Patrick Cockburn reports:
The most extraordinary failure of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan is that the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars has had so little impact on the misery in which 30 million Afghans live. As President Barack Obama prepares this week to present a review of America’s strategy in Afghanistan which is likely to focus on military progress, US officials, Afghan administrators, businessmen and aid workers insist that corruption is the greatest threat to the country’s future.
In a series of interviews, they paint a picture of a country where $52bn (£33bn) in US aid since 2001 has made almost no impression on devastating poverty made worse by spreading violence and an economy dislocated by war. That enormous aid budget, two-thirds for security and one-third for economic, social and political development, has made little impact on 9 million living in absolute poverty, and another 5 million trying to survive on $43 (£27) a month. The remainder of the population often barely scrapes a living, having to choose between buying wood to keep warm and buying food.
Fake photographs are often the only evidence that companies have carried out expensive projects located in parts of Afghanistan too dangerous for donors to visit.
“I went to see a food processing plant in the east of the country which was meant to employ 250 women,” says an Afghan who used to work for an American government aid organisation. “We had started the project and were paying for the equipment and the salaries. But all I found was a few people working on a vegetable plot the size of a small room.”
When he complained he was told by a local official to keep his mouth shut. He said that “if I did not keep quiet there would be trouble on the road back to Jalalabad – in other words they would kill me.”
US officials admit privately that the torrent of aid money that has poured into Afghanistan has stoked corruption and done ordinary Afghans little good. Afghanistan was identified as the third most corrupt country out of 178 in the world in a report released last week by Transparency International.