We went to war to restore democracy and prosperity to Afghanistan, and spent billions on building new homes, hospitals and highways. But five years and thousands of lost lives later, everything is crumbling and the ferocious Taliban are back. Where did it all go wrong?
By Fariba Nawa
October 29, 2006
Sunday Times Magazine (UK)
The supposedly “posh” apartment where I am writing this is in one of dozens of buildings constructed in 2004 near downtown Kabul. It is part of the extensive reconstruction process taking place in Afghanistan in the midst of war. The landlord is a businessman who built the shiny five-storey apartment block with tinted windows as an investment in what then seemed an equally shiny new economy. Across the way are a mosque and a wedding hall, and the call to prayer competes with Afghan pop music. Lately, the roar of fighter jets has added another level to the noise, as security in Kabul declines to its worst state in five years. During the morning rush hour earlier this month, the windows shook from an explosion that injured more than a dozen police several blocks away.
There are three of us in the flat, including my fiancé and an American friend, and we pay £165 a month in rent, the going price in the city. But few locals could afford such luxury: a civil servant’s salary is £27 a month. And this is no Trump Tower. We’re not sure if our building is earthquake-safe, since no seismic standards are enforced in this construction boom. Afghanistan is to earthquakes as Florida is to hurricanes – we know that when the ground shakes, the walls crack and the doorframes shift.
Our bathroom drains emit the stench of sewage; the pipes inside the walls leak, and the water seeps into the plaster. The lightest touch sends disintegrated wallboard cascading to the floor. There’s no insulation in the walls, and the gaps in our misshapen door and window frames allow icy winds to blow in. The building’s exterior was never finished with a primer or sealant, so when it rains, the moisture soaks through and beads on the interior walls. Metal beams supporting the ceiling of our living room are rusting, the rust is bleeding through the paint, and the paint is cracking. The list goes on.
I consider myself lucky. These flawed buildings and services are an inconvenience, but I could leave. Yet the shoddy reconstruction effort in Afghanistan since the Taliban were theoretically ousted has had far greater consequences for Afghans, and now, it seems, for westerners, who have footed the bill for these botched efforts. Amid the detritus of rubble and lost opportunities, the Taliban have returned.
Four million people in the capital still do not have access to reliable services such as water and electricity, even after £3.9 billion of international aid has been spent on reconstruction since the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, declared peace in 2001. One in four children still dies before the age of five. Of the estimated 31m people in the country, 3.5m still rely on food rations.
While Kabul has been the beneficiary of much money, the country as a whole has seen little change. Dozens of private clinics have popped up with phoney doctors and fake medicines, partly because the western-backed government was not able to build enough clinics to provide basic health care, according to the Afghan health ministry. Many foreign-funded structures have had severe problems. Roads, hospitals and schools are crumbling away.
The excitement and hope Afghans had when the US-led coalition entered the country have faded. The mood on the streets is tinged with resentment towards foreign companies, NGOs and western governments, for the vast amounts spent on reconstruction with so little to show. The perception is that these companies and their Afghan counterparts are reaping big profits for bad work. Many Afghan and foreign-aid workers, military and government officials agree that the Taliban have taken advantage of the public distrust and gathered support. And it doesn’t help that aid money pays Afghan soldiers about £37 a month, while the Taliban are able to pay their fighters about £108.
The Senlis Council, a European think-tank working in Kabul, stated in a report last month: “Afghans are starving to death, and there is evidence that poverty is driving support for the Taliban.” It highlighted the fact that 10,000 Afghans in the south have been displaced by poverty and violence and are living near rivers in unregistered, makeshift camps. The report also blamed the instability on too much military spending and not enough on development. Military operations totalled £44.4 billion since 2002, the report said, compared with £3.9 billion spent on development and reconstruction.
