The suicide bomber who blew himself up in the Finest supermarket in Kabul on 28 January had to get through a city-wide security cordon to reach his target. The Finest was chosen because it was frequented by foreigners who wouldn’t be in Kabul were it not for the occupation, and because, exceptionally for such a place, it was not protected by security guards or reinforced doors. It was not the haunt of foreign diplomats, whose lives are so protected and regulated that they rarely enter a local shop, but a second tier of strangers: the aid workers, contractors and consultants who are integral to the international effort to transform Afghanistan. In the event, an Afghan family and at least four foreign women lost their lives at the Finest. The injured included two Canadians, a Briton and three Filipino domestic servants – a class that has sprouted in the city. According to the Taliban spokesman who claimed responsibility for the blast, none of those killed was truly a civilian, because the attack had taken place in a ‘secured area with commercial stores for foreign occupiers’. The Taliban’s idea of what a civilian is tells you a lot about the current insurgency and the occupation to which it is opposed.

The Americans and their Nato allies entered Afghanistan in order to prevent al-Qaida using it to launch another 9/11-style attack, and in this they have been successful, reducing the enemy’s presence in the country to a few individuals. But the occupiers had a second and much more ambitious goal: to turn Afghanistan into a place where there would be fair elections, free enterprise and women’s rights. The transformation would be financed by the US and other donor governments, while their foreign and local helpers oversaw its implementation. Using these channels, the US and its allies have spent more than $50 billion on aid in Afghanistan since 2002.

To begin with, the efforts of America and its allies were enthusiastically backed by most Afghans, including many former supporters of the Taliban. Wahid Mujda, a former Taliban foreign minister who became a senior member of the judiciary under Hamid Karzai, told me that ‘in 2002, the Taliban commander Mullah Baradar toured the seminaries of Pakistan, trying to persuade the Talibs who had fled there to join a jihad against the Americans. But no one was interested. They said: “Let the foreigners come and build the country.”’ Since then, a series of blunders have eroded this support. To start with, the Americans devoted more energy to hunting members of al-Qaida than to making sure that Afghanistan developed smoothly. Then came the invasion of Iraq and a diversion of resources to Mesopotamia. Over the same period, the Karzai government – the foreigners’ local face – grew notorious for its rapacity, cronyism and incompetence.

Financial aid intended to lift this desperately poor country to prosperity has instead become a symbol of much that has gone wrong. Vast sums have been lost to corruption and inefficiency. Since much of the foreign help is disbursed by the occupying forces, the Taliban and their allies have been able to depict it as an adjunct of an unjust occupation, and thus as tainted. This, combined with the immensely unpopular tactics used by US forces, particularly assassination and night-time raids on private houses, created the conditions necessary for a fresh insurgency. Only at the end of his presidency did Bush turn his attention back to Afghanistan; by then, the Taliban were back with a vengeance. Since the election of Barack Obama they have become even stronger, despite last year’s surge.

Much has been said about Afghan corruption, and with justification, but many were aggrieved when David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in the country, said that corruption had been part of Afghan culture for ‘however long this country has … been in existence’. Many Afghans dispute this, saying that corruption was manageable under the Soviets, hardly existed under the Taliban and has grown exponentially since 2002. It cannot be disputed that vast fortunes have been made corruptly under Karzai’s government. Kabul Bank, for example, the country’s largest, has lost several hundred million dollars to dubious investments and unrecoverable loans, some of them made out to ministers and other government stalwarts. Not only that: the US government was aware of what was going on and did nothing to stop it. American regulators were interested only in preventing the bank from being used to finance global terrorism. The economic boom in Kabul – the swish apartment blocks and jewellery shops and imported SUVs – has been funded by land-grabs, protection rackets and the drugs trade. All of the financial capital that supports the boom has been injected into the country since the occupation, much of it in the form of aid that has found its way into the pockets of warlords, politicians and businessmen.

