Kabul's new elite live high on West's largesse

By Patrick Cockburn in Kabul
'Gilded cage' lifestyle reveals the ugly truth about foreign aid in Afghanistan

Vast sums of money are being lavished by Western aid agencies on their own officials in Afghanistan at a time when extreme poverty is driving young Afghans to fight for the Taliban. The going rate paid by the Taliban for an attack on a police checkpoint in the west of the country is $4, but foreign consultants in Kabul, who are paid out of overseas aids budgets, can command salaries of $250,000 to $500,000 a year.

The high expenditure on paying, protecting and accommodating Western aid officials in palatial style helps to explain why Afghanistan ranks 174th out of 178th on a UN ranking of countries' wealth. This is despite a vigorous international aid effort with the US alone spending $31bn since 2002 up to the end of last year.

The high degree of wastage of aid money in Afghanistan has long been an open secret. In 2006, Jean Mazurelle, the then country director of the World Bank, calculated that between 35 per cent and 40 per cent of aid was "badly spent". "The wastage of aid is sky-high," he said. "There is real looting going on, mainly by private enterprises. It is a scandal."

The dysfunctional reputation of the US aid effort in Afghanistan is politically crucial because Barack Obama, with strong support from Gordon Brown, has promised that a "civilian surge" of non-military experts will be sent to Afghanistan to strengthen its government and turn the tide against the Taliban. These would number up to 600, including agronomists, economists and legal experts, though Washington admitted this week that it was having difficulty recruiting enough people of the right calibre.

Whole districts of Kabul have already been taken over or rebuilt to accommodate Westerners working for aid agencies or embassies. "I have just rented out this building for $30,000 a month to an aid organisation," said Torialai Bahadery, the director of Property Consulting Afghanistan, which specialises in renting to foreigners. "It was so expensive because it has 24 rooms with en-suite bathrooms as well as armoured doors and bullet-proof windows," he explained, pointing to a picture of a cavernous mansion.

Though 77 per cent of Afghans lack access to clean water, Mr Bahadery said that aid agencies and the foreign contractors who work for them insist that every bedroom should have an en-suite bathroom and this often doubles the cost of accommodation.

In addition to the expensive housing the expatriates in Kabul are invariably protected by high-priced security companies and each house is converted into a fortress. The freedom of movement of foreigners is very limited. "I am not even allowed to go into Kabul's best hotel," complained one woman working for a foreign government aid organisation. She added that to travel to a part of Afghanistan deemed wholly free of Taliban by Afghans, she had to go by helicopter and then be taken to where she wanted to go in an armoured vehicle.

There have been numerous attacks on foreigners in Kabul and suicide bombings have been effective from the Taliban's point of view in driving almost all expatriates into well-defended compounds where living conditions may be luxurious but which are as confining as any prison. This means that many foreigners sent to Afghanistan to help rebuild the country and the state machinery seldom meet Afghans aside from their drivers and a few Afghans with whom they work.

"Risk avoidance is crippling the international aid effort," said one aid expert in Kabul. "If governments are so worried about risk then they really should not be sending people here and having them work under such restricted conditions."

The effectiveness of foreign advisers and experts in Iraq is often further reduced by the very short time they stay in the country. "Many people move on after six months," said one expatriate who did not want to be named. "In addition some embassy employees receive two weeks off work for every six weeks they are in the country, on top of their usual holidays."

Some officials working for non-governmental organisations in Afghanistan are themselves troubled by the amount of money which foreign government officials and their aid agencies spend on staff compared to the poverty of the Afghan government.

"I was in Badakhshan province in northern Afghanistan which has a population of 830,000, most of whom depend on farming," said Matt Waldman, the head of policy and advocacy for Oxfam in Kabul. "The entire budget of the local department of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, which is extremely important for farmers in Badakhshan, is just $40,000. This would be the pay of an expatriate consultant in Kabul for a few months."

Mr Waldman, the author of several highly-detailed papers on the failures of aid in Afghanistan, says that a lot of money is put in at the top in Afghanistan but it is siphoned off before it reaches ordinary Afghans at he bottom. He agrees that the problems faced are horrendous in a country which was always poor and has been ruined by 30 years of war. Some 42 per cent of Afghanistan's 25 million inhabitants live on less than a dollar a day and life expectancy is only 45 years. Overall literacy rate is just 34 per cent and 18 per cent for women.