Afghanistan was sold as a success story. Last year, Tony Blair hailed military and reconstruction efforts: “The military operation is fantastic – the Taliban is no more. Now it’s victory, and the Afghans and their children can go home,” he said. But today, western and Afghan government officials admit the rise in the drug trade and the upsurge in violence – suicide bombings are up 600% on last year – are the results of attempting to rebuild Afghanistan on the cheap and failing. “The Taliban and their supporters are exploiting the discontent among the poor people who waited for their lives to improve, and nothing happened,” said General Abdul Manan Farahi, the director for counterterrorism in the Afghan government.
President Karzai’s popularity is falling rapidly as the number of suicide bombings and civilian deaths rises. So far this year, 49 suicide bombings have been recorded, according to the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, another think-tank in Kabul. About 2,000 people, including civilians, military personnel and militants, have died since the start of 2006. Up to 33,000 Nato troops have taken control of the country, but their casualties are increasing, with 115 foreign soldiers dead so far. Afghans and international donors are entitled to ask: where did it all go wrong?
After the Taliban were thrown out in 2001, thousands of Afghans like myself returned from the West to take part in rebuilding a country that had been bombed into submission. The infrastructure then was nearly nonexistent: there was precious little electricity, running water or health care. The roads had been destroyed by neglect and war. Most men were unemployed. But hope lingered on the horizon. Afghan women came out of their homes, where they had been confined by the oppressive laws of the Taliban. The excitement was contagious among Afghans here and abroad, that finally Afghanistan was getting a chance to live again.
The mood didn’t last long. From 2002 until the autumn of 2005, Afghans by and large supported the military intervention and the reconstruction effort, because we could see some positive results, especially in the cities. In The Washington Post on October 8, the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, conceded the challenge in Afghanistan while listing the achievements, and called for patience. He wrote that there were now 30,000 American-trained soldiers in the Afghan National Army, 600 schools have been built, and 80% of children, compared with 8% in 2001, have access to basic health care: “The size of Afghanistan’s economy has tripled in the past five years and is projected to increase by another 20% next year. Between 2003 and 2004, government revenue increased 70%, to $300m. Coca-Cola recently opened a $25m bottling plant in Kabul, and other large multinational companies are considering opportunities in Afghanistan.” His figures may have been accurate at the time, but the true situation is grimmer. This year, hundreds of schools have been shut down or burnt, the multinational companies are confined to secure areas that are quickly becoming unstable, and the 49% increase in poppy production is the likely reason why the Afghan economy has grown.
The tide turned when the insurgency continued fighting through the winter in 2005 – battles halt during the snow season – and security rapidly deteriorated. Foreign aid workers and contractors had been a target from the beginning, but Afghans working with them also became victims. The newly surfaced Kabul-to-Kandahar road has become a death trap where the Taliban plant bombs and kidnap.
Aid agencies have closed down their offices in the south, and girls have been terrorised into staying at home again. In Kabul, women make sure that when they go out, their headscarves stay on their heads. I take care to wear outfits that blend in with the local fashion, and I stay away from target sites, such as foreign restaurants. I would no longer travel without a man.
On May 29 my fiancé, Naeem, and I returned to Kabul from our home town, Herat, in the west of the country, gleeful after our festive engagement ceremony, to realise that we had arrived on one of the most volatile days in the capital since President Karzai took control. There were no taxis at the airport, where normally it was hard to ward off the yellow cabs. The roads were empty and foreign troops with guns patrolled the streets. Later, on the news, we heard that an American military truck had lost control and killed and injured several civilians. It was the last straw for many Afghans. The number of rioters was small, in the hundreds, but the damage done was irreparable: at least 17 people killed, and dozens of buildings – mostly the homes and offices of foreigners – looted and set ablaze. The rioters chanted: “Death to Karzai, death to America.” Peacekeepers, the US military, along with the Afghan police and army, worked for hours to restore order.
Naeem and I went out the next day, following the whiff of soot, to talk to Afghans who had witnessed the burnings. Some said they understood why the violence occurred but did not support it. “People are frustrated because they have no jobs and don’t feel safe any more. Their lives have not improved, so they took it out on the foreigners, who are innocent,” said a shopkeeper who did not want to be named.