There is a fine line between providing humanitarian assistance (a road leading to a market, say) and establishing military infrastructure (a road leading to a US base), and the coalition has made the distinction harder to spot. The Americans and their allies are trying to fight a war and build a country at the same time, and they find it convenient to use the same forms of organisation for both. Much aid has been co-ordinated through military-directed Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which operate in heavily fortified compounds around the country. The insurgents regard any activities associated with the PRTs as fair game, and anyone involved with them as part of the occupying force. (Foreign journalists are similarly tainted, in part because of the prevalence of embedding.) This is the logic behind the kidnapping and murder of aid workers, and it was the logic behind January’s carnage at the Finest supermarket.

‘Even when you are giving something to someone,’ a veteran aid worker told me in Kabul, ‘it doesn’t always follow that they will be grateful. For example, you would expect a villager to welcome the construction of a road in his area, because it will be easier for him to get his produce to market and his children to a clinic or school. But what if that road is then used by the US military? It becomes a target for the Taliban, and anyone using the road is at risk – branded a traitor and a collaborator. Then in winter the road cracks because it was completed under budget and the contractor absconded with the difference. What now? It’s simple. The villager would prefer to have no road.’

There is a tension between aid as emergency relief and aid as a means of transforming people’s lives. Early in the occupation the coalition launched a drive to persuade people in Helmand province to plant wheat instead of poppy. One of the arguments that impressed villagers was that they could get a higher price for wheat. But it so happened that around the same time USAID was giving out sacks of free flour, which had the effect of depressing the price of wheat. People went back to growing poppy.

More aid money is now being channelled through Karzai’s government after people complained that donors were bypassing the state and replicating its functions, but the government is unable to absorb such enormous sums. In 2009, according to Karolina Olofsson of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an NGO, the Ministry of Justice in Kabul succeeded in spending just 30 per cent of the money that had been allocated to it. Oversight is minimal. ‘The ministries are unable to give a province-wide, let alone a district-wide, breakdown of their spending,’ she adds. But this has not discouraged donors, whose approach, Olofsson says, is simply to ‘throw the aid and see who catches it’.

Many have gathered hopefully. Kabul has the world’s biggest congregation of aid workers and they are competing for the biggest influx of aid money in history. Last year the government revoked the operating licences of some 170 fraudulent or inactive NGOs, but around 1500 remain. These include Afghan NGOs, fronted by plausible English-speakers bandying about the usual acronym-heavy jargon. Some of them, in Olofsson’s words, operate as ‘business operations’ – in other words, they have been set up to chase aid.

It is quite common for foreign and local aid agencies to have offices in smart Kabul neighbourhoods like Wazir Akbar Khan, where the Finest supermarket was, and neighbouring Shahr-e Now, and their presence has transformed the economy in these areas. On the eve of the occupation, a three-bedroom house in Shahr-e Now could be rented for $300 a month. Now, the monthly rent is in the region of $4500. Rich Afghans with houses in these areas tend to let them to foreigners and live elsewhere. In Shahr-e Now, I visited the area head of a foreign NGO who told me that the property he was occupying, a big modern house in a spacious garden, had previously been rented by another NGO, whose Afghan employees had ‘demanded kickbacks from the landlord to ensure the contract was renewed’. Extended families and tribes may try to arrange jobs for as many members as possible in a given NGO, often without the knowledge of the unsuspecting foreigners.

Nowadays, it is hard to find an educated Afghan who is not in the pay of foreigners. A civil servant would have to take a lot of bribes to earn the same money. In Kabul, I spoke to a former senior military official who told me of his disappointment with the foreign model of development and criticised at length American procurement methods for the Afghan National Army (secretive and costly). At the end of our conversation, he took a call from the foreign company for which he acts as a consultant.

