The Brussels Conference: An Opportunity to Do It Right in Afghanistan

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The European Union will host a donor conference for Afghanistan in Brussels on October 4 and 5. About 70 participating groups—donor-counties, international lending institutions, and NGOs—are expected to attend this elaborate and obviously expensive gathering.

Despite the expenditure of more than $100 billion in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, wrong planning and unprofessional and corrupt implementation of the country’s infrastructure restoration have failed to revitalize the nation. Furthermore, lawlessness and the endemic corruption of the Karzai and Ghani governments have prevented private investment to flow into Afghanistan. As a consequence, the country’s economy has remained moribund and its tax base inadequate to render it financially self-sufficient.

The U.S. and its allies, worried about the collapse of the political structure they have created in that country, have been paying roughly 80% of Afghanistan’s government expenses.

The political framework for deciding how much money was needed to keep the Afghan government solvent is a recurring donor conference which every two years or so is being organized to officially set the amount of money needed and to decide the direction and manner of its disbursement. The forthcoming conference in Brussels will serve that purpose.

This process requires the Afghan government to submit a report about its efforts to rein in the endemic corruption that has infused all its institutions and to demonstrate the improvements in governance and the rule of law it has accomplished over the previous years.

The donors and the Afghan government know that none of that has happened. To sidestep this enduring dilemma, the parties have settled on a modus operandi which has evolved over the years and which is being employed during these meetings. The process serves the donors to justify the giving of money to a corruption-ridden government. It provides Afghan officials the opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to fight fraud, improve governance, and strengthen the rule of law in their country.

Since about mid-September, both the Kabul government and the donors have begun the ritual. The donors are noisily condemning the widespread deception that exists within the Afghan government and warning that the funds will be reduced or the payments halted if Kabul fails to rein in corruption and consolidate the rule of law.

The Afghans have, as they always do, hastily begun dusting off a number of files which deal with major corruption cases by high-level officials and relatives of such officials and are insisting that these cases would be handed over to the courts for prosecution. They also stridently proclaim that anyone breaking the law will be prosecuted regardless of how powerful or important he might be.

That is an important part of the preparative activities.

When the conference convenes, the leading representatives of the major donors will meet with the Afghan delegation—of course, in private, how could it be otherwise? We are, after all, dealing with gentlemen and experienced diplomats.

At this meeting, the donor representatives will express their profound concern about the misappropriation of their taxpayers’ money. The Afghan delegation will draw attention to the files that are being studied for submission to the courts and give assurances of their sincere determination that deceit and lawlessness will hence not be tolerated.

After this uncomfortable but necessary exchange, the matter will be handed over to lower-rank officials. They will be charged to deal with the technicalities of how, when, and in what tranches the predetermined amount will flow into the coffers of the Afghan government.

If the past is a guide, everything will remain the same: The money will change hands. The donors see no way out of the blind alley in which they find themselves. The Afghans have no doubt that the rich boys don’t really care for that little money they throw their way. And they will go about their business exactly as they always have in the past. After all, they have become government officials to get rich. And they can do that only if they steal from the people—in this case from both the Afghan people in whose name the transaction took place and the people of the donor countries whose money was passed over to a bunch of inexpert and selfish people.

I have been crying foul for several years. As far as I know: without the slightest impact. After having almost given up, I now see to my utter amazement that this time the donors’ complaints are louder and more focused than in the past. And on September 14, 2016, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report entitled “Corruption in Conflict: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan.”

Among other important and accurate conclusions, the report says, “The United States contributed to the growth of corruption by injecting tens of billions of dollars into the Afghan economy, using flawed oversight and contracting practices, and partnering with maligned powerbrokers.”

Another observation deduces, “The United States helped to lay a foundation for continued impunity of malign actors, weak rule of law, and the growth of corruption.”

Perhaps SIGAR’s most damning comment is: “The United States and its international partners wielded great influence in the choices they made about whom to partner with, do business with, and support. Yet the U.S. government supported or tolerated malign powerbrokers who shared a narrow set of U.S. interests and who simultaneously undermined broader, long-term goals.

I must admit, and this may appear self-serving—and probably is—I have mixed feelings about this otherwise positive development.

The dishonorable and damaging happenings in Afghanistan were obvious for many years. While I, at the danger to my life and destruction of my interests in Afghanistan, openly and forcefully spoke out and wrote about what was taking place in that unfortunate country, most American officials, serving in post-Taliban Afghanistan, remained silent. In one case, in an effort at intimidation, embassy personnel in Kabul mishandled me.

It would be interesting to know how those American ambassadors and senior officials explain their silence and even the occasional misleading pronouncements these past 15 years. Was protecting their careers more important than the interest of their country?

In this context, I feel I must name the people who I believe bear the brunt of how, early on, American policy evolved in Afghanistan. In my view, the major culprits are Afghan-American Zalmay Kalilzad, former president Hamid Karzai, and at least two of his brothers. They arranged that Afghanistan was handed over to what SIGAR calls “malign powerbrokers.”

However, this cannot explain the subsequent silence and acquiescence of the American officials over 15 years.

My disappointment notwithstanding, I look forward to observing the impending Brussels Conference and hope to see that the donors will insist on firm and extensive conditions as to how the disbursement of funds will be handled. I also look forward that the discussion, should there be such an exchange, will take place in an open forum and not behind closed doors.

Nasir Shansab has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades. To read more of his work, CLICK HERE.

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