May 1, 2009
The Independent

Kabul's New Elite Live High on West's Largesse

'Gilded cage' lifestyle reveals the ugly truth about foreign aid in Afghanistan

by Patrick Cockburn

Vast sums of money are being lavished by Western aid agencies on their own officials in Afghanistan at a time when extreme poverty is driving young Afghans to fight for the Taliban. The going rate paid by the Taliban for an attack on a police checkpoint in the west of the country is $4, but foreign consultants in Kabul, who are paid out of overseas aids budgets, can command salaries of $250,000 to $500,000 a year.

The high expenditure on paying, protecting and accommodating Western aid officials in palatial style helps to explain why Afghanistan ranks 174th out of 178th on a UN ranking of countries' wealth. This is despite a vigorous international aid effort with the US alone spending $31bn since 2002 up to the end of last year.

The high degree of wastage of aid money in Afghanistan has long been an open secret. In 2006, Jean Mazurelle, the then country director of the World Bank, calculated that between 35 per cent and 40 per cent of aid was "badly spent". "The wastage of aid is sky-high," he said. "There is real looting going on, mainly by private enterprises. It is a scandal."

The dysfunctional reputation of the US aid effort in Afghanistan is politically crucial because Barack Obama, with strong support from Gordon Brown, has promised that a "civilian surge" of non-military experts will be sent to Afghanistan to strengthen its government and turn the tide against the Taliban. These would number up to 600, including agronomists, economists and legal experts, though Washington admitted this week that it was having difficulty recruiting enough people of the right calibre.

Whole districts of Kabul have already been taken over or rebuilt to accommodate Westerners working for aid agencies or embassies. "I have just rented out this building for $30,000 a month to an aid organisation," said Torialai Bahadery, the director of Property Consulting Afghanistan, which specialises in renting to foreigners. "It was so expensive because it has 24 rooms with en-suite bathrooms as well as armoured doors and bullet-proof windows," he explained, pointing to a picture of a cavernous mansion.

Though 77 per cent of Afghans lack access to clean water, Mr Bahadery said that aid agencies and the foreign contractors who work for them insist that every bedroom should have an en-suite bathroom and this often doubles the cost of accommodation. . . .


Declan Walsh and Richard Norton Taylor, "Afghanistan Mission Close to Failing," Guardian, February 29, 2008

Ewen MacAskill, "Barack Obama's War: Focus on Taliban, al-Qaida," Guardian, March 28, 2008

Patrick Cockburn, "Afghans riot over air-strike atrocity: Witnesses say deaths of 147 people in three villages came after a sustained bombardment by American aircraft," Independent, May 8, 2009

Ann Scott Tyson, "Pentagon Budget Devotes More To Afghanistan War Than to Iraq," Washington Post, May 8, 2009

[The choice of McChrystal certainly appears to signal the administration's readiness to continue Special Operations forces raids and airstrikes that is generating growing opposition by Afghans to the U.S. military presence.--Gareth Porter, "Drone Strikes Will Continue," Washington Post, May 13, 2009]

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