He was right that inefficiency is the outstanding feature of aid to Afghanistan. A typical development contract will be subcontracted between three and five times, with depletion of 5 to 10 per cent at every stage. The actual work is never done by foreigners – you don’t see American foremen on site in Afghanistan. Some agencies and NGOs spend vast sums on security and administration. The bigger the beast, the more is wasted. Before the 2004 presidential election the United Nations spent $100 million raising voters’ awareness of their democratic rights and responsibilities. The Afghan Civil Society Forum, a small NGO, was doing the same thing, but was estimated to have spent its budget 25 times more efficiently than the UN. Another typical debacle, exposed by the Christian Science Monitor, involved a $60 million hydroelectric and agriculture project in a remote part of Badakhshan, in the far north of the country. The project was intended to rejuvenate the region and wean farmers off poppy cultivation, but landslides caused by shoddy construction blocked the flow of water to the electricity turbine, a new road fell apart within three months of completion, and the announcement of rewards for catching crop-eating beetles caused locals to start breeding them. The Monitor found that USAID ‘created an atmosphere of frantic urgency about the “burn rate” – a measure of how quickly money is spent. Emphasis gets put on spending fast to make room for the next batch from Congress.’ According to a report issued last year by Wilton Park, a conference organiser run by the Foreign Office, ‘at a time when more aid money is being spent in Afghanistan than ever before … perceptions persist that little has been done, the wrong things have been done, what was done is poor quality, the benefits of aid are spread inequitably, and that much money is lost through corruption and waste.’ In short, ‘aid seems to be losing rather than winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan.’

Even as this view was becoming the consensus, the United States was pumping in more money – part of its ‘civilian surge’ – and linking aid even more explicitly to the military effort. In 2008, when he was the commander of US forces in Iraq, Petraeus described money as his ‘most important ammunition’. A US army handbook, the Commander’s Guide to Money as a Weapons System, lists the many ways aid can be used to defeat ‘targets without creating collateral damage’. One product of this way of thinking is a discretionary fund on which US commanders in Afghanistan can draw to help them win over the inhabitants of newly captured areas. Typically, cash is doled out for the purchase of generators or tractors, goats and seed, or for small construction projects. Last summer, the US government raised the budget of this fund to well over $1 billion, and Petraeus – then new in Afghanistan – was authorised by the Pentagon to distribute generators and diesel worth $220 million to the people of Kandahar alone. More recently, in the district of Zhari, in the same province, the US military gave out assistance and compensation payments for war damage, as well as daily wages for local people. The fact that this money was accepted, despite Taliban threats, was presented as evidence for America’s success in winning people round. It doesn’t seem a very reliable measure of success, however, and is unlikely to indicate any long-term ideological victory. What happens when the money stops coming? The generators will be useful only as long as there is diesel to put in them. The goats will require feed, the tractors fuel and spare parts. For how long will the US military be prepared to pay Afghan workers $6 a day? As the Christian Science Monitor discovered in Badakhshan, a road is only useful if it is maintained, and Afghanistan’s district administrations are rarely up to the job.

Two US policies co-exist in Afghanistan. One is to stay heavily involved and to change the country for the better, come what may. The other is to get out. The Obama administration is trying to pursue both policies, and according to a truncated timetable devised not in Afghanistan but in America. Nowadays, a sense of urgency pervades the aid effort – ‘one last push’. ‘We were urged to show results quickly,’ one NGO worker said of a meeting of PRTs in 2010, ‘and to demonstrate we’re no longer needed and that our job is finished.’ This sort of aid is designed not so much to build a new Afghanistan as to hold on to hearts and minds for just long enough to get the troops home.

An American success story: six years ago, Cure, an NGO based in Pennsylvania, took control of a big, run-down hospital in a Kabul suburb near the bombed-out palace of Darulaman. The International Hospital of Kabul is now one of the best in the country, specialising in gynaecology. The corridors gleam and the mainly Afghan staff bustle purposefully, while signs alert patients to the hospital’s intolerance of bribery. Cure is a Christian organisation and there is a discernible mutual respect between the hospital’s expatriate staff and the Muslims working alongside them. ‘There is no proselytising,’ the hospital’s executive director, Jacki Lammert, remarks, to approving nods from the deputy head doctor, Yousuf Khan. ‘We pray for each other.’

