The Afghan Money Pit
By Taylor Marvin
The US’s chief Afghan reconstruction auditor just released a new report chronicling massive US spending on Afghan governmental personnel (via Spencer Ackerman). In an effort to lessen low paid Afghan officials’ incentive for corruption the US has been quietly paying out huge amounts in unofficial benefits and gifts, often without bothering to keep track of where and how much was spent. Whether this anti-corruption effort- which is essentially massive discreet handouts to potentially untrustworthy public officials- is actually corruption itself isn’t a question the government seems to want to ask. The report’s conclusion:
“Since 2002, the Afghan government has depended on donor salary support to fill critical gaps in its capacity, yet donors may be forfeiting long-term capacity and fiscal sustainability for the short-term imperatives of standing up a functioning government in Afghanistan. Donor practices such as paying salaries that far exceed what the Afghan government can sustain and providing funding outside the government’s planning and budgeting processes have had a negative impact on the local labor market, the development of an effective Afghan civil service, and the long-term development of Afghan government capacity. Competition among donors for qualified Afghans further contributes to these negative effects… The weaknesses we identified in hiring, promoting, and paying Afghan recipients has put U.S. and other donors’ salary support funding at greater risk of waste, misuse, or corruption. Without conducting an assessment of these systems or coordinating with donors, the United States will not be able to ensure that the necessary internal controls are in place to safeguard U.S. funding for salary support in the future or that donors’ reforms will mitigate the negative effects of donor salary support.”
It’s important to remember what’s at stake here- if we win in Afghanistan at best we’ll get another Central Asian state with an unstable, undemocratic and authoritarian government that enjoys only nominal control over most of its territory and without any real prospect for economic growth or national unity. Of course, that’s much better than what Afghanistan once was. But this report underlines an unhappy fact- even if we do defy the odds and historical precedent and succeed in Afghanistan we’ll probably never know for sure how much we’ve spent on Afghan reconstruction, or how effective it’s been.