When I worked in Kabul in 2013, delivering a program funded by UK Aid, even the smallest of projects became politicized and overshadowed by corruption. And in a recent online webinar hosted by the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan, titled “NATO and the Afghanistan Peace Process,” the systemic challenge of corruption took center stage as a topic of discussion despite the landmark intra-Afghan peace talks currently taking place in Doha.
The current political elite in Afghanistan took power almost 20 years ago after international coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime. Since then, the world has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into Afghanistan. Most of what was pledged was meant to bring peace and stability and to build and rebuild institutions that would work for all Afghans after so many years of wars and devastation.
Instead, much of that money has been wasted. You could even argue that the damage done--and current danger posed--by Daesh and the Taliban, who now control more land than at any point since the 2001 intervention of the West, is ultimately less than the country’s corruption. This kind of corruption indirectly exacerbates Afghanistan’s conflict. Since corruption consistently goes unpunished, Afghans feel betrayed by their leaders – and insurgents have in turn fed off this widespread sense of disappointment. The enemy sees a vacuum to fill.
In the wake of 9/11, the US went into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and appropriated nearly $134 billion for Afghan reconstruction programs. This is approximately the same amount that the US spent on rebuilding western Europe in the aftermath of World War II, which cost about $135 billion (by today’s rate) and constituted 4.3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the US.
Since then, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) – the US government’s independent oversight authority on Afghan reconstruction – released a report containing a forensic audit of $63 billion of US aid for Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2002. The report, published on October 20, concluded that “a total of approximately $19 billion, or 30% of the amount reviewed, was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.” In 2018-2019 alone, the report said, approximately $1.8 billion was lost to corruption.
The SIGAR report clearly demonstrates that endemic corruption, widespread insecurity, and lack of accountability continue to make investing in Afghanistan highly risky. This exposes the failure of the Afghan government’s efforts to prevent the proliferation of corruption and casts serious doubt on its ability to successfully oversee the reconstruction of the war-torn country after reaching a settlement with the Taliban.
Afghanistan has come a long way in the last two decades. Millions of girls are now in school, infrastructure has been built across the country, and, through a nationwide community development scheme, local communities now have the ability to control their affairs at the village level. Yet considering the huge sums spent on nation-building initiatives and the persistence of problems like widespread poverty, insecurity, and institutional fragility, it is clear the right formula for ensuring the sustainable reconstruction of Afghanistan has yet to emerge.
The Afghan government announced this past week—during an annual EU anti-corruption conference--the formation of a commission to fight corruption. It begs the question -- will it have any legal authority? And is it truly independent? The country has seen numerous anti-corruption commissions set up, which only serve the purpose of showing EU and other donors a symbolic step forward. The government has all the right labels attached to ministries, job titles, and processes, but, in practice, grapples with weak institutions and a dysfunctional bureaucracy that brings about no change.
With the forthcoming donor-pledging conference for Afghanistan’s future, which will be co-hosted by Finland, Afghanistan, and the United Nations and held in Geneva on November 23 and 24, I have concerns about how this money will be spent. What safeguards are in place to ensure that the money benefits Afghans? Will a farmer in a remote village benefit from these donations after they seep through various corrupted layers of government? Will it help a deported asylum-seeker build a new life? I worry that the international community will give the Afghan government another blank check. It must be used as an opportunity to focus the involved parties’ minds on these developmental challenges and what role they can play in advancing realistic and sustainable peace plans.
A key aspect of this should be encouraging the Afghan government to form plans for local development and share them with donors, including for areas that are currently ruled by the Taliban and which have been long neglected. Post-peace development needs to be built around responses to locally perceived needs and fostering participation, local conflict resolution, and reintegration. This may push policymakers to engage with local communities in those areas and identify their needs.
Another important message from the Geneva conference would be a focus on the creation of a long-term (5-10 years) reconstruction and development fund with a representative board that includes members of the Afghan civil society and representatives from across the country, which could incentivize the parties to reach an agreement and ensure a departure from the practice of short-term, annual pledges, which has provided fertile soil for misappropriation of funds over the years.
The donor community has allowed this dynamic to emerge. Donors do highlight Afghanistan’s corruption epidemic. But they never link their aid to any kind of genuinely effective scrutiny, and, as result, they have ultimately failed to hold the Afghan government to account for how they spend the donors’ money. Any pledges that come from the donor-pledging conference will definitely be wasted unless donor countries encourage the Afghan government to implement a real anti-corruption strategy that is supported by law. It must be conditional on fighting corruption – and the Afghan government should also show the political will to end impunity for corrupt officials. In order to create an effective and transparent government in Kabul, the donors who pledge their taxpayers’ money should draw specific red lines for spending this pledged money. Otherwise, these checks will be as blank as they have been in the past.
It is vital that Afghanistan’s negotiation team in Doha fully understands that whatever they achieve in their talks with the Taliban, the country will remain highly dependent on foreign aid for the foreseeable future. By some conservative estimates, it currently needs $5 billion in foreign aid annually merely to prevent the collapse of its core institutions. As donor fatigue sets in after 20 years of inefficient reconstruction spending, combined with the added pressures on foreign aid budgets exerted by populist nationalism and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a need for a clear plan to address systemic problems that undermine reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan. It is vital that those seeking to gain authority in a post-settlement Afghanistan see that the country’s myriad problems cannot be resolved simply by agreeing to an end of violence. As SIGAR’s John Sopko warned, unless corruption is addressed, any peace will not be sustainable.
Since 2014, trust in the government—at all levels--has been very low, and the US-Taliban agreement is fragile. The government and its international partners cannot carry on with big promises, slow delivery, endemic corruption and institutionalized injustice and not expect the conflict to reignite.
There is a direct link between funds feeding corruption and the erosion of security. Therefore, whatever shape or form a settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government takes, those in the driver’s seat of the country will assume a huge financial responsibility. To ensure investments made in post-settlement Afghanistan are not lost to waste, corruption and abuse like before, they will need to renew citizens’ as well as donors’ trust in state institutions. It is also vital that donors and the international community end the staggering levels of corruption by ensuring there is proper oversight of management of all funds. If Afghanistan waits until a political settlement is reached in Doha to discuss these issues, then it will be too late. Both sides need to engage all sectors of Afghan society in a wide-ranging dialogue on these core issues and deliberate over alternative routes towards sustainable, long-term reconstruction – because nothing else has worked so far.
Shabnam Nasimi is the Executive Director of the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan. She is also the Communications Lead and secretariat for Afghanistan All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in the UK. @NasimiShabnam
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