Cure did not come to Afghanistan as an arm of US or Nato forces. And yet, when one looks around this place, which treats 8000 people per month, and which everyone knows is being run by ‘the Americans’, it is clear that hearts and minds are being won. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the hospital is that it operates on less than $3 million a year. Its obstetric fistula programme is funded by two specialist organisations in Switzerland and the US, and more funds are raised by training medical interns, sponsored by other donors, who go out to local districts after completing their courses. Cure has a 50-year contract with the Afghan government – maintaining a variety of donors will be the key to its longevity. ‘We don’t want money that’s going to go away,’ Lammert says. ‘If and when the US pulls out, if we’re dependent on USAID, that means no more funding.’ She acknowledges that some aid workers accept hardship postings because the salaries are good. (As one aid agency veteran told me in Kabul, ‘the USAID crowd spend half their time booking their holidays.’) ‘I didn’t come to Afghanistan … for the money,’ Lammert says, though she knows some who did. ‘We had a security guard who was receiving $30,000 and he left us for another organisation, where he is being paid $180,000.’

Cure’s success makes clear the choices that aid organisations in Afghanistan are forced to make. If they are part of the military and PRT-driven gravy train, they will get lots of money in the short term. If they don’t want to be part of it and choose more neutral projects, they get less money but have more of a chance to win local goodwill and make a difference to people’s lives over a longer period. These decisions also have a bearing on their ability to operate in areas where the Taliban are in control, or vying for control, or where the lack of a functioning state has permitted the emergence of armed, criminal gangs – an increasing fraction of the country. It is here that life for the aid worker is most dangerous, and where the acid test of complicity with the occupiers is most brutally applied.

For aid agencies operating in the most sensitive areas of the country, there are a few basic rules. It is better to travel unobtrusively, using local transport, than to kick up the dust with a convoy of armour-plated SUVs guarded by men with Kalashnikovs. In the words of an Afghan employee of Daccar, a Danish NGO, ‘I don’t go into the field wearing my leather jacket, but local clothes.’ It sounds like common sense, but when you stop to think how much aid is distributed through the PRTs, and that Western insurance companies usually insist on guards and armoured vehicles for the people they insure, it is obvious how often common sense is ignored.

Even for organisations that abide by these rules, operating in the field has got more dangerous: 225 aid workers were killed, kidnapped or injured in attacks in 2010, compared with 85 in 2002. The Afghan Red Crescent Society alone has lost eight personnel in the past year, and Fatima Gailani, its head, says that conditions in the field are worsening. Some American commanders mistrust any aid organisation that is in touch with the Taliban – the Red Crescent and its partner, the International Committee of the Red Cross, are the obvious examples. One of Gailani’s provincial representatives was, she says, arrested by US forces because he had been returning the bodies of dead Taliban fighters to their families.

The Taliban have representatives on many of the local councils that have been set up across the country, and co-operate with some aid agencies. In Gailani’s words, ‘when the Taliban have a checkpoint and see a Red Crescent vehicle, they very often wave it through.’ Co-operation between the belligerents and the aid sector is essential if aid workers are to do their job, but it is unlikely to increase while the aid community is regarded as an adjunct of the occupation. The ICRC says that access to the needy is worse than at any time for the past 30 years. ‘The number of mothers coming in with children dying from easily preventable diseases such as measles and chronic diarrhoea is staggering,’ one ICRC doctor, Bart de Poorter, has said. ‘But what doctor or vaccinator is brave enough to venture into rural areas given the appalling lack of security?’

Aid in Afghanistan has rarely been simple. When the Taliban were in charge, opinions were divided over how far one should go to accommodate their rules in order to gain access to the population. Today, many of these disputes seem academic. In 1997, two years after the Taliban took Kabul, aid to Afghanistan came to $56 million. That is a quarter of the amount Petraeus received last summer for generators and diesel in Kandahar alone. Under what is effectively an American colonial mandate, Afghanistan is undergoing by far the best funded of the various modernisation drives the country has known since the early 20th century. As in the past, the process is being approached in a tearing hurry – on the assumption, common to modernisers, that it is only by throwing up schools and bridges that the hordes will be kept from the gates.

