Five Things You Need to Know About the US “Reconstruction” Effort in Afghanistan

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Let’s start with what we know: Since 2002, the US Congress has appropriated just over $109 billion for Afghanistan’s development, making this the largest foreign reconstruction program the government has ever undertaken (and surpassing the amount spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe’s economies following World War II). Much of the money has already been spent, with just $11.9 billion remaining in the kitty as of July 2015.

This much is clear. The rest – where the money has gone (and to whom), how it has been spent (and why), what there is to show for it (and where) – is guess work.

Last month a small government agency comprising 200 employees, also known as the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, submitted its quarterly report to Congress. Its findings do not inspire confidence; in fact, it reveals that billions of dollars earmarked for the development of this ravaged and bleeding country have all but disappeared into a black hole.

Under any circumstances, mismanagement of funds on this scale is a problem. In Afghanistan, a country worn very nearly down to the bone by over three decades of uninterrupted warfare, it is a tragedy whose cost will eventually be counted in human lives.

The first six months of 2015 have already witnessed close to 5,000 civilian casualties, including a death toll of 1,500 people classified as “noncombatants.”

Half a year after NATO officially ended its military operations, much of the countryside lies in tatters, and the so-called armed opposition, which encompasses the Taliban and a plethora of armed militias including groups operating in the eastern region who have declared their allegiance to ISIS, is alive and kicking.

A shaky Afghan state helmed by president Ashraf Ghani is floundering: The most recent Rule of Law Index – a global survey of over 100,000 households measuring public perceptions of corruption, the courts, and the criminal justice system – ranks Afghanistan second from the bottom in a list of 102 countries.

“The number of police determines how many rifles we allocate, how much money we set aside to purchase boots, fuel, tanks. How can we determine what worked if we don’t have a baseline? This is accounting 101.”

These are the very problems that US financial assistance was supposed to alleviate. When the troops came home it was with the promise that huge monetary injections would help to immunize the country against terrorism and disillusionment with the central government. Investments in equipment and training would beef up the armed forces, creating a body capable of keeping the Taliban at bay. It was to be a new age.

Instead, what is playing out is a warped echo of the early years of the US invasion and occupation, only this time it is not war and weapons, but aid and charity, that is fueling a bloody conflict that appears to have no end.

1. The Afghan National Army and Police: Paying Phantom Personnel?

After 13 years and billions of dollars in salary assistance to the Afghan National Army, an April 2015 SIGAR report found “minimal oversight” of personnel and payroll data, information that forms the backbone of assessments by the Ministry of Defense, the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) and NATO, among others.

In its audit report covering the approximately $2.3 billion that have been allocated since 2009 to salaries and incentive payments for the entire Afghan National Army, including the Air Force, SIGAR discovered that there were no requirements stipulating that supervisory officials observe attendance data collection, while an information management program that CSTC-A has been implementing since 2010 is still unable to distinguish between active and inactive personnel.

Officers neglect to sign in and out daily, making it difficult if not impossible to ascertain how many paid employees are working at any given time and leaving plenty of room for service men and women to receive salaries for days not worked.

As of January, existing data suggested that nearly 170,000 personnel were assigned to the Afghan National Army, accounting for 87 percent of the 195,000 available posts. But in an inquiry letter to US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Special Inspector General John F. Sopko called attention to the gaps in oversight that make confirmation of those numbers a daunting task.

With 70 percent of civilian casualties in 2015 attributed to the actions of the “armed opposition,” according to an August 2015 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the Afghan government can ill afford lax management of its armed forces into which so many millions of dollars have been invested.

The same holds true for the Afghan National Police (ANP), the recipient of $15 billion of US aid since 2002 aimed at training, equipping and sustaining counter-insurgency efforts. Here again, inaccurate data regarding payroll and personnel has put close to $300 million at risk of being wasted.

“If we’re paying the salary of somebody that doesn’t exist we don’t know where that money goes,” Sopko told Truthout. “A lot of our assistance is based upon numbers: The number of police determines how many rifles we allocate, how much money we set aside to purchase boots, fuel, tanks. How can we determine what worked if we don’t have a baseline? This is accounting 101.”

2. Health Care: Clinics in the Mediterranean Sea

By March of 2015, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had sunk $210 million into a program known as Partnership Contracts for Health (PCH), made possible by budget assistance to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health to provide basic health services across the country.

On paper, this money has been well spent, much of it going into the construction of 641 medical facilities throughout the country. The program has been touted as a major success and portrayed as partly responsible for increasing the proportion of Afghans living within an hour’s walking distance of a health-care facility from 9 percent in 2002 to 57 percent in 2013.

Last year, however, when SIGAR received and analyzed geospatial data for 551 of these clinics, it found that USAID was likely missing accurate location information for about 510 facilities, or 80 percent of the total.

In a June 25 inquiry letter to USAID’s acting administrator, Alfonso E. Lenhardt, SIGAR noted the following: 13 coordinates were not located within Afghanistan at all, 6 were located in Pakistan, 6 in Tajikistan and 1 in the Mediterranean Sea. Coordinates for 30 buildings were located in different provinces than those reported by USAID, while in 13 separate cases, the aid agency reported identical coordinates for different facilities.

