The Afghan Scam

The Untold Story of Why the U.S. Is Bound to Fail in Afghanistan

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 is that?

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 work."

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.

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."

America First

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

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 Republican coffers.

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:

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 pockets.

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

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 American

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 go home."

"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 already lost.

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