As Afghan President Hamid Karzai works to overturn a parliamentary election that did not turn out the way he wanted, the United States continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on “good governance” initiatives.
This $760 million program, to strengthen government agencies, was America’s single largest non-military expense in Afghanistan over the last year. All of it was money thrown away.
The mind dulls when confronted with large numbers like that. But $760 million spent another way would allow Washington to give every single public school in the nation’s 25 largest cities almost $200,000 extra this year.
Afghanistan is the world’s prototype for feckless, venal governments, and Karzai plays the part of the uncaring, self-interested leader better than most anyone else. So why is the U.S. throwing money at him ― pushing Western, liberal-minded programs on a government that can’t, and won’t, accept them?
Last year, the U.S. Agency for International Development began promoting what it calls “Afghanization of aid.” That’s the new, vogue approach donors are trying in numerous needy nations ― to “increase the administrative capabilities of the Afghan government,” the agency says, and allow the nation’s leaders to decide how the money is used.
Well, in Afghanistan, government leaders have only one use for foreign aid. They stuff the cash into suitcases and fly it out to secret bank accounts in Dubai.
Nothing better demonstrates the government’s heedless, self-indulgent attitude than its approach to the country’s considerable drug problem. Afghanistan remains the world’s largest grower of opium poppies; it supplies 90 percent of the world’s heroin. Many thousands of its citizens are addicts.
Late last week, the United Nations put out its annual “Afghanistan Opium Survey” and found that, even after the U.S. spent more than $2 billion on drug enforcement there, “the total area under cultivation” during 2010 “and the number of families growing opium poppy, remained the same as in 2009” ― but for one thing. The U.N. found “an alarming increase of 97 percent” in opium-poppy cultivation among northeastern provinces that are not traditional poppy-growing areas.
One reason nothing seems to change: When Western narcotics investigators locate major traffickers and arrange to have them arrested, they find as often as not that Karzai quickly pardons them, allowing the traffickers to return to “work.”
Last fall, WikiLeaks made public several State Department cables showing that Karzai’s serial pardons infuriated U.S. officials. One cable, signed by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, discussed five border-patrol officers who were caught with 273 pounds of heroin in their patrol car. As soon as they were sentenced to prison, Karzai pardoned them.
Reducing the opium crop is not just a moral or health issue. The Taliban sells the farmers their seeds and taxes the crop. And from that, the U.N. estimates, the militants net $125 million a year! Think of all the weapons, roadside bombs, sniper rifles and other lethal equipment they can buy. If they want, they can purchase attack helicopters and armored personnel carriers.
But the Taliban are not the only ones profiting from the crop. Afghan officials also levy taxes and take bribes, American officials say, enriching everyone in government. No wonder Karzai is so eager to let the traffickers go.
Neighboring states are equally upset. Last fall, a Russian counter-narcotics team crossed the Afghan border and seized 2,050 pounds of heroin and 340 pounds of crude opium. Iran is building a fence along its border to keep heroin traffickers out. Last week, Uzbekistan captured an Afghan crossing the border carrying 59 pounds of raw opium.
The only seemingly good news in the U.N. report was that an agricultural blight reduced crop yields last year. But that also raised opium prices. For years, Western forces have been promoting “crop substitution” ― growing legal crops in place of the poppies. But now the price of opium is seven times higher than the price of wheat, prompting thousands of people to jump back into the business, confident that both the government and the Taliban will protect them.
Washington is locked in acrimonious debate about closing the budget deficit. Republicans want to cut $200 billion out of the budget (exactly the cost of Afghan war), but no one seems interested in scrutinizing the pointless, runaway expenditures in Afghanistan.
Spending vast sums on drug enforcement ― $450 million this year ― in a country that protects and promotes its drug traffickers makes about as much sense as devoting hundreds of millions of dollars on “good governance” initiatives for one of the most rapacious and uncaring governments on earth.
By Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. ― Ed.
(Tribune Media Services)