Further analysis revealed that 189 coordinates did not show a physical structure within 400 feet of the reported location, and 81 coordinates had no physical structure within half a mile.

The absence of reliable data is indicative of much more than just mismanagement of funds.

“We’re talking about a conflict zone,” Sopko told Truthout, explaining that to minimize the risks they face, aid workers who oversee clinics in Helmland Province prefer to “go in, do a quick survey and get out.”

“Now if your coordinates are bad – some are off by 40 km – you can’t do that,” Sopko added. “This is risky business; it’s risking my people, USAID people, the Afghan people. It’s reckless.”

3. The Rule of Law: A Billion Dollars Down the Drain?

For over a decade, since 2003, no less than $1 billion have been funneled into efforts to buoy up the rule of law in Afghanistan, long considered one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

Undertaken jointly by the Departments of State, Defense and Justice, together with USAID, the program was designed to reform or overhaul aspects of the prison system, introduce legal education initiatives and implement anti-corruption efforts, all with the aim of building a functional, centralized Afghan state.

Twelve years later, the agencies lack a comprehensive strategy on how to guide their work; the Department of Defense cannot say for certain exactly how much it has spent on the initiative; and there is no way of measuring tangible successes or outcomes of pilot projects.

To top it off, the most recent National Corruption Survey undertaken by Integrity Watch Afghanistan found that the vast majority of citizens believe the judiciary to be the most corrupt institution in the country.

Integrity Watch Afghanistan’s executive director, Sayed Ikram Afzali, told Truthout that the US’s obsession with “winning hearts and minds” has fostered a quick-fix attitude toward aid delivery, with rapid implementation of projects taking precedence over the slower process of building robust institutions.

Far from flocking to the centralized justice system, more and more people in this largely rural country are turning to informal structures such as jirgas (tribal councils, or councils of elders), shuras (local consultative councils) and increasingly to the armed opposition.

In 2012, Integrity Watch Afghanistan put out a report called “Shadow Justice: How the Taliban Run Their Judiciary,” examining features of the Taliban’s legal system from mobile courts to speedy trials. Riddled as these legal bodies are with rights abuses, paltry record keeping and little opportunity for appeal, they respond to local needs.

“We are absolutely certain that money has been diverted from our reconstruction programs into the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.”

It is no coincidence that when the Talibs first rose to power in the 1980s they did so on a relentless platform of law and order, filling a chaotic void with strict moral and religious codes. While regimes have risen and toppled around them, this aspect of the Taliban’s rule has remained basically unchanged. Afzali estimates that in 2007, only 20 percent of the population relied on the central judiciary in any way, compared to 80 percent who put their trust in informal judicature (including Taliban courts), a ratio he believes still holds in 2015.

He told Truthout the US missed an opportunity to regain public trust in state-run courts by failing to engage with traditional models like shuras and jirgas, which operate according to age-old customs, allowing for fluidity depending on the context and location of disputes.

And by pouring money into top-down solutions and international experts with a quick turnover, the US also neglected grassroots initiatives such as Integrity Watch Afghanistan’s community-based monitoring of trials that have a proven track record of success.

“When we started our [monitoring] program in Kapisa Province, only 15 percent of trials were conducted openly, as per constitutional requirements,” Afzali said. “Within three years, we have increased this to 70 percent.”

In addition to acting as a watchdog for the courts, Integrity Watch Afghanistan also monitors schools, mines and construction projects, stepping into the cavity created by the US’s complete lack of oversight or accountability by enlisting community members on a voluntary basis to take ownership over projects carried out in their name.

“We did receive some support from USAID for our [infrastructure] monitoring work,” Afzali said. “But that was only for a brief time; after a year, the funding stopped.”

Instead, USAID has directed its funds toward bigger and bulkier rule of law efforts that were not only unsustainable but that, in one instance, the Afghan Supreme Court itself claimed to have no interest in.

As a result of reckless and at times meaningless bankrolling of unwanted initiatives, “too much of that billion dollars have been wasted,” Sopko said.

4. Education: Empty Classrooms

On August 6, US Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) submitted a letter to Larry Sampler, USAID’s assistant to the administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs, requesting additional information on “monitoring and evaluation of current USAID-funded education program.”

Citing a major investigation undertaken by Buzzfeed News this past July, Casey expressed concern that education figures widely cited by US officials going all the way up to Hillary Clinton were wildly exaggerated and in some cases were blatant falsehoods.

Buzzfeed’s expose came on the heels of a June 2015 SIGAR inquiry into USAID’s $769 million investment in Afghanistan’s educator sector, including nearly $600 million in off-budget assistance “and $146 million in so-called ‘preferenced’ funding to the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) to support education programs.”

Sopko said local media reports that quoted Afghan ministers alleging fraud in the education sector prompted his inquiry, which also casts doubt on widely touted claims that development assistance has helped boost the number of enrolled students from 900,000 in 2002 to over 8 million in 2013.

