Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Afghanistan spiral

For a couple of years or so now, I have been peripherally aware of the state of affairs in Afghanistan - the Taliban not yet routed, Karzai's authority being limited to Kabul, the occasional bombings and deaths of civilians, reconstruction going nowhere, promises of international aid remaining unfulfilled and the opium crop and trade booming.

Suicide bombings in Afghanistan have jumped sharply in the last couple of years. In 2002, there was one failed attempt. In 2005 there were 21 incidents of suicide bombings. In the first 8 months of 2006 there were 43. The Taliban (and perhaps Al Qaeda) have found this method of mayhem to be quite effective.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, who is supposed to have spent a few days in Taliban captivity, has recently written a series of articles at Asia Times which speak of a coming spring offensive by the Taliban as an inevitability. The articles contain, among other interesting details, descriptions of "logistics experts" gathering supplies, a field commander discussing how the occupation is unifying disparate groups and notorious warlord Gulbudin Hekmatyar jockeying for more power. None of these is a good sign.

Perhaps as a response to this, the Bush administration is seeking $10.6 billion for its efforts in Afghanistan. The money is for two years, but $8.6 billion of it is to be spent on "security". At 81%, the ratio of the money spent on security to the money spent on other activities (reconstruction/development/infrastructure/social services) is too high. Even this high a ratio is actually an improvement on the Bush administration's track record in Afghanistan and Iraq. Included in this extremely informative report by the Congressional Research Service is the fact that of the nearly $88 billion spent on Afghanistan since 9/11, only about $6 billion has gone towards reconstruction and aid.

I think that this is a consistent and tragic mistake. The only way that the Taliban can be ultimately rooted out is if the current administration is able to show that people are better off under it. Given that the country has been a ruin for a long time, thanks first to the Soviets, then to the civil war and finally to the American bombing campaigns, basic things like roads, electricity and medical facilities are extremely important. Lacking an economic base, the government has to rely on foreign aid. Unfortunately, therein lies the rub.

Foreign aid is notorious for being administered extremely poorly and aid to Afghanistan is no exception. Most US foreign aid ends up as payments to American companies who work on horrendously expensive projects that are shoddily executed. Take the case of the Louis Berger group for example. This company had received contracts worth $665 million to build clinics, schools roads etc. in Afghanistan. According to Ann Jones, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, the company built a two-lane shoulder-less road that cost about a million dollars a mile, when other groups could have built it for about 40% of the cost. The clinics that the company built are crumbling. This detailed report tells the long, sad story of Afghan reconstruction.

Multi-lateral aid is not very much better. Over the four-year period from May 2002 to September 2006, 25 donor countries had ponied up $1.4 billion (of the $1.7 billion pledged) to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. This fund is overseen by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the UNDP. Of the $1.4 billion, $860 million has gone towards the expenses of the Afghan government (salaries and maintenance) while only $214 million has gone for investment projects.

All of this is fairly well-recognized and documented. Nevertheless, it is galling to see headlines talk of the money being requested and spent as "aid". Firstly, most of the money is for military operations. It does not aid anybody. Secondly, whatever small fraction is for development or reconstruction makes its way to American companies or corrupt officials in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, the people in those countries are left without regular electricity or decent roads. All they have are the token schools and the crumbling clinics. These are then listed as proud achievements by local and American bureaucrats who don't ever distinguish between progress and the mere appearance of activity. No wonder the public in Afghanistan fails to see the benefits of American largesse.

American contractors, bless their souls, are generously rewarded for their devotion to duty. For its successes, the Louis Berger group has been awarded an additional five-year contract worth $1.4 billion.

I don't see things improving much in Afghanistan. And if Shahzad is right, a major confrontation between NATO forces and the Taliban is looming. Again, a lot of misery will be heaped upon the long-suffering population. For this at least, I would be very happy to be proved wrong by events.


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