But much of the aid money goes to foreign companies who then subcontract as many as five times with each subcontractor in turn looking for between 10 per cent and 20 per cent or more profit before any work is done on the project. The biggest donor in Afghanistan is the US, whose overseas aid department USAID channels nearly half of its aid budget for Afghanistan to five large US contractors.

Examples cited in an Oxfam report include the building of a short road between Kabul city centre and the international airport in 2005 which, after the main US contractor had subcontracted it to an Afghan company, cost $2.4m a kilometre – or four times the average cost of road construction in Afghanistan. Often aid is made conditional on spending it in the donor country.

Another consequence of the use of foreign contractors is that construction has failed to make the impact on unemployment among young Afghans which is crucial if the Taliban is to be defeated. In southern provinces such as Farah, Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul, up to 70 per cent of Taliban fighters are non-ideological unemployed young men given a gun before each attack and paid a pittance according to a report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. By using these part-time fighters as cannon-fodder, the Taliban can keep down casualties among its own veteran fighters while inflicting losses on government forces.

Some simple and obvious ways of spending money to benefit Afghans have been neglected. Will Beharrell of the Turquoise Mountain charity, which is encouraging traditional Afghan crafts and reconstruction of part of the old city, says tangible and visible improvements are important. He said: "We went in for rubbish clearing because it is simple and provides employment. We brought the street level down by two metres in some places when we had cleared it away."

A striking feature of Kabul is that while the main roads are paved, the side streets are often no more than packed earth with high ridges, deep potholes and grey pools of dirty water. New roads have been built between the cities, such as Kabul and Kandahar, but these are often too dangerous to use because of mobile Taliban checkpoints where anybody connected to the central government is killed on the spot.

The international aid programme is particularly important in Afghanistan because the government has few other sources of revenue. Donations from foreign governments make up 90 per cent of public expenditure. Aid is far more important than in Iraq, where the government has oil revenues. In Afghanistan a policeman's monthly salary is only $70, which is not enough to live on without taking bribes.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002 the Afghan government has been trying to run a country in which the physical infrastructure has been destroyed. Kabul is now getting electricity from Uzbekistan but 55 per cent of Afghans get no electricity at all and just one in 20 get power all day. Money can be distributed more swiftly by the US military but this may not undercut the political support of the Taliban to the degree expected.

Afghans themselves are unenthusiastic about President Obama's plan for more US military and civilian involvement in Iraq. And the failure of foreign aid to deliver a better life to Afghans also helps explain plummeting support for the Kabul government and its Western allies. Oxfam's Mr Waldman believes better-organised aid could still deliver the benefits Afghans hoped for when the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, but he warns: "It is getting very late in the day to get things right."

Go figure: The West's spending in Afghanistan

$57 The foreign aid per capita to Afghanistan, compared with $580 per capita in the aftermath of the Bosnian conflict.

$250,000 Typical salary of foreign consultants in Afghanistan, including 35 per cent hardship allowance and 35 per cent danger money. Afghan civil servants typically receive less than $1,000 a year.

$22bn The shortfall in donations compared to the international community's estimate of Afghanistan's need – around 48 per cent.

40 per cent Share of international aid budget returned to aid countries in corporate profit and consultant salaries – more than $6bn since 2001.

$7m Daily aid spend in Afghanistan. The daily military spend by the US government is around $100m.