Unable to independently verify these statistics, USAID continues to stand by the data – sourced from the Afghan Ministry of Education’s Education Management Information System (EMIS) – in spite of strong evidence that officials in the Hamid Karzai Administration falsified those records in order to obtain more funding.

Indeed, as Sopko pointed out in a May 2015 speech, a ranking USAID official recently put the number of Afghan children in school at 4 million – less than half the figure on which current funding commitments is based. SIGAR also noted that the education monitoring system counts absent children as enrolled for up to three years, before dropping them from the database, making endorsement of numbers a guessing game at best.

A long string of US officials have stressed that investment in education is one of the surest ways to frustrate Taliban recruitment in the largely illiterate hinterland of Afghanistan: UNESCO data suggests that the country has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, with just 31 percent of its population over the age of 15 able to read.

But if the largest US aid agency continues to parrot false figures and allow money to drain away from classrooms, fundamental improvements to the country’s educational infrastructure seem unlikely.

5. Corruption, Warlords and Militarization

A biannual survey carried out by Integrity Watch Afghanistan in 2014 identified corruption as the second most pressing problem for the country, where bribery has doubled in the past four years to hit $2 billion.

It is into this insatiable mouth that the US is tipping its coffers, hoping repeating past mistakes will somehow bring about different results, this time around.

Asked where the missing billions of US development aid could be hiding, Sopko stated plainly: “We are absolutely certain that money has been diverted from our reconstruction programs into the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.”

Jarring as it is to hear a US official admit this fact so freely, it comes as no surprise to anyone who’s read the fine print of US military policy in Afghanistan over the last 13 years.

In his recent book No Good Men Among the Living, journalist Anand Gopal documents in meticulous detail the long list of occupation-era military blunders and ill-informed allegiances that have shaped Afghanistan’s prevailing political reality, from the rise of Washington-allied warlords like Kandahar’s Gul Agha Sherzai (who played a major role in turning the derelict Kandahar Airfield into a detention center-cum-torture chamber), to the January 2002 massacre by US special forces of 21 pro-American Afghan leaders in Uruzgan Province in a single night.

In his tenacious investigation of the situation on the ground post April 2002, when al-Qaeda leadership had fled to Pakistan and the Taliban had ceased to exist in key areas like Kandahar and elsewhere, Gopal offers an analysis that bears a striking resemblance to the current reconstruction effort, namely that the Americans were fighting a war against a “phantom enemy, happily fulfilling their mandate from Washington.”

“The Afghan state is designed to meet the national security interests of the United States – not to be responsive to the needs of Afghan citizens.”

Not only were US Special Forces receiving faulty “intel,” allowing warlords access to their armories, carrying out bogus raids and attacking compounds belonging to their own allies, their commanders were facing no consequences for these military disasters, a pattern that is now repeating itself in the ranks of the DoD, DoJ, and USAID who are handing out million- and billion-dollar projects without any notion of whose fist is closing around the contracts, or why the programs are being carried out in the first place.

“I’ve had a dozen or more USAID people out in Afghanistan come up to me and say, ‘You’re right on, John. That’s how I got rewarded: for how much money I put on contract, not how much it actually worked’,” Sopko told Truthout.

If we follow this analysis to its conclusion, then we arrive at the place where corruption is not only to be expected, it is the other side of the coin of the US’s invasion of a sovereign country and will likely continue for as long as Washington has a vested interest in directing Afghanistan’s economic and geopolitical future.

As Gopal told Truthout, “People who live in Afghanistan will tell you that the corruption we see today as a result of the US pouring so much money into the country is far greater than anything that’s ever been seen before, be it under the communist regime, the Taliban or anyone else.

“The fact is that the very presence of the US and the war they’re fighting has done more to damage the rule of law in Afghanistan than anything else.”

He pointed to the “justice” programs being rolled out in Kandahar City, the same place where Washington’s support for Kandahar Police Chief Abdul Raziq makes a mockery of the notion of good governance.

“Raziq undermines rule of law by his very existence, by the torture, extrajudicial killings and assassinations that he carries out,” Gopal added. “It’s things like this that make the idea of the West trying to build the rule of law in Afghanistan a farce.”

It is a hand-in-glove crisis, an impossible contradiction: The aid regime is the result of years of militarization; but stopping that aid means Afghanistan – a struggling state currently capable of raising just $2 [billion] out of the $10 billion it needs annually to manage its affairs – could quickly slide back into the abyss of the 1992-96 civil war years, a period Gopal describes in his book as a time when “any date picked out of the calendar is the anniversary of some grisly toll.”

He believes the crux of the crisis lies in the fact that, “The Afghan state is designed to meet the national security interests of the United States – not to be responsive to the needs of Afghan citizens.”

As long as this remains the case, the reconstruction effort will continue to be an exercise in futility: The US is watering a patch of militant soil upon which nothing but armed groups can grow. And as their ranks swell, these armed groups will count the US as their most loyal benefactor.