Many of the people I interviewed in 2005 had predicted this reaction. Earlier that year, I had embarked on a project for CorpWatch, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rooting out corporate corruption, to investigate the foreign contractors who were hired by foreign donors to rebuild the country. The six-month venture began in Washington, DC, and led deep into the villages and cities of Afghanistan. I visited clinics, schools and roads recently built or in desperate need of repair, or both.
An hour from Kabul, in the village of Qalai Qazi, stands a new, bright-yellow health clinic built by the Louis Berger Group, an American engineering consulting company with the largest American-funded contract in Afghanistan, amounting to about $1.1 billion. The clinic was meant to be a sterling example of American engineering and a model for 81 other clinics Berger was charged with building.
But this “model” clinic was falling apart: the ceiling had rotted away in patches; the plumbing, when it worked, leaked and shuddered; the chimney, made of flimsy metal, threatened to set the roof on fire; the sinks had no running water; and the place smelt of sewage. But the need for health care is so urgent, the clinic was opened anyway. Since 2003, doctors at the Qalai Qazi clinic have treated about 100 patients a day, according to Mohammed Saber, the clinic’s round-the-clock guard.
I visited it one afternoon last October. It was Ramadan, and the clinic had closed early. When I arrived, the doctors had left. An old woman swept the floors, and they shone. But window-dressing can’t hide the reality that wafts from bathroom drains and leaks from decayed ceilings. Even the staff kitchen had no running water.
“It’s better than nothing,” Saber said.
Fred Chace, Berger’s deputy operations manager in Afghanistan, responded to criticism against the company in an e-mail: “Louis Berger, USAid and all the other implementing partners have had to face and overcome numerous challenges since the start of the reconstruction effort. The earlier works were all accelerated to show Afghans some immediate results and evidence that the intent of the programme was honourable and noble. Many people have [worked] and continue to work very hard to achieve the goals that have been established for reconstruction. On a programme of this magnitude there would be problems, even in a developed country. The challenges in Afghanistan make it even more difficult. There will be disagreements and mistakes made by anybody at any given time. However, you overcome those problems and you keep the objectives in mind and move forward.”
Berger received £357m from the US Agency for International Development (USAid) from 2002 to 2006 to build and rehabilitate infrastructure in Afghanistan, including clinics, schools, roads and dams. The company designed 89 roofs and clinics that needed to be fixed at the cost of millions of pounds. A new school with 12 classrooms costs £49,000 to £54,000, according to the Afghan ministry of education. But Berger’s average was £147,000.
Despite the mistakes, delays and charges of ineptitude from the Afghan government and development experts, USAid awarded another £748m to Berger in partnership with another American company, Black & Veatch Special Projects Corp, in September, for the next five years, to work on energy, water and transportation infrastructure. By 2009, Kabul has been promised 24-hour electricity.
The most hailed Berger infrastructure project was the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, a 482-kilometre stretch of asphalt with 45 bridges and 1,900 culverts and causeways. It took two years to complete, but most of the work was done in six months – and that was no accident. The US military needed a primary road to shuttle troops and supplies, but this highway also had political significance. The Afghan presidential elections were to be held in October 2004, and George W Bush was in a close race for re-election. Both campaigns could use a good press.
USAid awarded Berger the contract to build the highway in late 2002. In the peak work period, 3,000 Afghan labourers receiving about £3 to £5 a day worked seven days a week in 12-hour shifts to get it done before both presidential elections. In the process, Afghan engineers say the quality of material used was compromised. Cracks formed in the road during its first winter. Berger filled them in: it was under warranty to fix problems for a year; then it falls on the Afghan government to maintain roads, something it does not have the budget to achieve effectively.
Another road in the north that USAid funded and Berger supervised is known as the Shiberghan highway. Finished last winter, it was supposed to be one of the best roads in the country, according to its American and Turkish contractors. But the locals complain that it already has potholes from the massive fuel trucks that rumble down it daily. Farmers are furious because the road blocks their natural drainage system, causing a flood hazard. Cyclists gripe that there are no hard shoulders for the dozens of them who regularly travel on the highway.
