Is it just me, or is the pontification of Western leaders about corruption in Afghanistan growing rather tiresome?
There is something very Captain Renault about it. We’re shocked, shocked that the Afghans have sullied our morally immaculate occupation of their country with their dirty corruption. How ungrateful can they be?
But perhaps we should consider the possibility that our occupation of the country is not so morally immaculate — indeed, that the most corrupt racket going in Afghanistan today is the American occupation.
US military officials in Kabul estimate that a minimum of 10 percent of the Pentagon’s logistics contracts in Afghanistan consists of protection payments to insurgents, Aram Roston reports in The Nation. In southern Afghanistan — where General McChrystal wants to send more troops — security firms can’t physically protect convoys of American military supplies. There’s no practical way to move the supplies without paying the Taliban. So, like Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22, we’re supplying both sides of the war.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of the nearly $30 billion in international aid to Afghanistan has been routed through foreign consultants, companies, and organizations hired by the US government and its allies, Farah Stockman reports in the Boston Globe. Afghan officials complain that American civilian advisers are often overpaid, underqualified, and unfamiliar with the culture of the country. A typical US adviser earns about $500 per day — several times what the average Afghan earns in a month, Stockman notes. That’s about $125,000 a year — not a bad chunk of change, even by U.S. standards. It’s more than the household income of about 85% of American families. The total cost of such an adviser, including security and accommodations (note that most people — in Afghanistan, like the U.S. — have to pay for their own accommodations out of their salaries or wages), is about $500,000 a year.
The Afghan government now has a program to hire its own advisers from friendly Muslim countries like Turkey and the UAE. The US supports this program with a $30 million dollar contribution. But that contribution represents 1.1% of the $2.7 billion that the US plans to spend on economic assistance to Afghanistan next year, the vast majority of which will be used to hire US contractors. So for every dollar we spend on paying American contractors, we spend a penny on a much cheaper program that allows Afghanistan to hire people who know the culture, speak the language, have more expertise, and can move around Afghanistan with less security because they aren’t Americans.
What do you call that? Afghans call it corruption. As Diogenes might say, the big thieves are giving lectures to the little thieves.
Now consider an Afghan policeman making $120 a month — half the cost of supporting a family, Western officials concede — who sees all this going on. Do you think that guy might take a bribe? Bertolt Brecht wrote, in Marc Blitzstein’s translation: “First feed the face, and then tell right from wrong: for even saintly folk may act like sinners, unless they’ve had their customary dinners.” But in practice, our aid bureaucracy in Afghanistan has not yet won this most trivial insight.
But the biggest corruption of all is the occupation itself, because it is all based on a big lie: the claim that our continued occupation of Afghanistan is justified by the threat of an Al Qaeda “haven” in Afghanistan. This is a lie because: 1) as former counter-terrorism official Paul Pillar has pointed out, “the case has not been made” that “such a haven would significantly increase the terrorist danger to the United States” and 2) Mullah Mohammed Omar’s “Quetta Shura” Taliban have been signalling for months that they are done with Al Qaeda and there has been no U.S. response. McChrystal wants reinforcements to go to Kandahar. That’s Mullah Omar’s home turf. If McChrystal is given troops to go to Kandahar, then it’s not about Al Qaeda.
Robert Naiman is National Coordinator of Just Foreign Policy. Naiman also edits the daily Just Foreign Policy news summary and blogs at the Web site of Just Foreign Policy. This article was first published in the Just Foreign Policy blog on 13 November 2009.