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Afghanistan: Vultures in the “Graveyard of Empires”

by Wazhmah Osman

While reports of systemic corruption and fraud are just beginning to surface in the international press as Western governments are becoming aware of it, this is old news to local Afghans. They know that every interaction with the government – even applying for an Afghan identity card or trying to access documents at the national archives and libraries as I have – requires navigating a dense labyrinth of bureaucracy which fosters nothing but bribery and corruption.

Most recently a scandal has emerged involving Abdul Ahad Sayebi, the mayor of Kabul, for embezzling funds. In mid-December, the courts sentenced him to four years in prison, but he’s currently free on appeal and back on the job with Karzai maintaining his innocence.

However, getting rid of a few low-level administrators and mayors is not the answer. Corruption here starts at the top and trickles downward – from ministers to their deputies to their clerks, from governors to mayors to district mayors. But the top does not just consist of men like the President’s half-brother Ahmad Karzai – a leader in Afghanistan’s southern region who allegedly controls a large portion of the country’s drug trade – and the ministers, governors and mayors that Karzai appoints. The problem lies at least equally with the international donors who work closely with the ministries and provincial governments on “nation building” projects.

Non-competitive contracts, kick-backs, and familial nepotism seem to be the norm, and not just with the Afghan government officials who are frequently accused of such things – these non-democratic practices are also embedded in the very structure of “development” aid distribution. While meritocracy and fair competition are tenets of healthy democracies, which the West prides itself on, it seems to be overlooked on the ground in Afghanistan.

It’s no wonder then that the questions on most Afghans’ minds are: What happened to the western promises of peace and nation building? And where did the billions of dollars in aid money go?

According to investigative reports released by CorpWatch, and Amnesty International, as well as my own interviews with human rights experts, gender specialists, independent media organizations, and of course NGO workers (both local and international), the international donors and NGOs – especially the bilateral American ones – are marred with egregious practices of corruption and fraud. Wasteful expenditures, huge overheads, and gross misappropriation of funds plague the system. The new United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report, which surveys 7,600 people in 12 provinces, reveals that 54% of Afghans think international NGOs “are corrupt and are in the country just to get rich.” The report also shows that the number one problem facing Afghans is “corruption,” with “insecurity” coming in second, and “unemployment” in third place.

Despite the countless ambitious proposals and expensive conferences on everything from sewage canalization to training lawyers in constitutional law, most Afghan/American partnerships have been failures. Certain programs of the Department of Defense, the State Department, and USAID have become synonymous with fraud in Afghanistan and are regular subjects of contemptuous ridicule by the locals and expatriate community alike. These include the anti-poppy Alternative Livelihood programs, Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration, judicial reform initiatives and more. Afghanistan is not just the “graveyard of empires” now, it’s also the graveyard of hundreds of failed, discarded, and buried development projects.

American policies and procedures for the monitoring and evaluation of projects are a big part of the problem. American funded NGOs are required to use expensive American accounting and managing firms for “performance rating” and “book checking”. The high cost of these independent third party accountants often keeps Afghan-run NGOs with smaller budgets from receiving contracts. On-site visits and regular monitoring of projects sites both planned and unplanned which tend to be much more effective than manufactured accounting and number fixing is not commonly practiced.

Five of the world’s biggest accounting firms – Allen Hamilton, Ernest Young, Touch Deloite, KPMG, and Cooper and Libraint – all have huge operations in Kabul, enterprises that can easily spend contracts ranging from $25-150 million dollars in one or two years with no practical results to show for it. A number of projects, mostly outside of Kabul, were recently discovered to exist only on paper. A source I spoke to on the condition of anonymity from one of these firms says cases of poor performance or obvious embezzlement, such as one company that spent $1 million on furniture, are often overlooked. Locals will point to the many examples of recently “rebuilt” highways, schools, and hospital buildings that are already crumbling due to shoddy construction practices and poor quality materials. Many local and non-local people working with or for foreign ministries will tell you that few American-funded projects designed to rebuild the country’s destroyed infrastructure have yielded positive changes.

My neighbors complain all the time about the lack of electricity which comes on for maybe two or three hours per day. And there is no garbage collection, so as a result, trash is heaped on almost every block. Even in the nicer neighborhoods of Kabul, there are terrible sewage and trash problems. The water is contaminated with the damaged sewage system rendering it undrinkable. Most expats and locals who can afford it buy bottled water. The vast majority of people don’t have any other option than to drink it. Those who can afford it rely on water delivery and generators for electricity.