During Karzai’s election campaign in 2004, he promised the people in this area a highway 10 metres wide, laid with asphalt. What they got was a road eight metres wide with a cheaper, less durable surface. The main discontent with the new road, from interviews with the farmers, was about water: not getting enough or getting too much. The road is built close to mud homes that have been here for decades. The old dirt road was low, and allowed runoff in the wet season to drain away.
The new road is built atop a raised berm, blocking drainage. If a heavy storm strikes, the villagers fear the mud homes they built with their hands will collapse.
One thousand local residents signed a petition demanding what they were promised by the politicians and took it to the provincial governor, who had no power to enforce change. “Based on the agreements made, donors can take advice and suggestions from the Afghan government, but they don’t have to listen to it,” said one contractor. The contractors built drainage canals, but the mud homes were in trouble. So the residents tried their own solution.
On a sunny Friday morning last October, three villagers dug a ditch right through the new road bed in an attempt to create a drainage canal before the rainy season. They were arrested for damaging public property. Habib, the tribal head of the village, defended the ditch. “Seventy families live in this village and we’re happy about this road, but we do not want our homes to fall because of it. We need a drain for the water,” he said. He looked at me as if I could help him. Could I make these big businessmen understand that they had a right to a home, he whispered in Persian. I had no answer except to write down what he said and smile.
Berger and Limak, the Turkish construction company it hired to build the road, tried to meet some of the demands but explained that their hands were tied by their £8m budget, most of which disappeared in setting up a work camp site, supervisor salaries and the subcontractors. No long-term money was budgeted for maintenance, without which the contractors admit that the road will deteriorate in five years.
It’s easy to find defects in construction projects, but even if a structure is erected flawlessly, the simple necessities that westerners take for granted inside buildings are lacking. Few of the ministries have regular power, water and sewage sanitation. If residents have the money, they can afford a generator and dig a well, but there is no water-treatment plant in the country. The underground aquifers in Kabul are drying up because too many people rely on well-water. Sewage wells are already contaminating water wells. There is no government resource to store rainwater or to collect river water. As for power, neighbouring countries sell electricity to some bordering cities, but the capital relies on dams. In the spring and summer, the snow melts on the mountains, feeding water to the dams and giving people more hours of electricity.
On many nights in winter 2004, I escaped my dark, cold home to stay with friends in one of the BearingPoint company houses in the high-class neighbourhood of Wazir Akbar Khan. BearingPoint, an American company assigned by the US government to revamp the Afghan financial system, rented eight houses, paying up to £4,300 a month in rent for the house used by the highest-ranking company official in the country. The area had become a fortress for international consultants, diplomats and the American military. Nearly all the streets were blocked from normal traffic for safety reasons, and inside these homes, aid money had paid for all the luxuries of a western life, including 24-hour electricity provided by truck-sized generators, a cook to prepare three meals a day, and access to satellite television and the internet.
USAid is the largest donor to reconstruction in Afghanistan. It has spent £1.9 billion from 2002 to 2005 on various sectors, including democracy and governance, infrastructure, agriculture and alternative work for those in poppy-producing regions.
It’s hard to prove how much of the money donated in the past five years was wasted, mismanaged, misused and, in some cases, stolen. But the former Afghan interior minister Ali Jalali said in a recent press interview that he estimated only 30% of that money was actually spent on aid projects in the country. So what happened to the rest? Bribery is rife. Foreign consultants absorb enormous funding: advisers each cost an average of £275,000 a year to hire and accommodate, according to an Afghan government report, a seemingly outlandish amount. But contractors say they have to pay a premium to attract qualified employees into a dangerous war zone.
The failure to spend the money wisely is partly down to a flawed system that fails to co-ordinate the Afghan government with the donors, a lack of leadership, and the widespread local corruption and violence that hinder the reconstruction effort. International and national aid agencies – including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and USAid – that distribute aid money to developing countries have, in effect, a system that is efficient in funnelling money back to the donor countries through corporate contractors. And as political pressure increased in Afghanistan to demonstrate the effects of reconstruction quickly, contractors were under pressure to do more work faster; they cut corners and leaned on their subcontractors and underqualified local labourers. When this resulted in fiascos, the blame ricocheted around.
