March 15, 2021
The Afghan state will completely collapse if international donors pull funding due to concerns over corruption, which seems to be growing by the day. Predatory Afghan officials – often in league with warlords and transnational criminal organizations – are emptying government coffers as everyone seems to have their attention turned to whether or not foreign forces should stay or leave. However, in the midst of the outrage rightfully directed towards Kabul, Washington also needs to be held accountable.
Nearly $60 million worth of gold was reportedly smuggled abroad in the first three months of 2021, according to documents seen by Tolo News. Unnamed sources estimated that about $8 million of cash was being smuggled to Uzbekistan and several other countries on a daily basis, the newspaper reported on March 9.
Assuming this figure is correct, that would amount to nearly $3 billion annually – or almost half the total of the national budget Afghan lawmakers passed at the end of February.
The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, warned that the donor community is growing weary of seeing funds being abused and wasted and, unless the government in Kabul changes its ways, the country’ future looks bleak.
“A corrupt, narcotic fueled Afghan state will never be a reliable partner able to protect itself or the interests of the United States or its donors,” Sopko said at a virtual event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on March 10.
With respect to concerns that the remaining 10,000 foreign troops, including 2,100 Americans, may exit Afghanistan by May 1, Sopko offered a history lesson. He reminded those tuning in that the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces was not the key factor that led to the collapse of the Afghan communist government, which fell in 1992.
“It was when the rubles from Moscow stopped coming… that Afghanistan descended into civil war,” Sopko said.
The Afghan state will never survive if benefactors actually begin implementing threats to condition funding based on advances in stemming corruption. In 2018, nearly 80% of Afghanistan’s $11 billion in public expenditures was funded by external sources, split almost evenly between security and civilian aid, according to a report authored by current and former World Bank officials.
At the 2020 donors conference in Geneva in November, 66 countries and 32 international organizations pledged to provide $3.3 billion in civilian aid annually until 2024. This is about $300 million less than the World Bank experts said is necessary to ensure the state is “viable.”
The corruption, abuse and waste in itself is bad enough but, as Sopko pointed out, it also “provides oxygen” to the insurgency. In fact, the Taliban’s post-9/11 comeback can be directly attributed in large part to the Afghan government’s illicit feasting on foreign largesse.
However, some might argue that the situation may not be totally hopeless based on historical cases, despite the nearly two decades of nonstop avarice. A 2011 World Bank report said it took the 20 fastest-moving countries, “20 years to achieve functioning bureaucratic quality, and 27 years to bring corruption under reasonable control.” The counter argument to that, of course, is whether or not progress had been seen in these cases, because as for Afghanistan, it seems like things are getting worse.
Although Sopko makes solid points backed by quality data he also needs to do even more digging into Washington’s end of this mess because the source of the funding is part of the problem. Analysts and former election observer Karin von Hipple reported that international financial aid has not gone directly to the Afghan people, but is channeled through layers of contractors and implementing partners, “each of which takes a slice of the pie along the way.”
In fact, international contractors get 75% of U.S. development assistance in Afghanistan. In other words, rebuilding pays regardless the extent to which the host country is corrupt.
Kabul-based Human Rights Network analyst Abdul Rahman Yasa in an interview with an unnamed source said the mere pumping of massive amounts of money in “obscure” projects is bound to promote corruption on both ends.
“The United States should first focus on its own ‘de facto’ corrupt foreign aid programs where contracts are given to a narrow set of agencies and individuals and where actors in the military-industrials foreign aid complex are recording massive profits from the ongoing crisis and human tragedy in Afghanistan. How can an entity, which has major problems of corruption on its own, be able to solve corruption in another country?” the source told Yasa for a piece in the Journal of Strategic Security.
Moreover, we should not shed too many tears for the foreign powers who helped destroy Afghanistan in the first place – a country that had enjoyed four consecutive decades of stability until the 1970s. Although always reliant on external aid, the Musahiban government which ruled from 1933-1973 had used that funding to modernize the country. And it certainly seemed competent enough to prevent gold and cash from pouring out of the country.