As a spate of news reports and a congressional committee warn that depression "looms" in Afghanistan, my question is: how do you tell the difference? Is a "depression" in Afghanistan when 90% of the children are clinically malnourished instead of fifty percent like it is now, or when unemployment among young men is at 80% instead of the present 40-50 percent? Or when only 10 percent of the country has access to clean drinking water instead of the only 20 percent who do today?
As the media plays up the hundreds of millions of dollars of waste in Afghan civilian assistance rather than the hundreds of billions wasted on the war (over $400 billion to date, your tax money,) little is said about how we got the Taliban in Afghanistan in the first place. After the Russians were driven out in the Nineties, with the help of billions of dollars worth of weapons and cash given by the US to the mujihadeen, once our little game of global chess was won, we left the factions to fight over the rubble. The US ignored the pleas of the government for something other than bullets to shoot Russians with, like help for works projects to create jobs.
No one in Washington talked about corruption as long as teenagers in Russian uniforms were getting their throats cut. And if a warlord pocketed a few million here or there, well what the heck.
To make a long story short, the country was plunged into one of the
most brutal civil wars in modern history, which might have been avoided
had many young Afghans had better things to do than fight for warlords
who now were the only people with money to pay them. Liz Gould
Paul Fitzgerald, husband and wife team authors of "Invisible
History: Afghanistan's Untold Story" say in a Mother Jones interview:
The US during the Bush years blew it. Afghanistan was Washington’s to lose and they lost it. Can they get it back? The Afghan people are very nationalistic, but they have lost faith in the genuineness of the US effort to help them. They know that the U.S. is there for its own interests and nothing else. We empowered the warlords and we never actually implemented real security or reconstruction. They still don't have enough electricity, enough water. The roads are not rebuilt. The whole economy is still very weak. This is the main reason why the Taliban idea keeps popping up as competition. In most cases this is not even an ideological issue, this is an economic issue.
By the time the Taliban came along, as a result of the chaos, over 2 million Afghans had starved or died of exposure in the harsh winters. By then, the Taliban's brand of stability actually looked good.
Gould-Fitzgerald were the first western journalists allowed into the country after the Marxist takeover in 1977, and have reported for the BBC as well as NBC's Nightline. "Invisible History" is the one book you need to read if you want to understand Afghanistan.
As the US and the Karzai government now bicker over corruption, the bright spot in Afghan development getting missed and is threatened with falling victim is the Afghan National Solidarity Program (NSP,) which the World Bank has called "a government within a government." Even the recent report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which unleashed the main fusillade against the Karzai government for wasting American money has the kind words:
"The theme echoed throughout this report is that our strategies and projects should meet the conditions of being necessary, achievable, and sustainable before funding is allocated. The report describes how these principles have been applied in practice through...the National Solidarity Program..."
And the hard-nosed Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction, appointed by the president, just issued a glowing report.
The NSP, in short, are the dedicated Afghans doing the work while everyone else on both sides bicker politics.
As usual the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan, which is still most people,are caught in the middle of a fight, this time between international donors and corrupt warlords. It is they who will suffer most if all aid is cut off, even the kind that works. The beauty of the NSP is no funds are released at any stage of a project until the World Bank (which runs the donor account, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund) is satisfied that previous milestones have been met. So there is little reason to worry that funds will be stolen, since the World Bank itself representing international donors makes the determination that they are being well-spent.
Play hardball with Karzai and his cronies. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The NSP is money Karzai and the boys can't get their mitts on. The politicians keep saying they are looking for an exit strategy. Here is the exit strategy. We can leave, as we should and as Obama promised we would begin to this summer, without leaving behind chaos. Where there is chaos, that is where Al Qaeda goes.
In the end, the tragedy is not that we keep repeating history. It's that we keep repeating the stupidest, most avoidable parts of it.
The Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR,) established by Congress in 2008 to evaluate the efficiency of reconstruction programs in Afghanistan, has issued a glowing report on the Afghan-run National Solidarity Program (NSP) which has implemented over 45,000 small-scale infrastructure and employment-creation projects since its inception in 2002. Grants to villages averaged $35,000 for tools, materials, wages of around $5 per day, and technical assistance for water, sanitation, secondary road improvement projects, as well as schools, canal-clearing, and irrigation.
"We found that [the controls instituted by the NSP] provided reasonable assurance that NSP funds were used as intended."
It found that 70% of NSP funding has reached small Afghan communities, with most of the rest going toward the overhead of expanding the reach of the fledgling institution. The National Solidarity Program is managed under the auspices of the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD.) The World Bank has called the MRRD: "a government within a government."
The NSP is funded by international donors, mostly governments, through a special account at the World Bank called the Afghanistan Reconstrucion Trust Fund (ARTF.) The World Bank states "there is no other program which has NSP's reach and scale."
In the one instance in which the SIGAR report found fraud and abuse, the hawalla (traditional banking) dealer who absconded with funds was immediately reported by the NSP, and is now in custody. In another instance, media reports of the Taliban taking a substantial "cut" of NSP funds in Farah province prompted the NSP to halt all funding pending an investigation. The investigative committee, which included international donor oversight including a USAID technical representative, concluded the report was "baseless."
Lt. Colonel Edward Corcoran, USA-retired, Ph.D., and Senior Fellow on national security issues at GlobalSecurity.org, writes that Afghanistan is now at a "tipping point" in which the time is ripe for transition from military to economic strategies. He cites the NSP as an example of a program in which the "narrative" will shift from "government-to-government" programs to ones in which "individual Afghans can and will transform their own country, and the United States will help."
The NSP has spent over $1.5 billion since 2002. This averages a little over $6 per Afghan per year, compared to $400 billion or around $1600 per Afghan per year which the US has spent on combat operations.
Col. Chris Kolenda, a special adviser to ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his director of strategy for reintegration in Afghanistan, said to the Army Times of the NSP:
“The Afghans have this great saying — ‘If you sweat for it, you protect it’ — and so getting highly localized development in the hands of communities is critical...The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has a great program called the National Solidarity Program, where money is given in block grants from an Afghan reconstruction trust fund directly to a village, so the village owns the project, the village operates the project, the people in the village are employed.”
In 2010 the New York Times noted that among the insular Pashtun Shinwari tribe, the NSP has "gained much admiration...for the efficient way it has dispensed development aid."
Schools built by the NSP have been referred to as "the schools the Taliban won't torch," as a result of the unique manner in which NSP projects are decided upon and run at the local village level.
As the American public's impatience with U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan continues to grow, the SIGAR report provides a rare bright spot in news emrging from Afghanistan. Last year a congressional subcommittee chaired by Congressman John Tierney found that a substantial portion of Pentagon funds for the overland transportation of U.S. military supplies goes directly to insurgent groups as "protection payments."Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S. forces in 2007, told Congress in testimony that year: ""Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families." He praised the NSP in testimony in 2009 as having "proven effective in giving Afghans a greater stake in their government."