USAID, which has been the largest arm of US rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan has become so problematic that Secretary of State Clinton recently committed to rebuilding the US capacity to provide aid in order to not rely exclusively on contractors. Ironically, USAID sends between 80-90% of its development money back to its host country, America, through the salaries of its employees and contracts. That is not to say their salaries – of $15,000-40,000 per month or $1,000 per day for consulting as well as private security – should be curbed. These foreign workers do operate in a dangerous warzone. But the local Afghans who receive $100-200 per month for much of the same work should be better compensated. This incredible but common disparity seems more like highway robbery than nation building to most Afghans and only serves to increase the rift between the haves and have nots.

Like most infrastructure efforts, the more lofty and equally necessary projects of rebuilding the collapsed institutions of governance, such as the corrupt and almost defunct justice system, have proven ineffectual as well. According to the most recent Asia Foundation survey, most Afghans still prefer the often-problematic and informal systems of justice because the court system has no legitimacy. They have more faith in the tribal system’s reciprocity of “equal” exchange to remedy crimes, even if that means offering women in marriage to appease the relatives of murder victims. But this is also the consequence of the sweeping ultra-conservative values that characterize Afghanistan’s thriving warlordism.

For all their many reprehensible laws and brutal actions, one of the few things the Taliban are often praised for is that during their reign they ousted most of the warlords created by the CIA during the Soviet Afghan War. But in an effort to ostensibly spare American lives in the Post 9/11 era, the Bush administration managed to reanimate them with failed policy. For example, Ahmad Zia, Karzai’s former vice president and the brother of the martyred Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, publicly stated in several speeches that Marshall Faheem, a ruthless guerrilla commander and the current Vice President, received $39 million from America to fight the Taliban. Once the Taliban retreated and were temporarily derailed, Zalmay Khalilzad, then ambassador to Afghanistan and mouthpiece of the Bush administration, went on a press tour of Afghan television stations, radios, and newspapers, promoting a policy of “compromising justice for peace.”

Speaking “on behalf of the Afghan people,” in his plan he described and outlined why bringing the warlords into the government is necessary for peace, hence not only giving the warlords impunity for their war crimes but high seats in the government as well.

Marshall Faheem’s control and subsequent selling of a vast swath of government military property during his tenure as Karzai’s Minister of Defense has inspired the renaming of this prime real estate in the heart of Kabul from Shirpur to “Shirchur” – a Persian play on words that implies land grabbing.

One Afghan family I interviewed, despite winning three court cases, has no recourse to reclaiming their home from Abdul Rasul Sayaf, a 80s era Mujaheedeen leader cum warlord, who has similarly taken the homes and land of many Afghan families by force and fraud. Though they have many documents providing ownership for decades, they say, “In Afghanistan the gun is the law.” They have since given up trying to get their family home back.

When the news of the “land grabbing” was revealed by the Afghan media, a scandal ensued, and the Karzai government promised to make the beneficiaries of the land who have since build grotesquely ornate mansions pay for the land. So far none of them have.

Is it any wonder then that recently the question of Afghanistan has shifted from Is it the right war? to Is it governable?

Some conservative experts affiliated with the military and think-tanks such as the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations among others, use the current dystopic and despotic state of affairs as an example of why nation building is a hopeless cause in a country like Afghanistan. This is a new neo-con argument that stems back to colonial times when the British Viceroys also thought Afghanistan was too backwards to be modernized. Promoting a purely militaristic strategy of fighting the Taliban insurgency with increased American troop presence (from 10 to 80 thousand), some of these so-called experts are even pushing to reinstate the controversial practice of aerial bombing by drone planes. With civilian deaths first doubling then tripling (as a result of both pro-government and anti-government forces), a guns blazing approach is the absolute worst move for the American government to pursue.

History reminds us that after a military surge of 100,000 soldiers and only the use of force to fight the then-insurgents, the Soviet Union quickly lost its coveted role as an ally to Afghanistan and the Kabul government was deemed its puppet regime.

Afghans are very sensitive to foreign invasions. Once the tide of popular opinion shifts away from the American and Afghan governments and towards the Taliban, little can then be done to redeem them in the eyes of the Afghan public. Daunting though the task might seem, abandoning the country’s nation building and development project is abandoning not just peace in the region, but worldwide.

In her series, Wazhmah addresses the modern day reality facing Afghans,
the pervasive corruption and numerous obstacles to rebuilding, and her recommendations for the US’ future engagement in Afghanistan. – Ed.

About the Author
Wazhmah Osman is a Social Science Research Council Fellow, currently completing her dissertation fieldwork in Afghanistan. She is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Media, Culture, and Communication program. Wazhmah earned a Masters degree in Near Eastern Studies from New York University and completed the innovative Graduate Program in Culture and Media through NYU Anthropology.
Wazhmah’s critically acclaimed documentary Postcards from Tora Bora, co-directed with Kelly Dolak, has screened in film festivals internationally. For more information please visit She travels frequently between Kabul and NYC.

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