Thursday, April 29, 2010

In Afghanistan, Much Money Spent with Few Effects

Shah Wali Khot district, southern Afghanistan - In this district named Shah Wali Khot lying a few miles north of Kandahar, 11 of 13 schools sit idle. In Spin Boldak district a few miles east of Kandahar city there are few schools at all.
These places are rural and underdeveloped. High walls surround mud huts, fronted by rickety doors. Fields outside villages bear a fringe of green on thick soil, as the winter's cold takes hold and people sit aimlessly, doing small chores around the village, and waiting for the next growing season to begin.
Poorly dressed, often dirty, dignified with the mark of hard labor upon their faces and clothes, these people enjoy few of the things we associate with civilization. Health care is sporadic. Electricity generally nonexistent. The government that could help these people is not in the villages, it has never been in the villages, and at this rate never will be in the villages.
Governing here is difficult, because the country has so little. Iraq is an order of magnitude better, with satellite dishes, cell phones, cars, highways, health clinics, and the infrastructure of modern life. None of that is here, except in the cities.
The irony here is that the "coalition" in Afghanistan has plenty of money to spend. America is pouring its treasure into the country in vast quantities, even though other countries are having a difficult time following suit.
The US is spending $15 million to Spin Boldak district just to improve agriculture and life in the rural villages. It is building and shipping armored vehicles named MATVs to patrol the rugged Afghan terrain. Each costs over a million dollars. Containers of food, supplies and ammunition arrive daily by the... container load.
In this context the $40,000 to set up a clinic a school is trifling. The pay for a teacher should be slightly north of $1000 a year. That's equal to about 40 trips to the dining facility for the typical US soldier, or in other words, the meals for one GI for two weeks. It is equivalent to a whole year's salary for a teacher.
So a little money goes a long way in Afghanistan.
But the money generally isn't making it into the villages, sadly.
Villagers say much of the assistance they would like to get is siphoned off by officials working at the provincial and district level. They complain that the village elders become wealthy and move to the cities, where they live off their accumulated landholdings and take whatever handouts meant for their village for themselves.
The corruption we hear about in the media is a real concern in the villages. They get angry about it. It is not an "Afghan disease" tolerated by villagers. They downright hate it.
The coalition is just this year trying to get a handle on it, as the embassy threatens the Karzai government with unknown, unspecified sanctions if it does not clean up its act. It is a hollow threat, because everyone knows the US has nowhere else to go besides Karzai, the newly elected legal president.
Perhaps even worse for the US effort is the policy that is the flip side of the anti-corruption drive that never goes anywhere. It is the determination US and coalition civilians to put the "face of the Afghan government" on everything. That means the US cannot do a project; it must try to "tie in" the Afghan government and let Afghan officials do the work themselves.
Which makes perfect sense behind the 15 foot walls of the embassy compound in Kabul. But it makes no sense in a district like Spin Boldak that has minimal government presence in the villages, or none at all in Shah Wali Khot. The restriction just means the US cannot spend the money with abandon where it's needed most. It is possible to persuade the people that the government and coalition cares about it, but not if the aid projects never arrive at the village. So the US spends plenty of money, but it flows into the dining halls of the bases, not into the villages of ordinary Afghans.
This all adds up to progress that is very, very slow. The lack of infrastructure, the petty corruption, and the rules that hamstring the US from spending its plentiful supplies of money all conspire to tie the US in knots.
Add to that the slow pace of expanding the Afghan forces, and the lack of training being set aside for them. It makes for a real mess, whereby the administration's summer 2011 deadline to assess progress and decide whether or not to get the troops out becomes absolutely laughable.