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Don’t Blame USAID alone for Corruption in Afghanistan July 6, 2010

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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by Barak D. Hoffman

Barak D. Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. He has worked and consulted for USAID, and was an observer for Afghanistan’s 2008 election.

Last week, the House appropriations subcommittee markup on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs cut foreign aid to Afghanistan for FY2011.  It did so because that aid allegedly is a source of corruption.  Congress did not reciprocate by calling for a reduction in military spending.

Slashing a total of $4 billion in foreign aid without pushing for a meaningful decrease in the approximately $100 billion military funding request is hypocritical, unfair to USAID, and reveals a naive understanding of the Department of Defense’s “whole of government approach” to fighting wars like the one being waged in Afghanistan.

That some of the money the United States spends in Afghanistan fuels corruption is indisputable. Nor is there any doubt that the rampant dishonesty and greed that characterize Afghan politics undermine efforts to strengthen the legitimacy of the government and to weaken the Taliban. The abundance of available cash funds the insurgency, finances incompetent Afghan private security contractors, and enriches warlords who have ties to the opium trade. It is also highly likely that some US assistance to Afghanistan flows out of the country and into overseas private bank accounts of powerful Afghan politicians.

Rather than seriously tackling these issues, the subcommittee was simply grandstanding.  Foreign aid comprises such a minuscule portion of total U.S. spending in Afghanistan that shutting it down would have a negligible effect, one far too small for the average Afghan to notice.  Military expenditures fuel far more corruption in that benighted country than the assistance provided by USAID, and the only way to ensure that American taxpayers do not continue to exacerbate this fraudulent situation is for the their government to stop funding the war effort.  This is the real issue.

Had the subcommittee succeeded in discontinuing USAID’s appropriation under the guise of forestalling corruption, it would have delivered an entirely unwarranted rebuke to the agency. Congress increased USAID funding after 9/11 to help the military fight in Afghanistan more effectively and, as the Department of Defense has made on clear numerous occasions, development projects are central to the counterinsurgency strategy.  Moreover, people working on aid projects in Afghanistan have volunteered for these dangerous assignments, and maligning their efforts alone denigrates the risks they run.

As last week’s suicide bomb attack on the compound of DAI, a USAID contractor in Kunduz, made brutally clear, people working for USAID and its contractors are as much on the front lines of the war as are our soldiers.  In some ways, they are even more exposed.  Soldiers are well armed, have combat training, and can travel in heavily armored vehicles. From personal experience, I know that people working on aid projects generally lack such skills and protections.  In addition, numerous USAID employees are deployed with the military, such as those working on Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

In wars like the one in Afghanistan, it is simply impossible to isolate military activities from those of aid agencies and other civilian efforts.  Nor will this reality disappear at the conclusion of the current conflict.  For the foreseeable future, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, “The greatest threats to the United States are likely to emanate from states that cannot adequately govern themselves or secure their own territory…building a partner’s overall governance and security capacity is a shared responsibility across multiple agencies and departments of the U.S. national security apparatus.”

While Secretary Gates’s prognosis can be challenged and the efforts to be undertaken in the future may differ in scale from our current engagement in Afghanistan, the missions themselves – and their concomitant dangers – are likely to remain the same.  The subcommittee’s attempt to cut aid to Afghanistan was therefore not only inappropriate and misguided with regard to USAID, it also demonstrated an appalling misunderstanding of the military’s strategy for addressing the main national security challenge the country faces.

Whether the United States can translate its commitment to corruption-free governance into meaningful action in Afghanistan remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: this war will not be lost because malfeasance exists nor won because of its eradication.  Singling out USAID for opprobrium in the latest iteration of what’s gone wrong in Afghanistan did not constitute constructive engagement with the complexities of the war. Rather, it was simply an ill-conceived and uniformed display of political theater.

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Last week, the House appropriations subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs unsuccessfully tried to cut foreign aid to Afghanistan.  It did so because that aid allegedly is a source of corruption.  The full committee, however, did not reciprocate by calling for a reduction in military spending.

Attempting to slash $4 billion in foreign aid without pushing for a meaningful decrease in the approximately $100 billion military funding request is hypocritical, unfair to USAID, and reveals a naive understanding of the Department of Defense’s “whole of government approach” to fighting wars like the one being waged in Afghanistan.

That some of the money the United States spends in Afghanistan fuels corruption is indisputable. Nor is there any doubt that the rampant dishonesty and greed that characterize Afghan politics undermine efforts to strengthen the legitimacy of the government and to weaken the Taliban. The abundance of available cash funds the insurgency, finances incompetent Afghan private security contractors, and enriches warlords who have ties to the opium trade. It is also highly likely that some US assistance to Afghanistan flows out of the country and into overseas private bank accounts of powerful Afghan politicians.

Rather than seriously tackling these issues, the subcommittee was simply grandstanding.  Foreign aid comprises such a minuscule portion of total U.S. spending in Afghanistan that shutting it down would have a negligible effect, one far too small for the average Afghan to notice.  Military expenditures fuel far more corruption in that benighted country than the assistance provided by USAID, and the only way to ensure that American taxpayers do not continue to exacerbate this fraudulent situation is for the their government to stop funding the war effort.  This is the real issue.

Had the subcommittee succeeded in discontinuing USAID’s appropriation under the guise of forestalling corruption, it would have delivered an entirely unwarranted rebuke to the agency. Congress increased USAID funding after 9/11 to help the military fight in Afghanistan more effectively and, as the Department of Defense has made on clear numerous occasions, development projects are central to the counterinsurgency strategy.  Moreover, people working on aid projects in Afghanistan have volunteered for these dangerous assignments, and maligning their efforts alone denigrates the risks they run.

As last week’s suicide bomb attack on the compound of DAI, a USAID contractor in Kunduz, made brutally clear, people working for USAID and its contractors are as much on the front lines of the war as are our soldiers.  In some ways, they are even more exposed.  Soldiers are well armed, have combat training, and can travel in heavily armored vehicles. From personal experience, I know that people working on aid projects generally lack such skills and protections.  In addition, numerous USAID employees are deployed with the military, such as those working on Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

In wars like the one in Afghanistan, it is simply impossible to isolate military activities from those of aid agencies and other civilian efforts.  Nor will this reality disappear at the conclusion of the current conflict.  For the foreseeable future, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, “The greatest threats to the United States are likely to emanate from states that cannot adequately govern themselves or secure their own territory…building a partner’s overall governance and security capacity is a shared responsibility across multiple agencies and departments of the U.S. national security apparatus.”

While Secretary Gates’s prognosis can be challenged and the efforts to be undertaken in the future may differ in scale from our current engagement in Afghanistan, the missions themselves – and their concomitant dangers – are likely to remain the same.  The subcommittee’s attempt to cut aid to Afghanistan was therefore not only inappropriate and misguided with regard to USAID, it also demonstrated an appalling misunderstanding of the military’s strategy for addressing the main national security challenge the country faces.

Whether the United States can translate its commitment to corruption-free governance into meaningful action in Afghanistan remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: this war will not be lost because malfeasance exists nor won because of its eradication.  Singling out USAID for opprobrium in the latest iteration of what’s gone wrong in Afghanistan did not constitute constructive engagement with the complexities of the war. Rather, it was simply an ill-conceived and uniformed display of political theater.

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