I really don’t want to waist my time on writing about Imran Khan ,but anytime I read his statements he sounds so confuse, first this guy does not have any political wisdom of a politician, he does not have any agenda, he used to criticize Nawaz Sharif but now he is following him, his mentality is like QAZI HUSSAIN and I believe Qazi is his mentor in politics, they both love politics of agitation. He says one thing and does something else, he is a guy who could not keep his marriage but he claims to be a leader and wants to run the country. All of sudden he does not like liberals in Pakistan because liberals are against what Taliban are doing in Pakistan, he forgets that he was married to a western woman and another woman in west claims to be his kid’s mother, anyhow that’s his personal life and I have no right to talk about it but Imran is upset because liberals in Pakistan are criticizing Taliban, so my question to him is that is it ok to blow girls schools, hang dead bodies to poles and trees, is suicide bombing ok? I think he is confuse and thinks like liberals are against religion, but that is not the issue and that is not even Islam of our Holy Prophet Mohammad(PBUH),What Taliban are doing is ignorance but not Islamic. I never been cricket fan but when Imran Khan came into politics, I thought it was the last chance of hope, however after more than 12 years, IK has still not proved his leadership potential and the nation who is waiting for a leader is still in wait. H e does not have any political bone in his body and does not have any political principles, its amazing he called Nawaz Sharif a thief in the beginning of his political career and later moved towards nawaz, on one side he and his X wife wrote hardliner Islamic columns in Pakistani newspapers but at the same time were busy spending the most liberal life in a conservative country like Pakistan , even after 12 years in politics, he is a 1 man show in his own party, he tries to ally with the moderates through his personality and then sits with the hardliner conservatives like Qazi Hussain he bravely talks about Baluchistan and FATA and NWFP but has also failed to visit these areas to prove his actions more than words . If he has an original conviction to change Pakistani society, he should come out of this quagmire of old used up politicians like Qazi Hussian Nawaz etc, That will be surely the onset of his political success. His PTI lacks of internal party democracy and the fact that if something were to happen to IK, the party would completely disintegrate. I do not view the PTI of IMRAN KHAN as a vehicle for change. looking attractive is not required in politics. Politics requires total devotion, honesty, total freedom from racial and ethnic bias and a total commitment to improve the lot of a country's oppressed people .He's failed because he started off as a leader of change but instead came out another dual-faced politician. He has a strange state of mind, he entered in politics with the slogan that he is against corrupt politicians but then chose to get into alliance with the same politicians, as well as the decades old power brokers of the conservative parties. I think Imran needs to quit politics and should coach young cricketers because after 10 years he is riding on other politicians shoulders and does not have any political agenda.It is really surprising that he is highly educated but he doe not have any inspirational qualities .If he was Pakistan’s OBAMA,he could change a lot and like Z.A.BHUTTO he could gather huge crowds around but he does not have any qualities of a politician.

This is indeed our war

Friday, May 01, 2009
Farhat Taj

The Pakhtuns do not need enemies when they have self-proclaimed friends like Imran Khan – this is in response to his article published in this newspapers on April 23. The fact of the matter is that this war on terror is very much Pakistan's own war. It used to be America's war when the jihadis were funded by the US to fight the Red Army in Afghanistan. The Pakistani and international jihadis have now made it Pakistan's war. As a responsible state Pakistan cannot allow terrorists crossing over into Afghanistan to attack Afghan civilians (who are usually Pakhtun), the Afghan National Army and US and NATO forces in the country that came there under a UN mandate.

The Musharraf government's decision to send the Pakistan army to Waziristan in 2004 was correct. But the decision came too late, too little and too half-heartedly. Following the US bombing of Al Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan in 2001, the foreign and Pakistani jihadis escaped into Waziristan. They were not welcomed by the people of Waziristan and proof of this also is that they killed more than 200 tribal leaders of Waziristan, after which the region's tribal order collapsed. The state under President Musharraf was guilty of criminal negligence for allowing the jihadis to decimate the tribal order.

Imran Khan may not know it or ignore it for political reasons but the fact is that there is a widespread perception among the Pakhtuns that the Musharraf government played a double role: on one hand it allowed the jihadis to take control of the tribal area and on the other hand showed the US that the Pakistan army was fighting the terrorists. It was during his regime that the army entered into agreements with the Taliban in FATA – and all of these failed. The agreements had two versions: oral and written. The written versions were according to the law of Pakistan. The oral versions implied that the Taliban would not attack Pakistan army and the army would let the Taliban do whatever they liked and this would include them crossing over into Afghanistan.

