The Afghan Scam
by Ann Jones, TomDispatch.com
www.truthdig.com/. January 13,
The first of 20,000 to 30,000 additional
U.S. troops are scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan next month
to re-win the war George W. Bush neglected to finish in his eagerness
to start another one. However, "winning" the military
campaign against the Taliban is the lesser half of the story.
Going into Afghanistan, the Bush administration
called for a political campaign to reconstruct the country and
thereby establish the authority of a stable, democratic Afghan
central government. It was understood that the two campaigns-military
and political/economic-had to go forward together; the success
of each depended on the other. But the vision of a reconstructed,
peaceful, stable, democratically governed Afghanistan faded fast.
Most Afghans now believe that it was nothing but a cover story
for the Bush administration's real goal-to set up permanent bases
in Afghanistan and occupy the country forever.
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 U.S. delivered
the promised services on time, while employing Afghans to rebuild
their own country according to their own priorities and under
the supervision of their own government-a mini-Marshall Plan-they
would now be in charge of their own defense. The forces on the
other side, which we loosely call the Taliban, would also have
lost much of their grounds for complaint.
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 Iraq; Louis Berger
Group, Bearing Point, and DynCorp International in Afghanistan.
They're all in it together. So far, the Bush administration has
bamboozled Americans about its shady aid program. Nobody talks
about it. Yet the aid scam, which would be a scandal if it weren't
so profitable for so many, explains far more than does troop strength
about why, today, we are on the verge of watching the whole Afghan
enterprise go belly up.
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 Afghanistan (while pledging to
draw-down U.S. forces in Iraq), but he has yet to say a significant
word about the reconstruction mission. While many aid workers
in that country remain full of good intentions, the delivery systems
for and uses of U.S. aid have been so thoroughly corrupted that
we can only expect more of the same-unless Obama cleans house
fast. But given the monumental problems on his plate, how likely
The Jolly Privateers
It's hard to overstate the magnitude of
the failure of American reconstruction in Afghanistan. While the
U.S. has occupied the country-for seven years and counting-and
efficiently set up a network of bases and prisons, it has yet
to restore to Kabul, the capital, a mud brick city slightly more
populous than Houston, a single one of the public services its
citizens used to enjoy. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan
in the 1980s, they modernized the education system and built power
plants, dams, factories, and apartment blocs, still the most coveted
in the country. If, in the last seven years, George W. Bush did
not get the lights back on in the capital, or the water flowing,
or dispose of the sewage or trash, how can we assume Barack Obama
will do any better with the corrupt system he's about to inherit?
Between 2002 and 2008, the U.S. pledged
$10.4 billion dollars in "development" (reconstruction)
aid to Afghanistan, but actually delivered only $5 billion of
that amount. Considering that the U.S. is spending $36 billion
a year on the war in Afghanistan and about $8 billion a month
on the war in Iraq, that $5 billion in development aid looks paltry
indeed. But keep in mind that, in a country as poor as Afghanistan,
a little well spent money can make a big difference.
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
The American privateer training the police-DynCorp-went
on to win no-bid contracts to train police in Iraq with similar
results. The total bill for American taxpayers from 2004 to 2006:
$1.6 billion. It's unclear whether that money came from the military
or the development budget, but in either case it was wasted. The
inspectors general reported that police incompetence contributed
directly to increased opium production, the reinvigoration of
the Taliban, and government corruption in general, thoroughly
subverting much ballyhooed U.S. goals, both military and political.
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 Japan, have already been spent to disarm local militias. A
proposal to rearm them was soundly defeated last fall in the Afghan
Parliament. Now, it's again the plan du jour, rubber-stamped by
Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
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 Afghanistan," a contract DynCorp CEO William Ballhaus
greeted as "an opportunity to contribute to peace, stability
and democracy in the world [and] support our government's efforts
to improve people's lives."
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 U.S. Agency
for International Development (USAID) funds private American contractors
to start literacy programs for adults. As a result, Afghan teachers
abandon the public schools and education administrators leave
the Ministry for higher paying jobs with those contractors, further
undermining public education and governance. The Bush administration
may have no particular reason to sabotage its handpicked government,
but it has had every reason to befriend private contractors who
have, in turn, kicked back generously to election campaigns and
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 Sweden and Ireland allocate only 4% and 2% respectively
to such technical assistance, and when asked, they send real experts.
American technical advisors, like American privateers, are paid
by checks-big ones-that pass directly from the federal treasury
to private accounts in American banks, thus helping to insure
that about 86 cents of every dollar designated for U.S. "foreign"
aid anywhere in the world never leaves the U.S.A.
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 Afghanistan to purchase American agricultural
products in preference to their own, thus putting Afghan farmers
out of business or driving even more of them into the poppy trade.
(The percentage of aid from Sweden, Ireland, and the United Kingdom
that is similarly tied: zero.)
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 U.S. exports." Such so-called
aid cuts American business in right from the start. USAID has
even developed a system for "preselecting" certain private
contractors, then inviting only those preselected companies to
apply for contracts the agency wants to issue.
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 Afghanistan
remains such a shambles.
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 "Afghanistan
Reborn"). It will inform you that USAID has completed literally
thousands of projects in that country. The USAID loves numbers,
but don't be deceived by them. A thousand short-term USAID projects
can't hold a candle to one long, careful, patient program run,
year after year, by a bunch of Afghans led by a single Swede.
If there has been any progress in Afghanistan,
especially in and around Kabul, it's largely been because two-thirds
of the reconstruction aid to Afghanistan comes from other (mostly
European) countries that do a better job, and partly because the
country's druglords spend big on palatial homes and services in
the capital. But the one-third of international aid that is supposed
to come from the U.S., and that might make a critical difference
when added to the work of others, eternally falls into the wrong
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
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
"If Karzai had put the cash in an
Afghan bank," the businessman added, "and spent it himself
on what people really need, both Afghanistan and Karzai would
be in much better shape today." Yes, he was half-joking,
but he wasn't wrong.
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 Afghanistan that dominate
public discourse today. Those promises, made in our name, were
once said to be why we fight; now-broken-they remind us that we've
Ann Jones wrote at length about the failure
of American aid in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan Books), a book
about American meddling in Afghanistan as well as her experience
as a humanitarian aid worker there from 2002 to 2006.