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The Afghan Scam
Posted on Jan 13, 2009
As things now stand, Afghans, as well as Afghan-Americans who go back to help their homeland, have to play by American rules. Recently an Afghan-American contractor who competed for reconstruction contracts told me that the American military is getting in on the aid scam. To apply for a contract, Afghan applicants now have to fill out a form (in English!) that may run to 50 pages. My informant, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, commented that it’s next to impossible to figure out “what they look for.” He won a contract only when he took a hint and hired an American “expert”—a retired military officer—to fill out the form. The expert claimed the “standard fee” for his service: 25% of the value of the contract.
Another Afghan-American informed me that he was proud to have worked with an American construction company building schools with USAID funds. Taken on as a translator, he persuaded the company not only to hire Afghan laborers, but also to raise their pay gradually from $1.00 per day to $10.00 per day. “They could feed their families,” he said, “and it was all cost over-run, so cost didn’t matter. The boss was already billing the government $10.00 to $15.00 an hour for labor, so he could afford to pay $10.00 a day and still make a profit.” My informant didn’t question the corruption in such over-billing. After all, Afghans often tack on something extra for themselves, and they don’t call it corruption either. But on this scale it adds up to millions going into the assumedly deep pockets of one American privateer.
Yet a third Afghan-American, a businessman who has worked on American projects in his homeland, insisted that when Bush pledged $10.4 billion in aid, President Karzai should have offered him a deal: “Give me $2 billion in cash, I’ll kick back the rest to you, and you can take your army and go home.”
“If Karzai had put the cash in an Afghan bank,” the businessman added, “and spent it himself on what people really need, both Afghanistan and Karzai would be in much better shape today.” Yes, he was half-joking, but he wasn’t wrong.
Don’t think of such stories, and thousands of others like them, as merely tales of the everyday theft or waste of a few hundred million dollars—a form of well-organized, routine graft that leaves the corruption of Karzai’s government in the shade and will undoubtedly continue unremarked upon in the Obama years. Those multi-millions that will continue to be poured down the Afghan drain really represent promises made to a people whose country and culture we have devastated more than once. They are promises made by our government, paid for by our taxpayers, and repeatedly broken.
These stories, which you’ll seldom hear about, are every bit as important as the debates about military strength and tactics and strategy in Afghanistan that dominate public discourse today. Those promises, made in our name, were once said to be why we fight; now—broken—they remind us that we’ve already lost.
Ann Jones wrote at length about the failure of American aid in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan Books), a book about American meddling in Afghanistan as well as her experience as a humanitarian aid worker there from 2002 to 2006. For more information, visit her website. For a concise report on many of the defects in international aid mentioned here, check out Real Aid (pdf file), a report issued in 2005 by the South African NGO Action Aid.
Copyright 2009 Ann Jones
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