Ann Jones on the Road to Taliban Land

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[Note for readers: The next Tomdispatch post will be on September 5th.]

For the last year or more, the news trickling in from Afghanistan, the first country “liberated” by the Bush administration, has been ever more dismal — a Taliban insurgency expanding and becoming more sophisticated in its tactics; poppy-growing and drug production on a steep upward climb; the government in Kabul faltering; and, for the U.S., the usual crop of Afghan civilians killed in operations guaranteed to stoke the flames of opposition.

Ann Jones, an award-winning journalist and women’s rights activist, begins her remarkable new book, Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, this way: “I went to Afghanistan after the bombing stopped. Somehow I felt obliged to help pick up the pieces. I was a New Yorker who had always lived downtown, and for a long time after the towers fell I experienced moments when I couldn’t get my bearings… Four thousand collateral civilian deaths in Kabul brought no consolation for the death of thousands from around the world in the fallen towers of the city that had so long been my home. I thought America had lost its bearing too. So I left.”

As it turned out, though, the bombing of that already fractured land never really stopped. In fact, in recent months, as fighting in Afghanistan only spread and intensified, while British, French, and Canadian soldiers of the NATO force just emplaced in the southern part of the country as well as American soldiers began to die in greater numbers, U.S. bombing missions have been on the rise and those old Vietnam heavy bombers, the B-52s, have even been called in. Jones herself spent the better part of four years working with small, humanitarian NGOs in Kabul, investigating the conditions of women in Afghan prisons (abysmal), teaching English to Afghan schoolteachers (“Once, after I explained what blind date meant, a woman said, ‘Like my wedding.'”), and discovering much about the American way of “reconstruction.”

She left Afghanistan in March 2006. Only months later, there may be yet more jumbled pieces, far less well picked up than might have seemed humanly possible back in 2002 when the Bush administration was touting Afghanistan as its first great success in remaking the known world. Jones came home to write a vivid, moving, and saddening book about just what happened to those “pieces” she witnessed (with plenty of historical background for those who know little about modern Afghanistan, that strange crucible of Great Power dreams and conflicts) — especially about the state of Afghan women. I recommend her book most strongly.

Below she considers the nature of American “reconstruction” in Afghanistan. On this day, with tropical storm Ernesto threatening to turn into a category 1 hurricane in the Caribbean and potentially menacing a wide stretch of the U.S. Gulf Coast, including Katrina-ravaged, still largely unreconstructed New Orleans, and with the Army Corps of Engineers just informing that city’s residents that their partially rebuilt levees may not, in fact, be able to withstand a strong storm, her analysis of Bush administration-style reconstruction seems germane for more than just Afghanistan. Tom

Why It’s Not Working in Afghanistan
By Ann Jones

Remember when peaceful, democratic, reconstructed Afghanistan was advertised as the exemplar for the extreme makeover of Iraq? In August 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already proclaiming the new Afghanistan “a breathtaking accomplishment” and “a successful model of what could happen to Iraq.” As everybody now knows, the model isn’t working in Iraq. So we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s not working in Afghanistan either.

The story of success in Afghanistan was always more fairy tale than fact — one scam used to sell another. Now, as the Bush administration hands off “peacekeeping” to NATO forces, Afghanistan is the scene of the largest military operation in the history of that organization. Today’s personal email brings word from an American surgeon in Kabul that her emergency medical team can’t handle half the wounded civilians brought in from embattled provinces to the south and east. American, British, and Canadian troops find themselves at war with Taliban fighters — which is to say “Afghans” — while stunned NATO commanders, who hadn’t bargained for significant combat, are already asking what went wrong.

The answer is a threefold failure: no peace, no democracy, and no reconstruction.

Doing Things Backward

Critics of American Afghan policy agree that the Bush administration, in its haste to take out Saddam’s Iraq, did things backward. After bombing the Taliban into the boondocks in 2001, it set up a government without first making peace — a scenario later to be repeated in Iraq.

