (It argues that the Afghan government is corrupt, which it is, in a pathetic, minor league sort of way.)
Instead of giving aid money for Afghan schools to the Ministry of Education, for example, the
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
American aid that actually makes it abroad arrives with strings attached. At least 70% of it is "tied" to the purchase of American products. A food aid program, for example, might require
Testifying before a congressional subcommittee on May 8, 2001, Andrew Natsios, then head of USAID, described American aid as "a key foreign policy instrument [that] helps nations prepare for participation in the global trading system and become better markets for
Often, in fact, only one of the preselected contractors puts in for the job and then -- if you need a hint as to what's really going on -- just happens to award subcontracts to some of the others. It's remarkable, too, how many former USAID officials have passed through the famed revolving door in Washington to become highly paid consultants to private contractors -- and vice versa. By January 2006, the Bush administration had co-opted USAID altogether. The once independent aid agency launched by President Kennedy in 1961 became a subsidiary of the State Department and a partner of the Pentagon.
Oh, and keep in mind one more thing: While the private contractors may be in it for the duration, most employees and technical experts in Afghanistan stay on the job only six months to a year because it's considered such a "hardship post." As a result, projects tend not to last long and to be remarkably unrelated to those that came before or will come after. Contractors collect the big bucks whether or not the aid they contracted to deliver benefits Afghans, or even reaches them.
These arrangements help explain why
The Afghan Scam
It's not that American aid has done nothing. Check out the USAID website and you'll find a summary of what is claimed for it (under the glorious heading of "
If there has been any progress in
What would Afghans have done differently, if they'd been in charge? They'd have built much smaller schools, and a lot more of them, in places more convenient to children than to foreign construction crews. Afghans would have hired Afghans to do the building. Louis Berger Group had the contract to build more than 1,000 schools at a cost of $274,000 per school. Already way behind schedule in 2005, they had finished only a small fraction of them when roofs began to collapse under the snows of winter.
Believe me, given that same $274,000, Afghans would have built 15 or 20 schools with good roofs. The same math can be applied to medical clinics. Afghans would also have chosen to repair irrigation systems and wells, to restore ruined orchards, vineyards, and fields. Amazingly enough, USAID initially had no agricultural programs in a country where rural subsistence farmers are 85% of the population. Now, after seven years, the agency finally claims to have "improved" irrigation on "nearly 15%" of arable land. And you can be sure that Afghans wouldn't have chosen -- again -- the Louis Berger Group to rebuild the 389-mile long Kabul/Kandahar highway with foreign labor at a cost of $1 million per mile.
As things now stand, Afghans, as well as Afghan-Americans who go back to help their homeland, have to play by American rules. Recently an Afghan-American contractor who competed for reconstruction contracts told me that the American military is getting in on the aid scam. To apply for a contract, Afghan applicants now have to fill out a form (in English!) that may run to 50 pages. My informant, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, commented that it's next to impossible to figure out "what they look for." He won a contract only when he took a hint and hired an American "expert" -- a retired military officer -- to fill out the form. The expert claimed the "standard fee" for his service: 25% of the value of the contract.
Another Afghan-American informed me that he was proud to have worked with an American construction company building schools with USAID funds. Taken on as a translator, he persuaded the company not only to hire Afghan laborers, but also to raise their pay gradually from $1.00 per day to $10.00 per day. "They could feed their families," he said, "and it was all cost over-run, so cost didn't matter. The boss was already billing the government $10.00 to $15.00 an hour for labor, so he could afford to pay $10.00 a day and still make a profit." My informant didn't question the corruption in such over-billing. After all, Afghans often tack on something extra for themselves, and they don't call it corruption either. But on this scale it adds up to millions going into the assumedly deep pockets of one American privateer.
Yet a third Afghan-American, a businessman who has worked on American projects in his homeland, insisted that when Bush pledged $10.4 billion in aid, President Karzai should have offered him a deal: "Give me $2 billion in cash, I'll kick back the rest to you, and you can take your army and go home."
"If Karzai had put the cash in an Afghan bank," the businessman added, "and spent it himself on what people really need, both
Don't think of such stories, and thousands of others like them, as merely tales of the everyday theft or waste of a few hundred million dollars -- a form of well-organized, routine graft that leaves the corruption of Karzai's government in the shade and will undoubtedly continue unremarked upon in the Obama years. Those multi-millions that will continue to be poured down the Afghan drain really represent promises made to a people whose country and culture we have devastated more than once. They are promises made by our government, paid for by our taxpayers, and repeatedly broken.
These stories, which you'll seldom hear about, are every bit as important as the debates about military strength and tactics and strategy in
Ann Jones wrote at length about the failure of American aid in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan Books), a book about American meddling in
Copyright 2009 Ann Jones
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs