News from Afghanistan: $52bn of American aid and still Afghans are dying of starvation
- $52bn of American aid and still Afghans are dying of starvation
Patrick Cockburn reports from Kabul on the rampant corruption that has left the country on its knees
Monday, 13 December 2010
The most extraordinary failure of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan is that the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars has had so little impact on the misery in which 30 million Afghans live. As President Barack Obama prepares this week to present a review of America's strategy in Afghanistan which is likely to focus on military progress, US officials, Afghan administrators, businessmen and aid workers insist that corruption is the greatest threat to the country's future.
In a series of interviews, they paint a picture of a country where $52bn (£33bn) in US aid since 2001 has made almost no impression on devastating poverty made worse by spreading violence and an economy dislocated by war. That enormous aid budget, two-thirds for security and one-third for economic, social and political development, has made little impact on 9 million living in absolute poverty, and another 5 million trying to survive on $43 (£27) a month. The remainder of the population often barely scrapes a living, having to choose between buying wood to keep warm and buying food.
Afghans see a racketeering élite as the main beneficiaries of international support and few of them are optimistic about anything changing. "Things look all right to foreigners but in fact people are dying of starvation in Kabul," says Abdul Qudus, a man in his forties with a deeply lined face, who sells second-hand clothes and shoes on a street corner in the capital. They are little more than rags, lying on display on the half-frozen mud.
"I buy and sell clothes for between 10 and 30 Afghanis (two to six cents) and even then there are people who are too poor to buy them," says Mr Qudus. "I myself am very poor and sometimes I don't eat so I can feed my children." He says he started selling second-hand clothes two years ago when he lost his job washing carpets.
The aid projects that are meant to help people like Mr Qudus may have little to do with his problems and may not even exist. Fake photographs are often the only evidence that companies have carried out expensive projects located in parts of Afghanistan too dangerous for donors to visit.
"I went to see a food processing plant in the east of the country which was meant to employ 250 women," says an Afghan who used to work for an American government aid organisation. "We had started the project and were paying for the equipment and the salaries. But all I found was a few people working on a vegetable plot the size of a small room."
When he complained he was told by a local official to keep his mouth shut. He said that "if I did not keep quiet there would be trouble on the road back to Jalalabad – in other words they would kill me."
US officials admit privately that the torrent of aid money that has poured into Afghanistan has stoked corruption and done ordinary Afghans little good. Afghanistan was identified as the third most corrupt country out of 178 in the world in a report released last week by Transparency International.
"The aid projects are too big, carried out in too short a time, and the places they are located in are too remote," says a diplomat. He recalled that he was unable to monitor a road construction project in Kunar province in the east, because he was not allowed to visit areas where he and his team could not be protected.
Afghan and Americans who have overseen aid projects agree that the "quick fix" approach has been disastrous. Schools are equipped with computers in districts where there is no electric power or fresh water.
The flood of money has had little success in reducing economic hardship. "It has all messed up into one big soup," says Karolina Olofsson, head of advocacy and communication for the Afghan NGO Integrity Watch Afghanistan. Aid organisations are judged by the amount of money they spend rather than any productive outcome, she says.
"The US has a highly capitalist approach and seeks to deliver aid through private companies," she says. "It does not like to use NGOs which its officials consider too idealistic."
Big contracts are given to large US companies that are used to a complicated bidding process, can produce appropriate paperwork, and are well connected in Washington. The problem is that much of Afghanistan is far too dangerous for these companies to carry out work themselves or monitor subcontractors.
In his office in Kabul, Hedayatullah Hafizy, owner of the Noor Taq-e-Zafar Construction Company, says that there is a simple reason why the work is so poor. He says: "Let us say the main US contractor has a contract worth $2.5m. He will take a 20 per cent administrative fee and find a subcontractor, who will subcontract to an Afghan company, which may subcontract again. At the end of the day only $1.4m may be there for building the project."
The progress of schemes is often monitored by photographs. In one small but typical case an Afghan company was paid to build and get running a tractor repair shop in the dangerous Oruzgan province. The contractor rented an existing tractor repair shop in Kandahar province for the day and hired local young men to look as if they were busily fixing engines in the shop. This was all photographed and the pictures emailed to the main contractor and the donor organisation, both of whom expressed satisfaction at what had been achieved. "There is no intention to provide a service," says Mr Hedayatullah, "just to make money".
