Everyone concerned with Afghanistan is focused on President Obama's troop deployment decision. So it's easy to overlook a related charade already under way: Washington's plans to throw away more than $10 billion in development aid.
All of that money is intended to build roads, schools, health clinics and other new infrastructure to win favor among Afghans. But that's not the way it is working out. It's as if Washington has overlooked lessons learned in Iraq just a few years ago. There, the Bush administration spent tens of billions on fantastical development schemes: roads, schools, hospitals — plus electricity-generation stations, sewage-treatment facilities, irrigation systems. Inspectors general found that nearly all of this infrastructure and equipment fell into hopeless disrepair because Iraqis didn't know how, or care, to keep them up. Insurgents destroyed the others.
Now we are at it again in Afghanistan. The U.S. government has $6 billion available to spend on development projects, and an additional $4 billion has already been approved for the coming year. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, is asking for more.
Add endemic corruption to all the problems faced in Iraq, and there's little doubt that the money will be wasted. Transparency International just published its 2009 corruption perception index, and Afghanistan had fallen to the very bottom of the list — the 179th most corrupt nation of 180 investigated. Only Somalia, a wholly dysfunctional state, saved Afghanistan from crashing to the floor.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the United States will not provide more civilian aid unless it can be sure the government is accountable for the funds so they are not "diverted for corrupt purpose," as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., put it.
But how can Washington ever assure that? Corruption in development aid is largely invisible until a school building falls down, a road crumbles. Only then do development officers learn that Afghan contractors "flipped" the construction contract — sold it to another builder after taking a 10 percent cut of the funds. The buyer then flipped it again, and perhaps again, leaving so little money for the actual builder that the final product is so shoddy that is soon collapses.
That is how Andrew Wilder, an expert on Afghanistan at Tufts University, described the process during a recent U.S. Institute of Peace seminar. How will anyone keep track of that until it is too late?
David Kilcullen, an adviser to the military in Afghanistan, described another problem. When villagers in remote areas welcome Western soldiers or development officers into their town to build a bridge or a school, as soon as the foreigners leave the Taliban return. They then declare the villagers to be quislings and kill them. While they're at it, they destroy the bridge and burn down the school.
All of that has convinced many Afghans that the last thing they want is aid from the West. They can't look to the Afghan police for help. Many of them are on the Taliban payroll. Others require bribes before they will pay attention. Jean MacKenzie, a GlobalPost reporter, meticulously documented how the Taliban are manipulating the foreign-aid contracting process by demanding a share of the development money for each new project. Refusal is fatal. So, in effect, the United States Agency for International Development and other aid agencies are funding the Taliban, indirectly providing the group with tens of millions of dollars.
Conversely, the Taliban appreciate the new road projects. The highways make it a lot easier to reach provincial centers, plant bombs and kill government officials. Complaining to government officials in Kabul is seldom useful because most of them have bought their positions and now sit astride the stream of bribery and kickback cash. As an example, Mohammed Ibrahim Adel, the minister of mines, stands accused of accepting a $30 million bribe from a Chinese company in exchange for rights to a copper mine in Logar province.
Unconvincingly, the minister denied the charge. And not surprisingly, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, sworn in for a new term last week, had nothing to say about his aide's alleged errant behavior. But then, he is also a stout defender of his brother, Wali Karzai, who Western officials say is an important player in Afghanistan's outlaw opium-poppy industry.
Wali Karzai does not shy from the charges. As he put it recently: "Yes, I am powerful because I am the president's brother. This is a country ruled by kings. The king's brothers, cousins and sons are all powerful.
"This is Afghanistan. It will change, but it will not change overnight."