Instead of pressing for peace negotiations among rival Afghan parties, the victorious Americans handed power to Islamists and militia commanders who had served as America’s stand-in soldiers in its Afghan proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Then the Bush administration staged elections for these candidates and touted the result as democracy. It also confined an International Security Assistance Force, made up largely of European troops, to the capital, creating an island of safety for the government, while dispatching warlords of its choice to hunt for Osama bin Laden in the countryside.

In the east and south — that is, about half the country — the Taliban never stopped fighting. Now, augmented by imported al-Qaeda fighters (“Arab-Afghans”) and new tactics learned from the insurgency in Iraq (roadside bombs or IEDs, suicide bombing), Taliban forces are stronger than at any time since the United States “conquered” them in 2001. According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, most Afghans have long favored a process of amnesty and reconciliation; and President Hamid Karzai recently called on the Bush administration to change course and stop killing Afghans. But administration policy, recently reaffirmed in Kabul by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calls for a fight to the last Talib.

Predictably, public opinion has been turning steadily against the largely powerless central government, guarded in the capital by foreign forces. The insecurity endured by most Afghans — the absence of peace — is enough to make them give up hope in President Karzai, often jeeringly referred to as the “mayor of Kabul” or “assistant to the American Ambassador.”

Historically Afghans have selected and followed strong leaders; they expect a leader to deliver security, jobs, special favors something anyway. The Karzai government, confined to a self-serving American agenda that is often at odds with Afghan interests, has delivered nothing at all to the average Afghan, still living in abysmal poverty. In 2004, Afghans dutifully voted for Karzai as the instrument of American promises. By 2005, when Parliamentary elections were held, voters indicated that they were fed up with the same old candidates — all those militia commanders and Islamist extremists — and the same old hollow promises.

The sad part of the story is this. Despite the Bush administration’s sham “peace” and fake “democracy,” it might have made — might still make — a success of Afghanistan if only it delivered on that third big promise: to rebuild the bombed-out country. Most Afghans, after the dispersal of the Taliban, were full of hope and ready to work. The tangible benefits of reconstruction — jobs, housing, schools, health-care facilities — could have rallied them to support the government and turn that illusory “democracy” into something like the real thing. But reconstruction didn’t happen. When NATO-led forces moved into the southern provinces this summer to keep the peace and continue “development,” Lieutenant-General David Richards, British commander of the operation, seemed astonished to find that little or no development had so far taken place.

For that failure the U.S. is to blame. Until this year, the American-led Coalition assumed sole charge of “security” operations outside Kabul, but it never put enough troops on the ground to do the job. (Sound familiar?) As a result, aid workers (both international and Afghan) lost their lives, and non-governmental aid organizations (NGOs) withdrew to Kabul, or like Médecins Sans Frontières, left the country altogether. Private contractors who remained in the field found themselves regularly diverting project funds to “security,” so that, as in Iraq, aid money poured into operations that belonged in the military budget.

A recent audit by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction found the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) using “an accounting shell game” to hide mammoth cost overruns on projects — as high as 418% — resulting partly from such security problems. There’s every reason to believe that an audit of Afghanistan reconstruction by many of the same firms under contract to USAID would reveal similar accounting practices used for the same reason. Without peace there can be no security, and without security no development.

The Reconstruction Shell Game

But there’s more to the story than that. To understand the failure — and fraud — of such reconstruction, you have to take a look at the peculiar system of American aid for international development. During the last five years, the U.S. and many other donor nations pledged billions of dollars to Afghanistan, yet Afghans keep asking: “Where did the money go?” American taxpayers should be asking the same question. The official answer is that donor funds are lost to Afghan corruption. But shady Afghans, accustomed to two-bit bribes, are learning how big-bucks corruption really works from the masters of the world.

