When I worked as an adviser to the government, even the smallest of infrastructure projects became politicised and overshadowed by corruption.
When the ministry wanted to provide clean water to villagers, it was sometimes only possible if private companies belonging to local power brokers – usually MPs, district administrators or police chiefs – were given the construction contracts. If they didn’t win the bid, they would take their share through extortion. Sometimes, the ministry’s facilitating partners lost their machinery, or found them on fire while working on our road projects because they hadn’t paid a bribe to the armed groups that controlled the project area.
My ministry, the ministry of rural development, was the most important arm of government. We were involved in nearly 35,000 of the roughly 40,000 villages across the country. In the process, we provided around 70% of Afghans with vital infrastructure, such as midwife clinics, schools, waterworks, bridges, roads, women’s training centres, or solar power projects. This was genuinely important work for genuinely needy people – and yet it was often disrupted by the corruption of the political class, who would, one way or another, find a way of getting their hands on the money.
And where was the money was coming from? It came from the pockets of the taxpayers in EU, UK, US, Canada, and Australia.
I have since left Afghanistan, but I was recently reminded of my former life when European leaders gathered in Brussels to give $3bn (£2.45bn) to Afghanistan. The UK alone announced £750m in aid for the coming three years. As a former government official, and a former UN staffer in Afghanistan, 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 to build a new life? I worry that Europe has given the Afghan government a blank cheque.
The current political elite in Afghanistan took power 15 years ago after international coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime. Since then, the world has poured hundreds of billions of dollars to Afghanistan. Most of what was pledged was meant to bring peace, stability, 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 dangers posed by Isis and the Taliban, who now control more land than at any point since the intervention, are ultimately less damaging than the country’s corruption.
Afghanistan was ranked 166 out of 168 countries on . Government has often become a self-serving means of enriching the political class. Several politicians have built up business empires that overshadow any attempts to bring about positive change to people’s lives. The political elites have ethnocentric agendas, exacerbate tribal rivalries and political intolerance, erode political will, and increase impunity for the powerful.
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.
The was an obvious example. It saw $850m (£700m) lost to fraud at Afghanistan’s biggest bank, and was described by US officials as “the biggest per capita fraud in history”. The bank’s shareholders were mostly from the country’s political elite, and included cabinet ministers, MPs, and warlords. The bank’s executives spent $160m (£130m) alone on 35 luxury villas in Dubai, many of which were registered in the names of shareholders. But those to blame for this massive money laundering have ultimately proved untouchable. Khalilullah Ferozi, the former executive of the bank, was to five years in prison. But last year he was released in order to sign a with the Afghan government.
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. Just last week, Taliban insurgents attacked Kunduz – the last stronghold lost by the Taliban in 2001. This is the second time in two months that the Taliban have attacked Kunduz – they first briefly seized it last August.
Despite all this, Europe’s aid is only conditional on Afghanistan agreeing to re-admit all refugees deported from Europe. This is a condition that will do nothing to stop corruption, and do everything to endanger ordinary Afghans, who will be sent back to a war zone. According to the recent report on Afghanistan, 5,166 civilians were killed during just the first six months of this year. And between 2009 and June 2016, civilian casualties reached 63,934. Another report shows that half of Afghanistan’s territory experiences war and violence on a daily basis.
So shouldn’t Europe’s aid be conditional on something other than deportations? The money 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 cheques will be as blank as they have been in the past.