In spite of all that has gone wrong, many Afghans support the mission civilisatrice and want it to succeed. In his office in Kabul, Aziz Rafiee of the Afghan Civil Society Forum showed me a photograph of himself taken in the Taliban period. ‘Look at the long beard,’ he said. ‘Look at the empty gaze. I was like a dead man.’ Now, he went on brightly, he is bringing up his children as members of a vibrant society, with new schools and universities and hundreds of radio and TV channels. Remote areas of the country have been transformed with roads and clinics and advanced farming techniques. The number of universities has soared; the press is remarkably free. In some parts of the country, the Taliban seem to accept that people want schools and clinics, even if they are paid for by the Americans, and do not destroy them as a matter of course. On the other hand, there has also been a marked skewing of resources away from relatively calm provinces, where well-directed aid could have a long-term effect, in favour of ‘quick impact’ projects in Kabul and the three provinces, Kandahar, Herat and Helmand, which are regarded as crucial to the coalition’s military objectives.

One day at the beginning of January my assistant, Karim, and I went north to the broad, agricultural Shamali Plain, taking one of the few safe roads out of Kabul. (The Taliban and their supporters can cut off most of the other exit routes at will for periods of several hours, looting containers and taking hostages.) The population of the Shamali Plain consists mainly of Persian-speaking Sunni Tajiks, the ethnic group that dominates the country’s new institutions. The army and police are big employers round here, foreign aid drips down to the villages even after local officials have taken their cut, and the bazaars bustle (at the beginning of the month, at least, before pay packets are spent), while the old weekend entertainments, such as cockfighting, attract big crowds.

Sitting cross-legged in a meeting room in his house, a genial villager called Abdul Malek Sohbat talked the international language of development. ‘The people have come to know their rights,’ he said, ‘and how to demand them. This is what civil society means: pinning down the state and making sure it doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.’ Sohbat was talking on behalf of the local development council: there are 10,000 of them across the country, each entitled to claim a portion of aid. Sohbat casually reeled off sums which, a decade ago, would have seemed hallucinatory: $200 million (the projected cost of a military base in the provincial capital, Charikar, to be handed over to the Afghan government in three years’ time, containing a hospital, a prison and a new governor’s office); $1.1 million (20 km of asphalt that will loop around nearby Bagram Airport). But he also drew attention to smaller projects, costing mere tens of thousands of dollars, which have helped inhabitants of the dirt-poor villages, without mains water and unconnected to the national electricity supply. ‘We have increased the provision of drinking water,’ he said, ‘sunk wells and distributed generators. If it wasn’t for us, the asphalt road that brought you here would still be a dirt track.’

Sitting next to Sohbat was a man called Engineer Jamal, a colleague of Karolina Olofsson at Integrity Watch. Like so many of the more effective aid agencies, Integrity Watch operates on a modest scale, in this instance teaching Afghans like Sohbat how to monitor local projects, and encouraging them to seek redress when, as often happens, a simple project is shoddily completed because of kickbacks and waste. Here, the concept of ownership is so precarious that the smallest cultivated plot is enclosed by a thick adobe wall, and the main relationship is one of subordination – the fighter to the warlord; the mosque-goer to the mullah; the woman to the man. So, it is remarkable that Sohbat recently dared to demand that the provincial governor, a former mujahed from the war against the Soviets and a Karzai appointee, order the demolition of a shoddily built school, and even more remarkable that the governor agreed.

In the town of Jabal Saraj, half an hour further north, a second development council advised by Engineer Jamal has prevailed on cowboy subcontractors to rebuild a girls’ school they were erecting using substandard bricks, and prevented the makers of a small hydroelectric power station from substituting cheap Chinese turbines for the expensive Western ones stipulated in the contract. The women of Jabal Saraj too have made their voices heard, even if they remain invisible to the male visitor. In the women’s council that operates in parallel to the men’s, a local elder told me, ‘they settled on two priorities: sewing classes and a women’s clinic. The women informed their husbands in the men’s council – us – and they got both.’ Only a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine an Afghan construction company paying much attention to a group of uppity villagers. Now, Sohbat says, ‘they are obliged to give us a respectful hearing.’

Afghanistan’s military commanders have around 150,000 men under arms, but the much anticipated American drawdown, scheduled for the summer, will progress slowly, with combat troops rebranded as trainers or mentors. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has predicted that 2011 will be bloodier than 2010, which was the bloodiest year since the invasion. It is hard to guess what will happen after that, but a major expansion of US bases across the country, including a dramatic increase in runway capacity, testifies to America’s ambition to retain their grip on the country militarily for decades to come.

