Murphy's Law: Afghanistan And The Impossible Scheme


June 7, 2011:  The Afghan government has made a deal with foreign donors. More of that aid will be given to the government to disburse and, in return, the government will be more open with information about how the money is supposed to be spent, who gets it and what is actually done with it. The Afghan government is not happy with the fact that, of over $40 billion provided by foreign nations for reconstruction in the last decade, only about a fifth of it was under the control of the government. The Afghans have made control of the aid money a matter of national pride. But when pressed for details on what is done with aid they have already received, officials either refuse to cooperate, or provide details that show most of the money is disappearing. No one believes that the government will eliminate corruption any time soon, but the Afghans have to if they ever expect to climb out of poverty.

There are several reasons for this inability to effectively use aid money. The primary problem is corruption. Money given to the government tends to get stolen. More than a third of it disappears into the pockets of government officials, their kin and friends. But even money that is not stolen often doesn't get spent because Afghanistan has a major shortage of trained and educated personnel. There are not a lot of engineers, construction specialists and planners in Afghanistan. Thus there is a problem with setting up and administering projects, especially when you have to be constantly on the lookout for thieving contractors.

There are some other problems that have nothing to do with Afghanistan. Letting the donors, and NGOs (Non-governmental organizations, like the Red Cross), handle the money also sees about the same portion lost or wasted. This is because these donations often come with requirements that much of the money be spent on goods and services from the donor nation. This particularly bothers the Afghans as it means a lot of highly (especially by Afghan standards) paid Western aid workers are supervising whatever is done in Afghanistan. The higher NGO pay standards are very visible because the Westerners tend to live much better than Afghans. The Westerners are also accused of not understanding the needs of Afghans, but the NGOs are also less prone to giving most of the money to the tribes or senior government officials. The Afghans would like to gain control of all the aid money, or at least get more of it spent inside Afghanistan, but have not had much success so far. But the Afghans make much of what little progress they have made, and promise more.

One of the more popular ways of getting aid projects going, and completed, is to get the foreign troops involved. This has also proved difficult. That's because Afghanistan is the poorest and least developed nation in Eurasia. Most of the population lives in the barren (of economic development) countryside. No roads, no railroads, no electricity and not much of anything. People out there live from harvest to harvest, or move herds around the countryside in search of water and grass.

The lack of skills means a lot of money gets spent on projects that simply did not work. Just building a dirt road can be a major undertaking for the locals. With no railroads and few navigable rivers, bringing anything in from the outside (usually by truck via Pakistan) is expensive and time consuming. Thus is should be no surprise that about 40 percent of the aid money is spent by military commanders. The U.S. quickly realized (and were reminded by the U.S. Army Special Forces) that commanders of combat units could use development money very effectively, both for the economy, and military situation. This led to the development of PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams), who put much of the remaining aid money to work, along with some of the money local American military commanders have.

About half the development money is spent on security items (mainly the police and army.) Rural development (especially roads and agriculture) got about a fifth percent, education got 9-10 percent, health got 5-6 percent and a bunch of other stuff got the rest. Most of the money was spent where the Taliban was not (the central and northern provinces.)

While a good idea in theory, the PRTs ran into some unique problems. These teams of military and civilian experts, were used to speed up, and organize, the use of American resources (cash, equipment and materials) for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the beginning, the U.S. assembled the teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, letting them get acquainted and learn their jobs. Five years ago, a training program for the senior people, lasting up to 45 days, was established in the United States. By giving the key people in a PRT training, together, before they ship out, problems can be discovered and worked out. The training also gets everyone familiar with their team members, and enables the team to get working sooner, and more effectively.

The United States has had great success with its PRTs in Afghanistan. These evolved from the JRTs (Joint Reconstruction Teams) established by U.S. Army Special Forces in 2002. By 2006, there were seventeen PRTs run by U.S. troops (including five in Iraq), with another eleven operated by NATO forces. The program kept expanding in Afghanistan, until, now, there are 27 PRTs there. The program began in Afghanistan, and was later set up in Iraq as well. But the main PRT effort remains in Afghanistan.

The typical PRT has 60-100 people (depending on local needs). Most (80 percent) of these are military personnel. The rest are civilian specialists, including a police officer from the Afghan Interior Ministry. American PRTs are commanded by an army lieutenant colonel, who is actually leading two civil affairs teams, an Army Reserve military police unit, plus intelligence and psychological operations teams. The civilians usually consist of officials from the State Department, USAID, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rest of the troops are assigned to security duties, which can be pretty tense in areas where Taliban gunmen are operating, but is basically police work (against bandits and unruly warlord militias) elsewhere. These security troops often end up assisting in reconstruction as well. The Afghans urged for an expansion of the PRT system, not just to get more reconstruction expertise to all areas of the country, but to provide some protection for reconstruction staff (including the many NGOs that are not a part of the PRT system.)

PRTs have had problems with bureaucratic roadblocks created by different Department of Defense, State Department and USAID agendas. The State Department, when told to send people to work with PRTs, responded by providing very junior folks, with little experience in anything. The Department of Defense has people there to provide security and is, technically, not involved in nation building. But the troops can take over in an emergency, because they are, after all, in charge of security. But in active areas like Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is really running the show. Combat needs come first, and everything else, including nation building, is support. When it comes to nation building, the Department of Defense wants power, but not responsibility. Same thing with the State Department, and neither Defense or State wants to take orders from USAID.

Many Iraqi and Afghan politicians want to get rid of the PRTs, so there can be more unfettered opportunities for corruption and stealing U.S. aid money. The corruption is so pervasive in Afghanistan that even some American officials, especially outside the Department of Defense, would like to dump the PRTs in order to keep the corruption out of the headlines. Dealing with the corruption head on is messy, and the State Department, for example, would prefer to get out of the way.


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