A fact-packed report issued in June 2005 by Action Aid, a widely respected NGO, headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, makes sense of the workings of that world. The report studied development aid given by all countries globally and discovered that only a small part of it — maybe 40% — is real. The rest is “phantom” aid; that is, the money never actually shows up in recipient countries at all.

Some of it doesn’t even exist except as an accounting item, as when countries count debt relief or the construction costs for a fancy new embassy in the aid column. A lot of it never leaves home. Paychecks for American “experts” under contract to USAID, for example, go directly from the Agency to their American banks without ever passing through the to-be-reconstructed country. Much aid money, the report concludes, is thrown away on “overpriced and ineffective Technical Assistance,” such as those very hot-shot American experts. And a big chunk of it is carefully “tied” to the donor nation, which means that the recipient is obliged to use the donated money to buy products from the donor country, even when — especially when — the same goods are available cheaper at home.

The U.S. easily outstrips other nations at most of these scams, making it second only to France as the world’s biggest purveyor of phantom aid. Fully 47% of American development aid is lavished on overpriced technical assistance. By comparison, only 4% of Sweden’s aid budget and only 2% of Luxembourg’s and Ireland’s goes to such assistance. As for tying aid to the purchase of donor-made products, Sweden and Norway don’t do it all; neither do Ireland and the United Kingdom. But 70% of American aid is contingent upon the recipient spending it on American stuff, especially American-made armaments. Considering all these practices, Action Aid calculates that 86 cents of every dollar of American aid is phantom aid.

According to targets set years ago by the UN and agreed to by almost every country in the world, a rich country should give 0.7% of its national income in annual aid to poor ones. So far, only the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (with real aid at 0.65% of national income) even come close. At the other end of the scale, the U.S. spends a paltry 0.02% of national income on real aid, which works out to an annual contribution of $8.00 from every citizen of “the wealthiest nation in the world.” (By comparison, Swedes kick in $193 per person, Norwegians $304, and the citizens of Luxembourg $357.) President Bush boasts of sending billions in aid to Afghanistan, but in fact we could do better by passing a hat.

The Bush administration often deliberately misrepresents its aid program for domestic consumption. Last year, for example, when the President sent his wife to Kabul for a few hours of photo ops, the New York Times reported that her mission was “to promise long-term commitment from the United States to education for women and children.” Speaking in Kabul, Mrs. Bush pledged that the United States would give an additional $17.7 million to support education in Afghanistan. As it happened, that grant had previously been announced — and it was not for Afghan public education (or women and children) at all, but to establish a brand-new, private, for-profit American University of Afghanistan catering to the Afghan and international elite. (How a private university comes to be supported by public taxpayer dollars and the Army Corps of Engineers is another peculiarity of Bush aid.)

Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister of Afghanistan and president of Kabul University, complained, “You cannot support private education and ignore public education.” But typically, having set up a government in Afghanistan, the U.S. stiffs it, preferring to channel aid money to private American contractors. Increasingly privatized, U.S. aid becomes just one more mechanism for transferring taxpayer dollars to the coffers of select American companies and the pockets of the already rich.

In 2001, Andrew Natsios, then head of USAID, cited foreign aid as “a key foreign policy instrument” designed to help other countries “become better markets for U.S. exports.” To guarantee that mission, the State Department recently took over the formerly semi-autonomous aid agency. And since the aim of American aid is to make the world safe for American business, USAID now cuts in business from the start. It sends out requests for proposals to a short list of the usual suspects and awards contracts to those bidders currently in favor. (Election-time kickbacks influence the list of favorites.)

Sometimes it invites only one contractor to apply, the same efficient procedure that made Halliburton so notorious and profitable in Iraq. In many fields it “preselects vendors” by accepting bids every five years or so on an IQC — that’s an “Indefinite Quantities Contract.” Contractors submit indefinite information about what they might be prepared to do in unspecified areas, should some more definite contract materialize; the winners become designated contractors who are invited to apply when the real thing comes along. USAID generates the real thing in the form of an RFP, a Request for Proposals, issued to the “pre-selected vendors” who then compete (or collaborate) to do — in yet another country — work dreamed up in Washington by theoreticians unencumbered by first hand knowledge of the hapless “target.”

