Still a city in shambles

April 10, 2013

Despite billions of dollars of supposedly humanitarian aid, Afghanistan is still a broken society. Writing from Kabul, Helen Redmond asks where the money went.

KABUL IS a city of stark contrasts. On the streets and sidewalks, I see businessmen in suits talking on iPhones, women wearing blue burkas begging for money, and donkeys pulling carts loaded with pomegranates and oranges.

This culture shock--of vast wealth and state-of-the-art technology existing alongside abject poverty and retrograde forms of living and working--is the result of crony capitalism, and is common to poor countries around the world.

But Afghanistan has another reason for these conditions--three decades of war, culminating in imperialist invasion and colonial occupation by the U.S. government. Despite all the promises that the deployment of U.S. military forces would be accompanied by a program to rebuild the country's economy and infrastructure, I see very little sign of that.

I arrived on a Turkish Airlines flight that used the most advanced aeronautics, with audio/video on demand, special meal service and electrical outlets to charge laptops and cell phones. But that's for foreigners coming to Afghanistan, Inside the terminal in Kabul, in the women's bathroom, there were two stalls with prefabricated holes to squat over. No toilets. No toilet paper. No soap. No hot water. The smell of human waste filled the air.

Desperate for help on the streets of Kabul
Desperate for help on the streets of Kabul (Helen Redmond)

Afghanistan is a cash-only country--credit cards are accepted only at expensive hotels and upscale restaurants. Back in New York City, we're incredulous to stumble upon a restaurant that is cash only. But in order to use plastic instead of paper, a country has to have a reliable banking system. Afghanistan's is massively corrupt.

Kabul Bank was the country's largest financial institution before it was seized in 2010, after revelations that it was involved in a giant "ponzi scheme" that facilitated hundreds of millions of dollars in Fraud. The owners of the bank had close ties to the government of President Hamid Karzai, who the U.S. occupiers installed in power. Karzai's brother Mahmood owned shares in the bank. More than 20 people were tried and found guilty after the bank was taken over by regulators.

So Afghanistan runs on paper currency. As a result, moneychangers line the path from baggage claim to the parking lot--men sitting in tiny cubicles with windows that display wrinkled Afghanis and crisp American dollars. Both currencies are widely accepted. When I changed money, there was no Chase ATM, no waiting in line for a teller--just a young man with a trimmed beard and wearing a black suit jacket over traditional clothing operating his own currency exchange.

Kabul is a city of more than 3 million people, with roughly the same population density as Manhattan. Yet there is no public transportation system to speak of.

The result is Kabul's legendary traffic chaos. Reading the descriptions are one thing, but actually experiencing it is another. The first few times in a taxi--the only way to get around the city--I sat in the back, closed my eyes and held on for dear life. There are no discernible driving rules nor right of way, no demarcated lanes nor any traffic lights that I saw.

There is no official data on vehicle crashes, but one survey by a transportation consulting firm showed 284 fatalities and 1,081 injuries a month. Deaths and injuries occur for a variety of reasons: there are no pedestrian crosswalks, and very few traffic lights and stop signs--and passengers are crammed into vehicles without seat belts or ride on top.

IN MANY parts of the city, potable water and plumbing infrastructure is nonexistent. I saw people pumping water out of community wells and washing clothes in the river. Because Kabul lacks functioning sewerage and sanitation systems, solid waste accumulates on roadsides, in backyards, in drains and in open spaces. Thin, concrete canals of water full of human waste and detritus border the streets and sidewalks.

In the area of Kabul where I'm staying, there are stores that sell luxury bathroom "collections." There are red toilets with handles on each side; glass shower cabinets with multiple, massaging water jets; and pedestal sinks with stainless steel faucets. Yet nearby these stores is an empty lot, dug full of holes where men relieve themselves. UNICEF statistics show that 70 percent of Afghans have no access to a toilet.

How can the infrastructure needed to support basic human life be in such shambles after Afghanistan has received $57 billion in international aid for reconstruction over 10 years? That's enough money to build a modern, efficient and economically sustainable Kabul. And if the $100 billion a year that the U.S. has spent on the war each year was allocated to rebuilding, Afghans could have a standard of living rivaling advanced countries.

U.S. government officials blame the Karzai administration in Kabul and officials at the provincial level for corruption and from profiting off development aid at the expense of ordinary Afghans--an ironic claim given that Karzai was put in power and kept there by the U.S. occupiers.

Nevertheless, Karl Eikenberry, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said that organizing aid for the country was like "trying to do development on an outpost on the moon. They're still stuck in the 14th century. It's just such a depressing thing."

To be sure, the Afghan elite is up to its collective neck in patronage, corruption and theft. But the U.S. government--and in particular, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which directs the majority of the aid that comes to Afghanistan--bears at least as much, if not more, of the responsibility.

According to USAID's own estimates, only 10 cents of every dollar goes to actually aiding Afghans. On the other hand, the staff of USAID in Afghanistan receives salaries as high as $500,000 a year.

Dozens of private, for-profit contractors from all over the world have descended on Afghanistan like vultures to grab the billions in funds that USAID and other international agencies have handed out with a stunning lack of oversight or accountability.

The contractors were supposed to build roads, schools, hospitals, clinics and factories and repair the electrical grid in Kabul. Instead, often enough, they took the money and ran, leaving behind half-finished or completely abandoned projects. Billions of dollars have also gone to private security firms like Dyncorp to provide protection for projects in areas where the war is raging.

So it turns out that humanitarian aid in Afghanistan wasn't so humanitarian after all--quite the opposite.

The Afghans I met in Kabul were nevertheless grateful for the small amount of funds that have trickled down to them. Dr. Mohammad Rafiq and I stood in a beautiful two-story building that housed a methadone clinic, with meeting rooms on the first floor, plus offices, showers, bathrooms and a kitchen on the second. "Ten years ago, buildings like this did not exist," he said.

Dr. Rafiq added that more comprehensive health care was available in Kabul, and he was proud that the medical school is graduating 300 doctors, both men and women, every year. But he and other staff at the clinic worry that, with the U.S. touting its withdrawal by 2014, the money could dry up, too.

Everyone wants the war to end, but not the flow of aid, as meager as it has been. That is the conundrum that millions of Afghans struggle with--yet in a just world, it would never be a question at all.

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