Down the Afghan Drain

President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday ordered the release of a prominent presidential aide two hours after his arrest on corruption charges, according to two officials in the office of Afghanistan’s attorney general.  The release capped a comedy of errors in which the attorney general’s office first announced the arrest of the official, Noorullah Delawari, on corruption charges, then convened a news conference to detail the charges against him. By the time the news conference took place, however, the office’s spokesman, Amanullah Eman, said that the announcement had been a “misunderstanding” and that Mr Delawari had been questioned rather than charged.

—   New York Times,  March 29, 2011

It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.

—  Secretary of State, General George Marshall, June 5, 1947

According to US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on December14, “we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan.”  Well, he and his followers might imagine they are winning their war, but in addition to Washington’s sacrifice of 1856 American soldiers (so far) in a futile conflict, what the geniuses of the Pentagon and the aid industry have also lost in their ten years of war is a very great deal of US taxpayers’ money. And they intend to waste much more in years to come.

The US Congressional Research Service observed in November that “According to many analysts, substantial sums of aid money flowing into Afghanistan are being pocketed by corrupt officials and criminal networks, and are being diverted out of the country into bank accounts in Dubai and other overseas destinations . . .  Among many Afghans, there is a perception that US government contracting practices have enriched a select few at the expense of the general population.”  An enormous amount  of US and other countries’ aid is pouring into the country, and the Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction told Congress in December that approval of the 2012 aid budget would bring “total US funding to rebuild Afghanistan to $90 billion since 2002, making this the most expensive US reconstruction effort since the Marshall Plan following World War II.”

The Marshall Plan was prime mover in the rebuilding of the whole of Europe after the Second World War.  Devised by the Secretary of State, General George Marshall, it was put into effect by the brilliant diplomat George Kennan and the practical economist Will Clayton, and altered the lives of countless millions of people. It cost over 12 billion dollars, a gigantic sum sixty years ago, and it is not too much to say that it moved Europe from catastrophe to prosperity. It was an amazingly well-planned, well-organised and outstandingly generous American initiative (although it has to be admitted it reaped bountiful rewards for US industry), and the world has to be thankful to the United States for that amazing effort.

But now, in the world’s  second most-corrupt country, America is spending — wasting — squandering — much more money than it invested wisely and so effectively in bomb-blasted, starving,  post-war Europe.

Transparency International recorded last month that Afghanistan has the dismal distinction of being so corrupt as to almost fall off the scale, but President Karzai, never at a loss for a confusing statement, was reported by the New York Times on December 11 as having “blamed foreigners” for corruption of Afghan officials.

Nobody knows the exact outlay of foreign aid to Afghanistan. All that is certain is that thousands of people — foreigners and Afghans — are making a great deal of cash out of the place, and that countless billions of dollars have been lost through corruption, ignorance, shameful inefficiency and downright theft.  Foreign troops invaded ten years ago, but the process of trying to encourage some sort of development didn’t begin until it was realised the country was falling to bits and desperately needed help, politically, economically and socially. So in 2004 the real money began to arrive – in billions of dollars through official accounts, as distinct from the mere millions in shrink-wrapped bundles that had been handed out so stupidly to vicious and laughing-to-bank warlords in 2001-2002.

During a visit to Afghanistan four years ago I talked with an old friend who was directing an aid effort and was told a tale of woe. One of the worst penalties of being in charge of aid projects is suffering visits from politicians from your tail-wagging government, anxious to have their photographs taken outside a school or clinic or anything that has been built with the money from their long-suffering taxpayers.  They need to justify the enormous amounts of cash being delivered to a country that desperately needs it, but whose corrupt ‘developers’ are focused on acquiring glitzy villas in Dubai and contributing generously to the profits of Swiss and other banks who are not overly concerned about where their deposits originate.

There hadn’t been many projects completed, because my friend wasn’t prepared to funnel the money through channels that would result in enormous amounts being stolen by officials, contractors, politicians, and anyone else who could dig their fingers into the cash buckets. But of course the blame for lack of schools and so forth wasn’t sheeted home to the government in Kabul — it was directed at the people who tried to keep the money out of the stinking fingers of corrupt middlemen.