Controlling the main towns, as the coalition does at present, does not preclude defeat. The Soviets learned that in the 1980s. In the main surge zone, the Americans have established themselves in several districts formerly held by the Taliban, but the Afghan army is nowhere near ready to consolidate what gains have been made. Tens of thousands of crack American troops will be tied to the southern provinces for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, bigger pockets of the mainly non-Pashtun north are coming under Taliban sway, while anti-Taliban warlords arm themselves in anticipation of civil conflict. In the remote north-western province of Badghis, the Taliban recently ordered mobile phone operators to restrict their service to two hours a day, and were obeyed. (Government and Nato forces use mobile networks to track the Taliban.) The provincial government tried to intervene, but to no avail. In the words of a government spokesman, ‘the private companies don’t listen to us.’

Such shows of strength impress ordinary Afghans. So does the perception, common in areas where the government and the Taliban are tussling for control, that the insurgents are less corrupt than the government. A survey last year by the Department for International Development found that respondents in Helmand regard the Taliban’s justice system as relatively honest, compared to government tribunals, which were trusted by a mere 7 per cent. Even if the Taliban cannot conquer all Afghanistan, fighting brings them prestige, while the war economy, revolving around drug smuggling and extortion, keeps them solvent.

From now on, the course of the conflict will be determined by Obama’s willingness to commit yet more men and resources. According to Gilles Dorronsoro, in a report for the Carnegie Endowment, ‘the current situation will require a request for additional troops. The choice is clear: send reinforcements or accept military defeat.’ The only alternative, as Dorronsoro and just about every other independent Afghanistan specialist agree, is for the Americans to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban. This will be difficult for any US administration – most ordinary Americans associate the Taliban with 9/11 – but a senior official I spoke to conceded that it will have to happen, and that even the US top brass, including Petraeus, recognise it. Hillary Clinton signalled a major U-turn when she dropped her insistence that the Taliban renounce violence, sever its links with al-Qaida and accept the Afghan constitution before negotiations can begin. It’s a prospect that some Afghans view with dismay.

In a few years’ time, Petraeus’s valedictory spurt of money and firepower will have ended and American interest in the country will assume more conventional proportions. Everyone in Kabul anxiously anticipates the day when aid levels drop dramatically and foreign contractors melt away, while US forces monitor the global jihadists from behind massive fortifications and try to preserve whatever political balance has come into being. Only then will it be possible to assess the success and longevity of Afghanistan’s latest, sclerotic leap to modernity.

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Vol. 33 No. 10 · 19 May 2011

Christopher de Bellaigue writes that it is the ambitious goal of the forces occupying Afghanistan to turn it ‘into a place where there would be fair elections, free enterprise and women’s rights’ – a ‘sclerotic leap to modernity’, he calls it, which may be right with regard to elections and free enterprise, but when it comes to women’s rights what’s involved is not so much a leap to modernity as a return to the past (LRB, 14 April).

NGOs have introduced shelters to allow women to escape domestic violence and avoid forced marriages, but a law currently under consideration by the Afghan parliament would require a woman wanting to enter a shelter to be accompanied by her husband or a male relative; she would have to be handed back to the family if the family demanded it; while in the shelter she would have to undergo monthly medical checks ‘to monitor her sexual activity’. The law is currently stalled – officially said to be ‘under review’. But other laws that met with international outrage were kept ‘under review’ for a few months until public vigilance had waned and then gazetted without much international protest.

Another proposed law is designed to regulate weddings. Afghan weddings are traditionally an elaborate affair, and many families go into lifelong debt to finance them. So when the Justice Ministry says that it wants to limit the cost of weddings it sounds like a good thing. But the proposed law also provides for the establishment of committees to monitor weddings to ensure that women dress ‘modestly’ and that male and female guests attend in separate rooms. The committees would include representatives of the Religious Affairs Ministry and enforce Sharia-compliant dress.

Matthias Tomczak

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