The Taliban also happen to be sectarian terrorists in that many of their targets are Shias. And in this regard their primary targets are the Pakhtuns of Kurram, Orakzai and Dera Ismail Khan. I think Imran Khan will be hard-pressed to go to Parachinar and tell the Turi tribe that the Taliban are Pakhtun nationalists. The Turis in Parachinar have been besieged by the Taliban for over two yeas now – all their land links to the rest of Pakistan have been blocked and hundreds have died while fighting the Taliban. If one wants to talk of Pakhtun nationalism then instead of looking at the Taliban one should look at what, for instance, the Ali Khel in Orakzai did where the Sunni section of the Ali Khel tribe stood up to the defence of the Shia when the latter came under threat from the Taliban. In addition to this, the Saralzai in Bajaur, the Khelil and Monand in Badabir and all those who stood up to the Taliban are the true embodiment of Pakhtun nationalism, not the Taliban.

The Pakhtun jihadis, together with their non-Pakuthn jihadis, are attacking the very core of Pakhtun nationalism. Almost 90 per cent of those killed, injured and maimed are ordinary Pakhtuns. Moreover, the terrorists' ideology is directly opposed to a nationalist ideology. The Pakhtun Taliban movement has all along been attacking all the symbols of the Pakhtun culture to bring the Pakhtun identity in line with that of the Arab jihadists. To call terrorism a nationalist movement is to create hatred among different nationalities living in the country especially when the people being killed as a result of terrorist activities belong to different nationalities.

The Pakhtun are experiencing a genocide-like situation at the hands of Taliban and Al Qaida terrorists . But people like Shireen Mazari, a member of Imran Khan's party, say that anti-Taliban local lashkars are in fact American sell-outs. This is most disrespectful especially since it is more a case of the brave Pakhtuns taking up arms to defend themselves in the face of a complete absence of state protection.

Imran Khan often compares the Taliban militancy with the tribal resistance to the British colonial. This is an insult to the Pakhtun history. Unlike the Taliban no tribal resistance leader ever killed fellow Pkahtun in the name of Islam of fight against the British. It is difficult to assess the impact the Taliban had in Swat due to the problems people had with the judicial system. A group of people who have never been elected – and probably will never be unless voters are forced to at gunpoint – blocking roads in protest does not automatically mean that there was a wider public support for them or their actions. Sufi Mohammad's TNSM got strength because the state succumbed to it again and again. Do not forget that Sufi Mohammad is the same person that misled thousands of young men of FATA and NWFP to go to Afghanistan to fight against the US and Northern Alliance in 2001. He managed to return safely but most of those who went to fight were either killed or captured – hundreds are still missing. Their families wait for them and they curse Sufi Mohammad every single day. Now thanks to the ANP government, he has been made a hero.

Anyone who has lived in Swat would have experienced that people of Swat are the most liberal people among the Pakhtuns due to their dependence on a tourism-driven economy. The Sufi Mohammad-style sharia has never been their choice. They would never want their primary industry – tourism – to be destroyed by those who rule over them. The argument of JI amir Munawwar Hasan that people of Swat elected the ANP and the PPP because his party boycotted the February 2008 elections is wrong. If religious right-wingers were so darling to the Swatis, they would have elected the JUI-F which was in the field.

How come so many tribal leaders were killed all over FATA and no one has ever been arrested for it? How come officials of the state and its institutions socially meet members of the Taliban? I have often met desperate people who say that the Taliban militancy has been engineered to send a message to the US and to extract more and more aid. More ominously, these Pakhtuns feel abandoned by the state.

Pakistan has to do the needful – something that it hasn't done so far. This means giving up the idea once and for all that the jihadis are strategic assets to fight proxy wars in Afghanistan and India. The next step would be to conduct targeted operations based on intelligence to destroy jihadi infrastructures all over Pakistan, eliminate their leadership and retake the territory ceded to the jihadis. Third, all those Pakhtuns who have stood up to the Taliban need to be protected. Disturbing as it may sound, the jihadis could well take over all of Pakistan, just like they have taken over Swat and FATA, unless of course the state chooses to crush them with an iron hand.

Whether the US offers financial help to Pakistan or not Pakistan has to fight this war to survive as a democratic state in the modern world.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Research, University of Oslo, and a member of Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy. Email: bergen34@yahoo.com