Last Updated: Wed Jul 27, 2011 08:54 am (KSA) 05:54 am (GMT)

Shanthie Mariet D’Souza: Winning hearts and minds and pockets of the Taliban by siphoning off US aid to Afghanistan

The United States has been skeptical of the Afghan government’s ability for efficient aid delivery but has done little to build on the governments capacity to do so. (File Photo)
The United States has been skeptical of the Afghan government’s ability for efficient aid delivery but has done little to build on the governments capacity to do so. (File Photo)

A recent media report on how US government funds earmarked ostensibly to promote business in Afghanistan have landed in Taliban hands may have been news to the world outside this conflict ridden country, but for the Afghans and any regular Afghan watcher this is common knowledge. (Editor’s Note: The story was broken on Al Arabiya by the writer of this article.)

Like any other conflict theater, where a large chunk of the development money does pass into the coffers of the insurgents, either as “extortion tax” or “protection money,” in the absence of alternatives it remains a convenient mode of aid delivery.

Media reports indicated that a $2.16 billion transportation contract involving eight trucking firms ended up enriching the Taliban, through a process of sub contracting, which involved the shady interconnected world of the truckers, Afghan National Police commanders and of course the insurgents. In any event, the Taliban insurgency is no longer a monolith entity but also a huge conglomeration of organized criminals, smugglers, narcotic traffickers, anti government forces who have coalesced with the insurgency. As per the report, both the US and the Afghan government have been slow to address the problem and the truckers continue to be on US pay roll.

The phenomenon constitutes an interesting commentary on the US conduct in Afghanistan, even while its officials have been highly critical of the Karzai government’s involvement in corruption and chronic failure to arrest the slide. The US, in spite of its stated counter insurgency strategy of building local government’s capacity and thereby credibility has not only been skeptical the Afghan government’s ability for efficient aid delivery but has done little to build on the governments capacity to do so.

As a panacea, it has relied on its own processes and mechanisms which have created parallel structures and systems of governance, thus impeding the long term institution building. Thus, Afghanistan’s lack of institutional capacity coupled by the international community’s reliance on these parallel structures has not only led to dissipated development efforts but has also provided ample scope for corruption, leakages, kick offs and fraud at all levels.

Most of the projects under the USAID program are conducted through a process of contracting and sub-contracting. As a result, neither bulk of the money is spent on areas they have been earmarked for, nor are they in sync with local needs or priorities. Thus, they mostly end up as “ghost projects.”

Moreover, as the NATO and the US forces attempted to purge the insurgency ravaged southern Afghanistan of Taliban presence, it directed most of its aid money toward that region with the objective of winning “heart and minds” of the civilian population. In conversations with locals in 2007, they were quick to point out that a bulk of the aid diverted to the south simply found its way to the insurgent coffers and hardly reached the people.

As aid flow went south, the relatively stable north, with little or no aid for development and reconstruction activities, too started swaying towards instability. Anti-government forces tapped on the local sentiment and support in the absence of the developmental initiatives.

In my post last week, I had drawn attention on the US attempts to develop the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) as the predominant supply line for the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. To maintain the security of the supply items, there seems to be development of collusion between the truckers and insurgents which results in payment of protection money. Locals in Mazar-e-Sharif point out to the nexus between the truckers lobby, organized criminals and insurgents as a factor for the present instability and making the route unsafe. While goods remain quite safe till they reach the Afghan border through the Central Asian states, problems of theft, pilferage and even extortion suddenly become reality within Afghanistan.

Amidst growing uncertainties in the US-Pakistan ties, an easy way out of ensuring the safety of the goods along the NDN is through payment to the criminal network. Stationing troops on a permanent basis just to secure the NDN would probably cost much more.

In southern Afghanistan, it’s a different reality. In the near absence of state institutions, aid money is bound to end up in the coffers of the insurgents.

The scenario of the Taliban benefiting from leakage of aid delivered through alternate mechanisms is likely to grow in the coming days.

(Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore (NUS) in Singapore. She can be reached at shanthied@gmail.com and tweeted @shanmariet)

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