Tokyo Conference Fails, Ensures Civil War in Afghanistan
Karzai promises to fight corruption, but what about NATO?
Insisting that President Karzai promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, to clean up corruption in Afghanistan, NATO powers led by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set a course at the Tokyo Conference last weekend which conspicuously avoided past failures. The omission all but guarantees civil war when US forces leave Afghanistan. By failing to address the major source of corruption in civilian assistance - 40 and 50 percent profit margins for western contractors and their subsidiaries before any money hits the ground in-country - the rhetoric indicates that the aid will be delivered along the lines of the present failed model. This model has resulted in 60% of Afghan children presently being in various stages of starvation, as MSNBC reported this year, despite pockets of improvement which are routinely seized upon by the NATO coalition as proof that progress is being made.
The definitive report on aid efficiency in Afghanistan is the one commonly referred to as the ACBAR report, written by Matt Waldman of Oxfam UK. ACBAR is an alliance international aid agencies working in Afghanistan. The report, "Falling Short: Aid Effectiveness in Afghanistan" informs us that:
"Forty per cent of aid spending returns to rich countries in corporate profits and consultant costs."
"Vast sums of aid are lost in corporate profits of contractors and sub-contractors, which can be as high as 50% on a single contract."
Another little-known fact is that fully half of all previous assistance has gone toward training the army and police, so that of the $60 billion figure which is often given as the sum total of civilian assistance since 2001, $30 billion has been actual civilian assistance. If this pattern holds, out of the $16 billion pledged last weekend, only $8 billion will be actual civilian aid, and nearly half of that will be gobbled up by corporate profits for American contractors and their subsidiaries. That then works out to about $130 per Afghan for the coming years, which if the past is any indicator, will be spent on many projects Afghans do not want and never asked for, and to finance the Karzai government, at less than $1 billion per year.
This is against a backdrop of $4000 per capita in military spending every year. Four thousand dollars for every man, woman, and child, an utter fortune in Afghan terms. This is in a country where most people struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day, and the question for most people each day is not what, but if, you and your children are going to eat.
Put another way, the amount we spend on military operations in Afghanistan every month is almost as much as the entire GDP of the country for a year, $15 billion according to UN data. General Barry McCaffrey called the rate of US spending on the military side a "burn rate" of about $9 billion a month, back in 2008, and it is more now.
What the Tokyo Conference portends is that when conditions have remained miserable years hence, the news story will be the corruption of the Karzai government, which takes in a fraction of the amount given to western contractors.
Half of Afghans still have no easy access to safe drinking water, which is partly responsible for one out of five children dying before the age of five. It is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world to become a mother, with one of highest percentages of women dying in childbirth. And we remember just last winter at least 23 children froze to death in the Kabul refugee camps due to lack of blankets, wood or coal, and hats, mittens, and warm children's clothes.
What this level of poverty means is that the country will be ripe for civil war. That is because warlords will have their pick of the 80% unemployed and semi-starving young men in the countryside who will have no choice but to choose sides in order to eat. The warlords and Taliban, who are viewed as just another kind of warlord by most Afghans, will be able to hire guns with, believe it or not, money we gave them. The Tierney report, by the congressional Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. John Tierney, found that up to $360 million per year was being handed over by the Pentagon to insurgent groups or their warlord frontmen for the safe passage of truck convoys carrying US military supplies, from one trucking contract alone. The figure dwarfs even opium profits reaped by the Taliban.
No one knows this better than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, who is quoted in the Tierney report, entitled "Warlord, Inc." Clinton testified before Congress in 2009 that:
"“You offload a ship in Karachi [Pakistan] and by the time whatever it is – you know, muffins for our soldiers’ breakfasts or anti-IED equipment – gets to where we’re headed, it goes through a lot of hands. And one of the major sources of funding for the Taliban is the protection money.”
To make things worse, Afghanistan is undergoing a demographic "youth bulge," in the words of sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn, of enormous proportions, in which 68% of the population is under age 25, and nearly half is under age 14. This makes Afghanistan one of the youngest countries in the world. Heinsohn's research indicates that youthful populations and few productive activites is an explosive combination, even without the influx of arms and money into the hands of strongmen, of all stripes, whose business has been war for 30 years.
Fortunately, most young men in Afghanistan, and I focus on the men because it is they who will be deciding whether to fight, do not like fighting, nor the Taliban. They are of a generation that is war weary to the bone. But for women's rights, the takeover of warlords bodes ill, since whether they are Northern Alliance or Pashto, they tend to be among the most repressive elements in society.
With this bleak picture, is there any hope? The answer is yes, but not through more of the same. In Afghanistan, little-noted and little-sung, is a large community of indigenous civil society organizations which build roads, improve irrigation, clear canals, plant trees, and the host of projects, mostly small, which actually improve peoples' lives. As much as possible it is done by employing Afghan labor. The work can be dangerous, as is any work in a war zone. But these Afghan aid workers are among the most dedicated, selfless, and effective workers in the country. The civil society organizations operate on a shoestring, and have effective accounting systems in place.
A bridge between international donors and these organizations, and other proven conduits, may be the key to the legions of unemployed youth, soon to be coming of age, having any hope. Young Afghans of both sexes want badly to go to school, gain skills, interact with the world, and excel in international sports. Only ten years after emerging from the darkness of the Taliban era, young Afghans have won an amazing assortment of trophies and prizes, in cricket, soccer, boxing, karate, and even MMA (mixed martial arts.) Afghan teams have already scored major wins against cricket powerhouses like India, Scotland and Hong Kong.
It would a waste of unimaginably tragic proportions to give these youth over to yet more war. If this happens, not a single American foreign policy maker will be able to say they did not know exactly how, and why, it came about.
Which Afghanistan Will it Be?
Afghan Cricket Team
Malnutrition Ward, Kandahar
The author is the co-founder of Afghan Exit Strategy.