Peacekeeping: Good Deeds That Can Get You Killed

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December 2, 2010: With most NATO nations declaring they will be leaving Afghanistan in the next five years, many Afghans are more worried about losing foreign aid than they are about being defenseless against the Taliban. For most Afghans, the Taliban are a minor nuisance. But the foreign aid is seen as key to taking the Afghan economy, and culture, into the 21st century. While the national government complains about how tightly donor nations control the disbursement of aid, this approach is appreciated at the local level. Afghans realize that any aid passing through the national government will reach them much diminished by several layers of corruption. NATO troops back up the efficient distribution of aid, or at least as much as they can. There is still a lot of theft at the local level, but at least there's something to steal, and rarely do the corrupt officials and businessmen manage to steal it all. But the NATO nations have made it clear that when they leave, much of the aid will go with them. No point in sending unsupervised aid to Afghanistan if most of it will be stolen.

The NGOs (Non-governmental organizations, like the Red Cross, Oxfam and so on) are also confronting life without the troops. The bandit culture of Afghanistan leads to bad attitudes. As in the unguarded wealth of foreigners is free for the taking. The warlord with the largest number of gunmen grabs the biggest portion of the aid. While local guards can be hired, these are not always sufficient to stop the looting. So the NGOs have to consider leaving with the troops.

Meanwhile, the national government is trying to keep foreign monitors away from foreign aid sent to Afghanistan. The latest ploy in the department is a presidential ban on private security firms (except those guarding diplomats and military installations). The ban is to take effect by the end of the year, and donor nations, especially the United States, are stalemated with Afghan president Karzai over the issue. For the Afghan officials, preventing foreigners from supervising foreign aid is essential if officials are to be able to steal most of the aid. This sort of corruption is seen as a major opportunity, and it has been crippled by the insistence of the donor nations that even more foreign auditors and supervisors be sent in. The presidential decree means that over 20,000 private security guards will be replaced by Afghan soldiers and police, who answer to the president, not the NGOs they are supposed to be protecting.

NGOs have also come to realize that, even in normal times, Afghanistan is an unruly and dangerous place, especially for foreigners. There are far more deaths to this "usual violence" than to "the war" (against the Taliban and drug gangs). Foreign aid workers will not go outside their heavily guarded compounds without a security team. But they will rarely leave a guarded compound if the presidential decree is carried out. With nearly all the aid workers gone, the government would get what they always wanted, complete control over the billions in foreign aid that arrive in Afghanistan each year. It has long annoyed the Afghan government that most of this aid is delivered to the Afghan people by the foreigners, denying officials an opportunity to steal much of it. While the donor governments can try to watch over the aid disbursement using diplomatic personnel, the Afghans can counter that by limiting how many diplomatic personnel can enter the country. Many donor nations are threatening to cut off all aid, if the Afghan government keeps trying to make it easier to steal aid.

Karzai is being obstinate about this issue, as the inability to plunder the foreign aid has made it difficult to get more warlords and senior politicians under his control. U.S. aid alone, since 2001, has been $55 billion, and too much if it escaped the grasp of corrupt Afghan officials. Iran has recently demonstrated how this is supposed to be done. It got out, as Afghan officials flew back from a diplomatic visit to Iran, that some of the Afghans boarded the aircraft carrying bags of cash. The Afghans admitted that this came from Iran, as part of the aid Iran has been providing. But the bags of cash were obviously for the Afghan officials, and the Afghans could not understand what all the media fuss was about. The Iranians understood that, if you want to provide aid for Afghanistan, you have to start at the top. Some of it will trickle down to those who need it most (according to those pesky Westerners). But the Western aid donors are threatening to halt their aid, rather than see most of it stolen by Afghan politicians. This has caused a stalemate, as Karzai has to judge how serious his donors are with this threat.

 


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