Sunday, 16 August 2009

How you are funding the Taliban

The other day Dame Vera Lynn told The Times, "I don't know what we're doing in Afghanistan". Writing in the Independent, Howard Jacobson objects to the nonagenarian's comments, on the grounds that "ignorance is not to be confused with judgement". Perhaps, he thinks, Dame Vera meant that she is unconvinced by the arguments put forward by the government; but "if you are going to proffer an opinion on the war in Afghanistan then I think you have to know why we are there" even if you disagree with the government's reasoning.

But there's another meaning which Jacobson doesn't consider. When I say "I don't know what we're doing in Afghanistan", what I mean isn't just that I don't know, but that I don't believe that anyone else does either, including (or perhaps especially) the government.

So what are we doing in Afghanistan? Apart from dying, that is, or propping up the loose collective of corrupt tribal chieftains that is laughingly called a "government". Ah yes - "reconstruction". Building a better, freer, more modern, potentially democratic nation and weening its fractious patriarchs away from support for the Taliban, who are, as everyone knows, the enemies of progress and of the Afghan people, the bad guys, the people we are there to defeat (or, failing that, negotiate with).

To that end, billions of pounds, dollars, euros, yen - billions of our tax-money - are being spent on reconstruction projects of one sort or another.

The Taliban must really hate that, mustn't they? The altruism of western governments showing the Afghan people a positive alternative to all the infighting. Well, not quite. The Taliban, it turns out, are actually quite keen on reconstruction. Largely because it helps to keep them in bombs.

It works something like this. There's a construction project funded by the British aid budget - say building a school in some godforsaken patch of dirt, mainly so that a minister can point to it when he wants to claim - falsely, most of the time - that girls are being educated. But the government doesn't build the school, a private firm gets the contract to build it. And a very generous contract, too, which I suppose is fair enough given how dangerous it is to get anything done in that part of the world. In order to get the school built, the contractor then has to bribe local "community leaders" - that goes without saying. But it also has to negotiate with the local Taliban leadership - who insist on a cut of the aid money as their price for not blowing the place (or the workers) to smithereens. So British taxpayer's money goes to the Taliban, who spend it, among other things, on the IEDs which blow up British soldiers instead. 20% is the typical figure, although it's estimated that in some cases the Taliban are raking in as much as 40% of the international aid money.

Here's what I learned via Reuters:

Virtually every major project includes a healthy cut for the insurgents. Call it protection money, call it extortion, or, as the Taliban themselves prefer to term it, “spoils of war,” the fact remains that international donors, primarily the United States, are to a large extent financing their own enemy.

“Everyone knows this is going on,” said one U.S. Embassy official, speaking privately.

It's not, however, widely reported.

It isn't just informal arrangement on the ground, either. According to the report by Jean Mackenzie, "very high-level negotiations take place between the Taliban and major contractors":

A shadowy office in Kabul houses the Taliban contracts officer, who examines proposals and negotiates with organizational hierarchies for a percentage. He will not speak to, or even meet with, a journalist, but sources who have spoken with him and who have seen documents say that the process is quite professional.

In the south, says Mackenzie (that's where the British are based), "no contract can be implemented without the Taliban taking a cut, sometimes at various steps along the way." For example:

One contractor in the southern province of Helmand was negotiating with a local supplier for a large shipment of pipes. The pipes had to be brought in from Pakistan, so the supplier tacked on about 30 percent extra for the Taliban, to ensure that the pipes reached Lashkar Gah safely.

Once the pipes were given over to the contractor, he had to negotiate with the Taliban again to get the pipes out to the project site. This was added to the transportation costs.

Many Afghans can't see the problem with any of this. As a young Kabul resident tells Mackenzie, “This is international money. They are not taking it from the people, they are taking it from their enemy.”

Clearly an excellent system for all concerned. The Afghan people get their empty schools, the international contractors get their healthy fees, the Taliban get their bombs and AK47s, and we just get the bills. And the dead soldiers, of course.