A few months after my visit my friend resigned in despair, which act, although undoubtedly principled, was fruitless because most foreign countries and international aid agencies involved in giving money to Afghanistan have gritted their teeth and closed their eyes and continued to pour their gold into the fetid drains of Afghan corruption. Their generosity is admirable; but their lack of controlling influence over their donations is entirely counterproductive. And there are not many people in the Kabul government who are willing to do anything about it. Why should they?

Let’s be blunt.  If you, dear reader, had a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year in an official position, political or administrative,  and it was in your power to grant a commercial favour, would you decline an offer of half a million dollars to smooth the way for some energetic crook?  And with the promise of more to come?

There are some western nations whose hopes of probity in Afghanistan have already been demolished.  Norway, for example, marked its disapproval of rampant criminality by suspending aid, and its deputy foreign minister, Espen Eide, was emphatic that  although a “large part of our work in Afghanistan is contributing to good governance,” one major problem was that  “What has happened at Kabul Bank is not an example of good governance.”  This was pointed reference to the scale of corruption at the bank, which had to be bailed out at a cost of $820 million.  It was all very simple : the Chief Executive of the bank,  Khalilullah Ferozi, and his sleazy subordinates arranged for 207 people to borrow enormous sums, interest free.  To the delight of all concerned it turned out that the loans were repayment free, too. According to Jon Boone of the Guardian newspaper, “In one of Kabul Bank’s most outrageous loans, it gave $22m to Mahmoud Karzai, one of the president’s brothers, and a former restaurant owner from Maryland. Karzai used the interest-free loan to buy a share in the bank itself. Thus did the president’s brother become the third biggest shareholder in the country’s biggest bank without spending a penny of his own money.”  Nice work if you can get it.

With its usual unintentional humour, the International Security Assistance Force announced on 14 December that “Afghanistan’s President and the Commander of International Security Assistance Force’s counter-corruption task force, along with Afghanistan cabinet ministers participated in a conference organized by Afghanistan’s High Office of Oversight and Anti-corruption to commemorate International Anti-corruption Day yesterday.” Mr Karzai “addressed the problem of impunity in Afghanistan,” saying ‘if someone is powerful, you cannot bring that person to justice,’ and noted, additionally, that Afghan criminals with international ties and the ability to invest the proceeds of their illicit activities abroad have a central role in fuelling corruption.”  Well, he should know.

Associated Press reported in October that “A major investigation into an influential Afghan governor accused of taking bribes has been shut down and its top prosecutor transferred to a unit that doesn’t handle corruption cases, Afghan and US officials said. The closing of the investigation into the former governor of Kapisa province, Ghulam Oawis Abu Bakr comes on the heels of a grim, unpublicized assessment by US officials that no substantive corruption prosecutions were taking place in Afghanistan despite President Hamid Karzai’s pledge to root out graft.”

Of course there have been no meaningful prosecutions for corruption, and there never will be. Last year Karzai personally ordered release of a member of his staff, a crook called Mohammad Zia Salehi, who had been arrested after taking a bribe for arranging closure of another corruption case.  It transpired that he had been employed by the CIA for years. A novelist couldn’t invent this sort of macabre chronicle.

And we can bet that US official assessments of the width and depth of all-pervasive corruption in Afghanistan will continue to be unpublicized. To be sure, in 2011 the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) “provided critical support in investigations that resulted in one sentencing, two guilty pleas, and five indictments and arrests” of low-ranking US personnel involved in dishonesty, but there is no mention of Afghan criminals because “SIGAR’s mission is to provide independent oversight of the treatment, handling, and expenditure of funds appropriated or otherwise made available for the reconstruction of Afghanistan; detect and deter fraud, waste, and abuse of US funds; and promote actions to increase program economy, efficiency, and effectiveness.” It has no jurisdiction over non-US citizens, so the merry bands of Afghan crooks continue to prosper mightily while the occasional sticky-fingered US staff sergeant goes to the slammer.

SIGAR does what it can, but its hands are tied, and US taxpayer’s money continues to flush down the Afghan drain. Never mind :  it will get politicians re-elected in America and Afghanistan.

Blood brothers rule while soldiers die. George Marshall must be turning in his grave.

Brian Cloughley’s website is


Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.