The Road to Taliban Land

The criteria by which contractors are selected have little or nothing to do with conditions in the recipient country, and they are not exactly what you would call transparent. Take the case of the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, featured on the USAID website as a proud accomplishment. In five years, it’s also the only accomplishment in highway building — which makes it one better than the Bush administration record in building power stations, water systems, sewer systems, or dams.

The highway was featured in the Kabul Weekly newspaper in March 2005 under the headline, “Millions Wasted on Second-Rate Roads.” Afghan journalist Mirwais Harooni reported that even though other international companies had been ready to rebuild the highway for $250,000 per kilometer, the U.S.-based Louis Berger Group got the job at $700,000 per kilometer — of which there are 389. Why? The standard American answer is that Americans do better work — though not Berger which, at the time, was already years behind on another $665 million contract to build Afghan schools. Berger subcontracted to Turkish and Indian companies to build the narrow, two-lane, shoulderless highway at a final cost of about $1 million per mile; and anyone who travels it today can see that it is already falling apart.

Former Minister of Planning Ramazan Bashardost complained that when it came to building roads, the Taliban had done a better job; and he too asked, “Where did the money go?” Now, in a move certain to tank President Karzai’s approval ratings and further endanger U.S. and NATO troops in the area, the Bush administration has pressured his government to turn this “gift of the people of the United States” into a toll road, charging each driver $20 for a road-use permit valid for one month. In this way, according to American experts providing highly paid technical assistance, Afghanistan can collect $30 million annually from its impoverished citizens and thereby decrease the foreign aid “burden” on the United States.

Is it any wonder that foreign aid seems to ordinary Afghans to be something only foreigners enjoy? At one end of the infamous highway, in Kabul, Afghans complain about the fancy restaurants where those experts, technicians, and other foreigners gather, men and women together, to drink alcohol, carry on, and plunge half-naked into swimming pools. They object to the brothels — eighty of them by 2005 — that house women trafficked in to serve the “needs” of foreign men. They complain that half the capital city still lies in ruins, that many people still live in tents, that thousands can’t find jobs, that children go hungry, that schools and hospitals are overcrowded, that women in tattered burqas still beg in the streets and turn to prostitution, that children are kidnapped and sold into slavery or murdered for their kidneys or eyes. They wonder where the promised aid money went and what the puppet government can possibly do to make things better.

At the other end of the highway, in Kandahar city — President Karzai’s home town — and in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, and Uruzgan, Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah is reported to have more than 12,000 men under arms and squads of suicide bombers at the ready. They ambush newly arrived NATO troops. The embattled British commander, Lieutenant-General Richards, recently issued a warning: “We need to realize that we could actually fail here.”

The U.S. attacks the Taliban, as it did in 2001, with air power. (The Times of London reports that in May alone, U.S. planes flew an “astonishing” 750 bombing raids.) Every day brings new reports of NATO and Taliban combat casualties, and of “suspected” Taliban as well as civilians killed, long range, by American bombs.

In the meantime, the Taliban take control of villages; they murder teachers and blow up schools. U.S.-led drug eradication teams take control of villages and destroy the poppy crops of poor farmers. Caught as usual in the middle of warring factions, Afghans of the south and east long ago ceased to wonder where the money went. Instead they wonder who the government is. And what ever happened to “peace”

Journalist and photographer Ann Jones spent much of the last four years in Afghanistan working as a human rights researcher and women’s advocate with international humanitarian agencies and teaching English to Kabul high school English teachers. She writes about her Afghan experience for the Nation magazine and notably in a new book Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books, 2006). For more on her, check out her website.

Copyright 2006 Ann Jones