There have been some successes. But, overall, aid has done surprisingly little for most Afghans. Yama Torabi, the co-director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, says it is not really possible to carry out development aid in areas of conflict where there is fighting – it might be better to stick to emergency relief.
This would be contrary to US military policy, pioneered in Iraq, whereby local US military commanders control substantial funds that can be used for aid projects through the so-called provincial reconstruction teams. But this militarisation of aid means that the Taliban target schools built on the orders of a US commander.
"People see schools built by the Americans as American property," says an Afghan who once worked for a US government agency. "They are frightened of sending their children there."
The US government policy of providing aid through large American private companies is proving a failure in Afghanistan as it did previously in Iraq.
As winter approaches, half of Afghans face not getting enough to eat, according to the US Famine Early Warning Systems Network. The best use of aid money may be to subsidise food prices and help save people like Mr Qudus, the old clothes seller, and his family from starving.
Many killed in Afghan city attacks
Police and soldiers are among those dead after army recruitment centre in Kunduz was attacked.
Last Modified: 19 Dec 2010 08:00 GMT
At least 10 people have been killed after Taliban fighters launched attacks in Kabul and in the Afghan northern province of Kunduz.
Sunday's attacks, which Al Jazeera's correspondent in Kabul said "took place almost simultaneously", came as the death toll for foreign troops in Afghanistan hit 700 in 2010, by far the deadliest year of the near decade-long war.
The dead included policemen and soldiers, said Hashem Ahelbarra , adding that a senior militia commander in Kunduz was seriously injured.
"Two susicide bombers were on their way to attack a heavily guarded army camp on Jalalabad road and they were intercepted by police," our correspondent said, referring to the Kabul attack.
"There was an exchange of gunfire for sometime and one of the Taliban suicide bombers managed to blow himself up near a bus [and] the other was killed by police. Four soldiers were injured and a civilian was also injured."
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, the first major attack in the Afghan capital since May, when six foreign troops were killed by a large suicide car bomb.
EU 'losing faith' in Afghanistan
Leaked US cables quote EU president saying that European troops are deployed in Nato force in 'deference' to the US.
Last Modified: 05 Dec 2010 14:15 GMT
The European Union no longer believes that US and Nato forces can succeed in Afghanistan, but continues to commit troops to the fight "out of deference to the United States", the EU president is quoted as saying in leaked US diplomatic cables.
Herman Van Rompuy, who at the time was president-designate, was quoted as telling Howard Gutman, the US ambassador to Belgium, in December 2009 that 2010 would be the "last chance" for Afghanistan in European eyes.
"Europe is doing it and will go along out of deference to the United States but not out of deference to Afghanistan," Van Rompuy is quoted as saying in the cable posted by the WikiLeaks whistleblowing website on Sunday.
"No one believes in Afghanistan any more. But we will give it 2010 to see results. If it doesn't work, that will be it because it is the last chance. And if a Belgian gets killed, it would be over for Belgium right then."
The cable did not detail Van Rompuy's complaints about the conflict in Afghanistan, and did not say whether it was the government in Kabul or the drawn out war with the Taliban that was the primary source of EU frustration.
The Kabul kids aren't alright
By Sue Turton in
on November 23rd, 2010.
It's the kids that break your heart in Kabul.
Picking through rubbish dumps for something that might have a worth or scavenging for firewood to keep their family warm. There are ragged youths at every roundabout here tapping on the car window begging for Afghanis or proffering tin cans of burning charcoal that promise to rid your car of evil spirits.|
The daily violence does not discriminate between old and young and the numbers of children ripped apart by IEDs and suicide bombers gets ever higher.
If you're born in Afghanistan the odds are stacked against you from the day of your birth.
Mortality rates during child birth have improved but they're still amongst the highest in the world. One in every five don't make it to their fifth birthday.
If the conflict doesn't get you, the pneumonia, hypothermia, diarrhoea or tuberculosis just might. And that's just the physical side. One-quarter of all Afghan children are thought to have mental problems related to the trauma of war.
Comments made by Nato's top civilian envoy, Mark Sedwill, this week suggesting life was better for kids here than it was for those in London or Glasgow didn't reach Wazir Akba Khan where we live and work in central Kabul.
