Money as Weapon

Christopher de Bellaigue

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.

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