An Afghan man cultivates poppy bulbs at a farm in early May, 2011 near the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Despite aid money to reduce poppy harvesting, it remains a challenge within Afghanistan.
Credit: Majid Saeedi

KABUL — U.S. aid to Afghanistan is often shoddy, frequently wasteful, and almost always unsustainable. It fuels corruption and creates a dependency mentality that retards development. It has wasted billions of dollars for minimal returns so far, and, if urgent care is not taken, tens of billions more will follow.

This is the upshot of two major studies of assistance programs in Afghanistan undertaken by various groups in Congress. The only difference between them is that one, a special report compiled by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, has bipartisan backing, while a new one released on Wednesday was written by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

So now it’s official. Both parties have taken years, and most likely spent a lot of money, to ascertain what anyone with more than a week’s experience in Afghanistan could probably have told them for free: assistance money is not only useless, it is often detrimental.

Not that anyone is shouting this information from the rooftops in Kabul, mind you. Too many people here are making much too much money from the gravy train of aid dollars for there to be anything like a candid examination of assistance programs on the ground.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say a few words about my own background. When I first came to Afghanistan, in 2004, I took a job in “media development,” funded by international donors and aimed at training and mentoring Afghan journalists.

Over the years I have participated in a series of small, labor-intensive projects in a variety of hotspots, and I have to say I am immensely proud of the results. But a few hundred thousand dollars given to a mission-driven NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) and primarily focused on skills transfer is not, I think, what the authors of these two extremely damning reports had in mind.

The CWC singles out a power plant built near Kabul, dubbed “the white elephant” in an early media report. The name stuck.

Envisioned as the solution for the Afghan capital’s electricity problems, the Tarakhil Power plant was a $300 million dollar project that experienced severe cost and time overruns and which now is almost unused. The reason? Project designers ignored local warnings that that diesel fuel was far too costly, and built a system that was simply impossible for the local power companies to operate.

The report was a bit terse on the subject of a new power plant now in the planning stages: “A 2011 USAID contract to build a diesel-fueled power plant in Kandahar faces similar sustainability challenges, even if it promotes geopolitical and military stabilization objectives.”

What the authors neglected to say is that the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded a $266 million contract on a non-compete basis to the architects of Kabul’s white elephant, for a similarly quixotic venture in the volatile south. The success of the Kandahar plant depends on installing a third turbine in Helmand’s Kajaki Power Station, a project that has been stalled for years due to insecurity and logistics. So far, there does not seem to be a plan in place to overcome these obstacles.

The CWC also, quite charitably, does not mention the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been ploughed into alternative livelihood projects since assistance began in earnest, in 2002.

Beltway bandits whose names I will not print here have reaped huge rewards by volunteering to teach Helmand farmers to grow things other than poppy. Contracts of $200 to $300 million were not uncommon, but results were worse than negligible. Until a mysterious but apparently quite natural blight hit the poppy crop last year, opium production in Helmand was skyrocketing.

Part of the problem, of course, was security: estimates of the percentage of the overall contract that went to armed guards and armored vehicles vary from 20 to 50 percent, which, when compounded by the bloated salaries contractors receive to live in war zones, leaves little for the actual project.

Insecurity also prevents monitors from traveling to far-flung areas to see that farmers were complying with their pledge not to grow poppy.

When I was in Helmand from 2006 to 2008, several of the Afghan staffers of a contractor implementing counter-narcotics programs happily confessed that they themselves had dozens of acres under poppy cultivation.

I attended an Agricultural Fair in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah in the summer of 2007. The results of the alternative livelihood programs over the past year were represented by a basket of chili peppers.

But anti-poppy projects were not the only blooper in the aid saga.

Afghanistan is rife with tales of wrong-headed assistance. There was a string of collapsing schools (the contractor built flat roofs that could not withstand the weight of snow); exhorbitant fees for road construction (at an average of more than $1 million per mile) that produced surfaces that looked like moonscapes after a season or two; hospitals without doctors, clinics without medicine, schools without books and radio stations without staff.

But even these failures pale in comparison to the coming disaster of the Afghan security forces. The United States is busily training and equipping a force of more than 300,000 troops, which will cost an estimated $10 billion annually to maintain. The entire tax revenue of the Afghan state is less than $2 billion, which means that the financial burden of Afghanistan’s armed forces will have to be borne by someone else, most likely the United States, for the foreseeable future.

“Without immediate and effective attention to these and other sustainability problems, the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the CWC report concludes.

But in addition to being wasteful and inefficient, the tsunami of assistance money is fueling corruption on a grand scale. This ranges from kickbacks for awards to payoffs to the Taliban for protection to spectacular cases of graft such as the Kabul Bank scandal.

It has also stimulated a completely unsustainable economic boom, with luxury apartment houses going up all over Kabul, flashy vehicles clogging the roads, and hordes of Afghans flush with cash looking for a slice of the good life.

Ask almost any businessman or economic analyst about sources of revenue in Afghanistan, and you will get the same answer: drugs and aid money.

Afghanistan produces up to 90 percent of the world’s opium, the raw material from which heroin is made. In the decade since the Taliban left, enterprising Afghan businessmen have built up a national industry worth an estimated $4 billion dollars a year.

That money is not going anywhere any time soon, judging by the lackadaisical counter-narcotics efforts mounted the Afghan government and the international community.

But contemplating the shrinking of the assistance pool is making many local residents uneasy.

I have spoken to several young Afghans who have been offered prestigious scholarships abroad. Some are reluctant to take them.

“It’s a big risk,” said one, shrugging. “I have a good job with an international organization. By the time I come back all the money may have dried up.”

An Afghan businessman was a bit more sanguine about the problem.

“The international community cannot leave completely,” he said. “Those dollars will still be in circulation in any case. Besides, there is always the narcotics money.”

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