My Afghan family in Herat decided to stay at home during the October frenzy of Eid festival shopping – their favourite time of year – because they feared suicide bombings. One relative was killed in a blast near the local mosque after Friday prayers in September. Some of my family say the coalition and the government made too many mistakes and it’s too late for Afghanistan.
When President Karzai pleaded for more money at donor conferences, donor countries didn’t oblige, perhaps because Afghanistan was supposed to be on its way to recovery. Educated Afghans ask why they received so little aid money compared with other conflict zones such as Bosnia, Rwanda and East Timor. According
to IMF statistics, aid money equalled £36 per year for each Afghan and £134 a year for each Bosnian. Afghan officials say they need £14.8 billion up to 2010 to get the country on its feet, but the latest donor conference in early 2006 in London awarded only £5.8 billion.
More aid money is crucial to peace but it will not be enough to stop the violence, according to Barnett Rubin, an American expert on Afghanistan who has been an adviser to Karzai’s government. Rubin, who heads the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, argues the need for “the elimination of the Taliban leadership’s safe haven in Pakistan; measures… empowering elders to maintain security in their areas; and more aid and reconstruction, so people actually benefit from the reduction in insurgent violence. The glass is much less than half full and much more than half empty, but… it’s standing on quite a rickety table, and the whole thing could be knocked over. We’re at a potential tipping point, because the expectations of people… have changed dramatically: they see the Taliban as having the initiative and being on the way to victory”.
Afghans have pleaded to allocate aid money as they see fit. And donor countries continue to object, claiming that the Afghan government is too corrupt to be trusted. No doubt, corruption is a problem in Afghanistan, where business generally involves bribes. But Afghan ministers say the no-bid, open-ended contracts the US and the international community award their own contractors is little more than a dressed-up form of bribery and corruption. And, according to USAid, the increased focus on Afghanistan does not necessarily mean more money.
I keep coming back, only to be exasperated by the lies, the cover-ups, the greed. When many of my relatives in the West frowned on my optimism five years ago, I called them bitter and cynical. Now I wonder if they were right – but only for a few moments. I’m going to stay as long as I can. I’m going to turn on the generator when the lights go off, breathe the polluted air, ride on those rickety roads and keep writing the history of my homeland, believing that some day Afghanistan will get lucky.
British involvement in Afghanistan
Britain makes the second biggest contribution to Afghanistan after the US, both militarily and in foreign aid. Since 2001, the Department for International Development (Dfid) has spent about £390m on reconstruction and development. It has promised a further £330m over the next three years. Most of the money goes directly to the Afghan government ‘to build effective state institutions that will last’, says Dfid. But poor workmanship and the Taliban are undermining the reconstruction, as British and Nato forces are drawn into combat with the insurgents.
There are currently 5,600 defence-service personnel in Afghanistan and, although British commanders have said they need more troops and equipment, according to the MoD that number ‘should stay roughly the same for the foreseeable future’. So far there have been 40 British deaths, but the rate is increasing — 19 British soldiers were killed in one week last month.
In January, Tony Blair announced the deployment of 4,500 British troops to Helmand province in the south so schools, hospitals, power plants and roads could be built. But this month the government was forced to withdraw its senior development adviser, as the area had become too dangerous.
British forces have also struggled to quell opium production — Afghanistan produces 92% of the world’s opium poppies. The national opium crop has increased by 49%, while in British-patrolled Helmand province the crop has trebled. However, Dfid’s money has bolstered some laudable programmes, such as the National Rural Access Programme, which will provide employment for about 190,000 people in building public works. It also contributes £45m per annum to develop alternative livelihoods to opium production, and £20m to the government’s Microfinance Investment Support Facility, which gives legal and other financial services to the poor. Also, about 6m children have returned to school, and immunisation has saved the lives of around 35,000 children.