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  Dispatch: Where Did The Dough Go?

 
 
Billions have been donated for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, so where did the money go?
By Stewart Nusbaumer

Kabul, Afghanistan -- The television says it was an earthquake. Some guys on the street say it was a bomb. Seeja, my neighbor in the Bakhtar Guest House, says it was his hashish, which has one whopper of a punch. Reality in Kabul is obscure and skittish leaving confusion to arbitrate between truth and non-truth -- but confusion is one lousy arbitrator. Still, something must have rocked my room. Rooms don't just rock, even in Kabul.

When free of natural disasters and man-made bloodbaths and stoned consciousness, the battered Afghan mind -- and sympathetic American mind -- tends to drift. Tends to wander, to stumble, to flicker and flame, and more often than not settle on one nasty question. A nasty question that is much more outrage than inquiry; a nasty question that has the potential to demolish the credibility of the United Nations and United States and NATO in Afghanistan; a nasty question that has the power to turn this utterly confusing country into a weird hyphenated fundamentalist Islamic/narco-state.

But not every foreigner in Afghanistan has a sympathetic mind. Most foreign minds are fixed elsewhere. "I cannot think of anywhere I have been," says veteran British writer Christina Lamb, "where there is such a chasm between the reality on the [Afghanistan] ground and the claims of the international community inside their heavily-guarded air-conditioned compounds."

This nasty question is unpleasant reality, an embarrassing consideration, something ignored and dismissed by the isolated, pampered foreign community of privilege. Their life is too good to claim the unpleasant -- there is no sympathy for the nasty. So, what is the question? "Where did the money go?" Where did the $12 billion that donor countries pumped into Afghanistan for reconstruction go? Where did the dough go?

Walk around Kabul today, nearly five years after the Taliban was overthrown, and there is the stench of raw sewage. Electricity is spotty and safe drinking water is scarce -- more than an inconvenience with temperatures topping 100 degrees. Roads remain unpaved roller coasters, health care remains ghastly medieval -- women die giving birth in frightening numbers, one in five kids does not make it past five, middle age is precarious with Afghans normally dead at 43. Guerrilla warfare has returned to the countryside and terror bombings to the cities. Jobs don't exist for nearly half the population, but prices have skyrocketed. More than 200 schools have been burnt down and education is increasingly nonexistent for girls in the Taliban south. So, where did the $12 billion in aid money go?

The television says the money went for reconstruction projects. Some guys on the street say it went to corrupt officials. Seeja, my neighbor in the Bakhtar Guest House, says it went for hashish, which has one whopper of a punch. With confusion arbitrating how could I possibly know? But I found someone who does know. The "Madonna of Afghanistan," a petite blond with one whopper of a presence.

Money Laundering and Shabby Work

"The money goes through a system that circles it back to the funding country," Fariba Nava, the Madonna of Afghanistan says in a soft, gravely voice. "If the US donates money to build a dam, it hires an American company to build it. That company takes its profits, its overhead, other expenses and then hires a subcontractor that does the same. What is left for building the dam is minimal so it's usually built below standard. Sometimes," she brushes her long blond hair away from her milky colored face, "money simply disappears, stolen or wasted on imported material."

I'm finding it difficult to follow what the Madonna of Afghanistan is actually saying. In the three months that I have been locked in this gender-shackled Muslim country, the hottest looking female I ran across had four legs, with more than a few fleas. Now there is this sultry voice raking each syllable over the fires of lust -- this dynamite body chiseled out of passionate stone -- this darting tongue a flamethrower charring my heart. And she even has brains!

In her excellent investigative report, Afghanistan, Inc., Fariba Nava quotes Baz Mohammed Baz, the head of the construction for the Afghanistan education ministry, that Japanese contractors built solid classroom buildings at a cost of only $100,000 while an American contractor charged $274,000 for defective classroom buildings. She documents health clinics, schools, roads and other infrastructure projects with leaky roofs and broken plumbing, uncompleted interiors, sinking pavements. It's a litany of shabby work by American contractors and their subcontractors. Then there are the foreign security firms taking huge bites out of the reconstruction budgets.

Fariba writes "most of the money allocated to Afghanistan never actually reaches Kabul; the U.S. and the international community have a system, through world financial institutions, that treats the country like a massive money laundering machine."

"The foreigners say Afghans do not have the skills and education to do the job so they have to hire expensive advisers and experts from other countries," a cute smile ripples across her majestic face exploding with blazing dark eyes. "Afghans say they can be taught and are willing to work hard if they are given the chance."

Of course Afghanistan has its share of degenerate shysters and crooks and incompetents, but hiring what Afghans refer to with distain as the "$1,000 a day foreign advisers" is not the solution, unless you are a foreign adviser. According to Fariba Nawa, and The New York Times, "the average cost to taxpayers for each imported adviser is about $500,000 a year -- $150,000 in salary, and the rest for security, living expenses, and the contractor's overhead and revenue."

With Afghanistan woefully short of policemen, as well as army troops, yet with an overabundance of foreign advisers, eliminating just one foreign adviser would allow for the hiring of more than 500 Afghan policemen. Eliminate two foreign advisors could result more than 1,000 new policemen. Eliminating three foreigner advisors…. Rural communities presently without any police presence or hardly a presence would suddenly have an infusion of law enforcement personnel, instead of only the current infusion of Islamic insurgents and drug militias.

Money Wasted, War Growing

The Bush Administration does not understand modern war. That is painfully clear. Superpower-ripped America rushed into Iraq threatening "shock and awe" and before the debris settled Bush was screaming victory. But Saddam Hussein's holdouts slipped into an insurgency and today the war roars on. In Afghanistan the Taliban government was smashed and again Bush was screaming victory. But the dethroned Taliban changed into a full-fledge guerrilla war. Two wars exemplifying this administration is clueless about modern war.

The television says the government is winning the war. Some guys on the street say the insurgency is winning the war. Seeja my neighbor says he is buying more hashish. How can I know who is winning when confusion is the arbitrator? But I believe the Madonna of Afghanistan -- I always believe the Madonna of Afghanistan -- and she says America's failure in reconstruction is helping to fuel the insurgency.

In a desperate land overrun with squalor and hopelessness it is best not to promise reliable electricity, new jobs, proper healthcare, protection from lawlessness -- prosperity and security -- and not deliver. It is best not to allocate $12 billion and then allocate most of the $12 billion to foreigners. It is best not have Afghans ask the nasty question, where did the money go?

When this army of self-enrichment with its "$1,000 a day foreign advisors" are driven through the desperate streets of Kabul (probably contemplating abhorrently-priced projects that locals could construct for a fraction of the money) these soldiers reconstructing their bank accounts are sealed in luxury SUVs with windows rolled up tight. For them there is no stench of raw sewage. In their private guesthouses generators keep the electricity flowing and purified water is never a problem. Food is top rate. They have private health care programs, private 24 hour security … for them life is good. After all, the money is going to them.

Mullah Kudus, a former spiritual and military leader of the Taliban, two years ago said when Afghans realize reconstruction is a "sham," the money will never reach them, they will become outraged and fight the foreigners. The Mullah was correct. Afghans are realizing where the money went and the guerrilla war is heating up.

It's time to retract the promises or start building. It's time to send the army of reconstruction home and give some money to the Afghanistan government, which can't be more corrupt than the foreigner aid helpers.

Stewart Nusbaumer is based in Kabul, Afghanistan. You can email him at SNusbaumer@aol.com

 

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