Hamid and Omed, who had been sifting through the huge pile of rubbish just round the corner from our bureau, said they weren't scared of anything. Apart from the soldiers that often threatened to beat them. They looked about 13-years-old. But everybody looks older than they are here.
I know the UK's inner cities. As a young reporter I covered stories from northern council estates to some of the harsher boroughs of central London. Some children in Britain live in squalid homes and face daily abuse. But they've slipped through the net of social services. There is no net in Afghanistan.
Mr Sedwill got one thing right. He said this was a family-orientated society.
As a nation the Afghans do look after one another. It's their religious duty to help those worse off. But we are talking about giving charity to those at risk of starving or freezing to death. Britain's inner cities can be tough but here it's about just staying alive not improving the quality of life.
For children, Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. London and Glasgow don't come close.
One in 10 victorious Afghan candidates banned for fraud
Hamid Karzai may overturn election body's ruling over ballot in which polling station closures hit Pashtun votes
Jon Boone in Kabul
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 21 November 2010 20.07 GMT
Almost one in 10 of Afghanistan's victorious parliamentary candidates were disqualified for cheating today after an investigation into widespread fraud during September's election.
Twenty-one candidates were stripped of their win by the electoral complaints commission (ECC) for "irregularities, usage of fake votes and the influence of provincial officials". The disqualifications will heighten tensions in the country with the publication of the final election results only days away.
It is more than two months since Afghans went to the polls for only the second time to elect MPs. The results are likely to dramatically reduce the influence of Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, who have traditionally dominated Afghanistan.
They have lost around 20 seats, with their final tally set to be roughly 90, meaning they will be a minority in the parliament of 249 MPs. Pashtun voters tend to live in areas of high insecurity where many polling stations were unable to open.
The international community had hoped the election would not be as traumatic as last year's presidential poll, which was wrecked by astonishing levels of fraud committed on behalf of president Hamid Karzai.
But almost a quarter of the 5.6m votes cast this time have had to be disqualified in an election that one diplomat described it as "an absolute disaster" because it could lead to a parliament the Pashtuns regard as illegitimate.
Karzai has also talked about the threat to "national unity" and a number of western diplomats fear he could refuse to accept the results.
One foreign official said the Afghan president had even sounded out Yunis Qanooni, the speaker of parliament, about ignoring the results and keeping the current legislature in position. Qanooni denies this claim.
Stefan de Mistura, the UN chief in Afghanistan, has also told fellow diplomats that he is concerned about the risk of Karzai refusing to accept the results.
The Afghan media have already interpreted an attempt by the attorney general to investigate claims that members of the independent election commission were involved in fraud as an effort by Karzai "to beat the IEC into submission" after its head reportedly refused to adjust results.
Both the IEC and the ECC have defended their independence from the state prosecutor, a move De Mistura made a point of publicly supporting.
One senior Afghan official said that Karzai would have to accept the result, but that the final tally of MPs would be massaged to "reflect the realities of Afghanistan".
The country's election bodies appear to have stuck to their guns and today's disqualifications even involved a number of important Karzai allies.
The UN has strongly supported the ECC in its efforts to root out fraud and not be swayed by political pressure.
"We've told them that if you have a political problem you need to find a political solution, not an electoral solution," an official said.
Possible solutions may include the appointment of more Pashtun governors or senators in the upper house.
But Haroun Mir, an analyst and defeated parliamentary candidate, said such an approach would not wash.
"This is the parliament that it meant to represent the nation. If it doesn't then there will be greater ethnic rivalry and Karzai's peace plans will be undermined."
Ghazni province has become a notorious example of how the attempt to run an election in period of widespread insecurity has stored up the potential for serious ethnic tension. In the important Pashtun-majority province, all of the seats have been awarded in preliminary results to candidates from the Hazara minority. That was because insecure areas where polling stations could not open were predominantly Pashtun.
Deaths in Afghanistan bomb attack
Taliban claims responsibility for double suicide bombing targeting police in the country's east.
Taliban chief rejects peace talks
Mullah Omar says negotiations will not be possible until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
Some Taliban giving up weapons
Reintegration programmes in Afghanistan have apparently inspired some fighters to surrender their weapons.